Fr. Dn. Paul Siewers/Отец Диакон Павел Сиверс, C.V.
A Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Jan. 3, 7530 (civil calendar Sun. Jan. 16, 2022).
The Feast of the Theophany will be upon us soon this week. Coming not long after Christmas, it in effect bookends the Nativity Season, and rightly so. The Orthodox Church commemorates Theophany as the time when St. John the Forerunner baptized his cousin, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan. In doing so, as the Tropar or hymn for the Feast tells us, the worship of the Holy Trinity was made manifest for all time. God Who had become Flesh, part of Creation, hallowed Creation through his baptism in the river and the revelation of Him as a Person in the One Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, the Way and Truth and Life for us. This was the baptism of all Creation in Christ, to be fulfilled in the baptism that we experience in the Orthodox Church. Let us brothers and sisters renew or foretaste that baptism this week in the Theophany of Christ.
Theophany iterally means a “revelation of God” in Greek (Θεοφάνεια; the Russian is Богоявление). According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ already had revealed Himself many times through theophanies in the Old Testament, such as to Moses on Mount Sinai, and to Abraham as the lead visitor at the Oak of Mamre. However, this Theophany early in Christ’s public career is in effect known as the Theophany Feast, because it came following and during His Incarnation on earth, and involved such a full revelation and also blessing for all of us creatures and the earth in His baptism in the waters that are source of earthly life and type of the workings of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel reading today from the Book of Mark includes a passage from the Old Testament Prophet Malachi, who is also commemorated today: “Behold I send My Messenger before Thy face, Who will prepare Thy way before Thee.” Malachi is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament-era prophets. His own name means messenger or angel, which the Forerunner is also called, and St. John the Baptist is often depicted as an angel in icons. Yet the Forerunner John, to whom Malachi’s prophecy points, is most properly called the final Old Testament prophet, as well as symbolically angel or messenger.
Just as the Prophets prepared the way for Christ, as if preparing for the feast of His coming, so too did John the Baptist by his calls for repentance and His ministry of baptism. John’s baptizing work was not that baptism of Christ that we share as members of Christ’s Body in the Orthodox Church toward our salvation. But John’s baptizing was a preparation. John served our Lord and our Lord arose in the waters in the revelation of His divinity and that of the Trinity, blessing all Creation. In some Orthodox icons, little creatures riding fish at the bottom personify the Jordan River and the Sea, fleeing from such a great marvelous presence in the water. The Jordan symbolized the crossing into Israel in Old Testament times, the border of Israel and the world, for the Church as the new Israel would bring the Gospel to the world at large. It also symbolizes the river of Paradise in Genesis at the beginning of Holy Scripture and the river of the New Jerusalem in the final book of the Apocalypse.
The blessed holy water from rivers and lakes around the world and in our region become at this time of year at Theophany services the holy water that blesses our homes and that we can drink throughout the year for the healing of soul and body. The axe depicted by a tree on the side of many icons of Theophany indicates John’s call for repentance and for a change of life in preparation for such blessing, cutting down the tree that bears not fruit, and sin at the root, from the time of Adam and Eve at the old Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that would become the Tree of Life in the Cross.
Another connection between Malachi and John the Baptist is their defense of traditional marriage. Malachi in his prophetic writing condemns divorce and relates it to unfaithfulness to God. The Forerunner lost his life by standing for the biblical standard of marriage. Let us remember that marriage is a living iconography of God’s love for His Church. In a sense we all as a community are married to Him whether we are humanly married, single, or monastic. We are washed clean in the baptism of Christ and other mysteries of His Body the Church, while needing to engage in repentance and ascetic struggle daily by God’s grace.
The Holy prophet Malachi in the ending of his book prophesies, “to you who fear My [the Lord’s] name the Sun of Righeousness shall arise with healing in His wings, and you shall go forth leaping as little calves released from their bonds… Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and glorious day of the Lord. And he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbor, lest I come and strike the earth completely.”
John the Baptist was seen as partly prefigured by the earlier Holy Prophet Elijah who called sinning Israel to repentance. Elijah, who had been taken up into heaven by the Lord, did return at the Transfiguration of Christ later in the Gospel accounts. Also, we are told by Church tradition Elijah will return with Enoch as a witness against Anti-Christ before the Second Coming of Christ. John the Baptist, like Elijah the humble yet courageous dweller in the wilderness, lived a simple life while calling multitudes to repentance and pointing to the divinity of Jesus Christ. He would end up preaching the Gospel to the righteous of the Old Testament in Hades, among whom undoubtedly was Malachi, to prepare the way for Jesus Christ’s coming to Hades.
Let us this week brothers and sisters also “gather at the river,” as the old hymn written by a former resident of Lewisburg famously puts it. This week let us humbly and unworthily with God’s grace be right there with the Forerunner and behold in our hearts He Whom the Prophet Malachi foretold, the Sun of Righteousness arising with healing in His wings. May the message and role of the Forerunner John at Theophany indeed warm our hearts and lighten them with joy as Malachi foretells, filling our hearts with love for our family members and neighbors, as we experience our own baptism in Christ anew this Theophany season.
In anticipation, let us cry: Christ is Baptized! In the Jordan!
Adapted from a homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg PA on Sunday Dec. 27, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 9, 2022).
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
The Star from Jacob prophesied in the Old Testament (Numbers 24:17–19), misinterpreted by some as pointing toward a Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom, was much more revolutionary in a spiritual sense in its fulfillment. For the Star that came to Bethlehem led the Magi or “Wise Men” to a humble cave where the young Virgin Mother had given birth to the Creator as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, greeted there also by an ox and an ass. As the Evangelist Luke tells us:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
One of the most memorable few moments in the “golden age” of American television (such as it was!) involved the reading of the above passage from Luke on a national prime-time show, a move strongly opposed by some TV executives involved, even as it was successfully championed by the show’s creator.
In the dark night of our own times and land, so many centuries later, the country singer Paul Overstreet with Taylor Dunn also wrote a memorable song inspired by that long-ago event, entitled “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”
For years they must have watched the heavens day and night.
How else could they have known a new star was in sight.
It wasn’t in the papers, wasn’t in the TV Guide.
I’m not really sure how they did, but somehow they got wise.
They rode their camels across the desert’s burning sand.
They couldn’t fly you know there were no planes back then.
Then they met ol’ Herod, who was out to steal their joy.
But they brushed ol’ Herod off and found God’s baby boy.
Wise men, still seek Him.
Those on earth who realize how much they need Him.
Following Jesus wherever He may lead them….
Well today they travel different, but they’re wise men just the same.
Still talking about the Savior and that blessed night He came.
I hear ol’ Herod’s out there still trying to deceive.
But a whole world of Herods can’t stop those who believe….
Bringing gifts to offer Him just like they did before.
“Wise men” doesn’t mean smart or clever or institutionally certified, supposedly better cultured or elite. We know the wisdom of the Lord confounds the sophisticated and is simple in faith and pure in heart, yet infinitely deep in the understanding that our Lord unfolds to those in faith who struggle ascetically to find truth in Him. Signs of nature such as the stars may have stirred the Wise Men, but Church Tradition tells us the Star of Bethlehem was an Angel guiding them through their faith and in their good hearts and willingness to struggle to find the Truth in their journey.
All of this was long glimpsed and revered at least in part in American culture, and if not so much today, the renewed presence in the world of Orthodox Christianity brings the mystery of Christmas to a fuller view each year at this time. The Orthodox Troparion hymn of the Nativity tells us:
Thy birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Thy birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Justice,
and to know Thee, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee.
In iconography the Star of Bethlehem often is a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the uncreated light of God’s energies, a ray pointing to where the Child lay, with sometimes the faint image of an angel drawn inside. As an earlier Protestant American hymn writer put it:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
A similar reflection on the Baby found under the Star is voiced in the famous short essay “One Solitary Life,” based on a sermon in Los Angeles in 1926 by the Protestant Rev. James Allen Francis.
He was born in an obscure village, The child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, Where he worked in a carpenter shop Until he was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles From the place where he was born. He did none of the things One usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three When the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. And went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross Between two thieves. While he was dying, His executioners gambled for his clothing, The only property he had on Earth. When he was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave Through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, And today he is the central figure Of the human race, And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, All the navies that ever sailed, All the parliament that ever sat, All the kings that ever reigned, Put together have not affected The life of man on Earth As much as that One Solitary Life.
Later “One Solitary Life” was read in a TV broadcast from the White House in 1982, by an American President, in what would be an unimaginable act today.
While many consider American culture today to be “post-Christian,” the core of Rev. Francis’ piece remains true today as it has been from the beginning of the world in God’s plan, but is shown forth most fully in the beauty of the Orthodox Christian services of the Nativity. Traditionally they are celebrated on Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar, which is Jan. 7 on the regular American calendar, known historically from the 18th century as “Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” still in parts of the United States.
Seen in one way from mortal logic, the working out of God’s plan at Christmas may seem like the rough shaggy underside of a tapestry with the pattern non-discernible. Yet consider it from the spiritual side, from above as God grants us to see, then we can make out the design even if only dimly, working across all the genealogies of the Bible toward that little cave and the cries of the baby Who is God With Us. In iconography His manger-cradle and swaddling clothes prefigure the tomb and winding sheets he left behind in his great victory over death for us.
Today we commemorate on the first Sunday after Christmas, and on the third day of Christmas, St. Joseph the Betrothed, who went with the Theotokos and her baby son, our Lord and God and Savior, into Egypt, fleeing Herod, with the guidance of the angel. The Gospel reading today reminds us of this. According to Church Tradition, a thief protected the little caravan when his robber gang would have attacked them. Latter according to Tradition that thief remembered what he had glimpsed of the Christ-child, when Crucified years later, he looked next to him and saw Jesus on the Cross, and recognized in his bloodied fellow human the hidden God. “Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom,” he said. “Truly today you will be with Me in Paradise,” our Lord Jesus replied. St. Rakh, that wise thief, thus “stole Paradise” hymns of the Church tell us. He earned his place customarily on an outer door of the iconostasis in Russian Churches, and in our pre-communion prayer, for he helped show us the way of repentance with God’s grace.
Likewise today we commemorate the ancient Prophet King David on this day also, for he is an ancestor of Christ who also represents the wise ruler protecting the Church, even with all his serious sins, which with God’s grace and the help of the Prophet Nathan he met head on in severe heartfelt repentance from which came the Psalms. We also commemorate today the Apostle James the Just, the first Bishop and stepbrother of the Lord, who became an early leader helping to nurture the Church, and one of her earliest martyrs, following the lead in that sense of Protomartyr Deacon Stephen, whom we also commemorate today, who was stoned to death in the early days after Pentecost. For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and as a Deacon he was there to serve to the death. Holding the garments of his killer was Saul who would be transformed by an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ and become later the Apostle Paul.
All the figures from Christian history we commemorate today are related to the Nativity by their roles as nurturers and protectors of the Church in the family of Jesus Christ. The Most Holy Theotokos in her purity and love of God and her willingness to bear Him in her womb, later also helped nurture His Church after His Ascension. St. Joseph stands in the role of foster father who even in old age protected the Theotokos and the Christ child, and with his son St. James as stepbrother to Jesus Christ and first Bishop-Presbyter, and Stephen the first Deacon-Martyr, all served key roles as family members in effect for our Lord in His Church. King David held the ancestral role of ruler and father of their country, Israel. Each of these roles is essential to nurturing and protecting our mission parish today and our lives as Christians, as nurturers and protectors however unworthily of our Church family and our community, of the baby Jesus in our hearts and in the Church and in our country. Our Lord warns us in the Gospel that we must not become entrapped in a merely materialistic sense of family. For His true family are those who do His will. His Church is our family. We find our place in Her as the Body of Christ, Who is the Divine Wisdom, and thus we find our salvation in Him together, as members of His family, of the New Israel that is the Orthodox Christian Church.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
A sermon from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, given on Sunday, Dec. 20, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 2, 2022).
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Old Testament Church and also the Feast of St. John of Kronstadt. This is a fitting combination as we prepare for Christmas on the ancient holy calendar of the Church, what in America historically was known as Old Christmas or Appalachian Christmas, which is also appropriate since our mission worships and evangelizes right here in Northern Appalachia. We call America back to her Christian roots, which are even more ancient and deeper and more alive in Orthodox Christianity than most Americans remember or know. But we are here, thank God.
This Sunday follows last Sunday of the Forefathers, and has more of an emphasis according to my Bible professor Father John Whiteford on the ancestors after the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, while still including others of the righteous of the Bible as well. The question of genealogy and ancestry interests many today who turn to Ancestry.com or other sources to explore their DNA. In the Bible, we find many lists of genealogies in the so-called history books of the Old Testament, and reference to ancestry throughout. We also see this especially in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which list the ancestry according to the flesh of Jesus Christ, based on the patrilineal or father’s line through St. Joseph the Betrothed, who while he was not the father after the flesh was the guardian and the legal father so to speak recognized by the tradition of Israel at that time.
Literary scholars tell us that the parts of ancient literature that we as modern readers find most tedious were often the parts of greatest meaning to ancient audiences. This likely is true of the genealogies in many ways. They link together the Bible and they link us to the Bible. For through Jesus Christ we like St. Joseph’s ancestry in effect become part of the family of God. Look around us at the icons that in effect are our family portraits. Sometimes in our materialistic age people are accused of making idols of their families. Yet this is not possible when God is the head of our family as Jesus Christ is. Today when there are so many people isolated from a traditional sense of family, or challenged in our sense of identity or belonging in this crazy modern world He stands ready to adopt all of us.
The genealogy of Christ is also a reminder of how His Body the Church is both hierarchical and conciliar. Like a line of ancestry there is hierarchy and traditional authority in the Church. Yet like the ancestry of Christ there is also a conciliarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ of even all his fleshly ancestors, for He is all our God unto the end of the age. There also is in the lineage of Christ the reminder of the complexity and variety and mystery of fallen human nature touched with redemption by God’s grace. For here among others are Rahab the harlot who helped Joshua, and the Holy Prophet David who before repenting profoundly had murder and adultery on his hands. Then also as mentioned the whole lineage leads to St. Joseph who is not the biological father of Christ but in effect adoptive father for God of course is the Father of Jesus Christ Who Himself is fully God and fully man.
So to accept the genealogy of Christ as we do links us not only into the Old Testament Church and New Testament Church, and all the way back to our Forefathers Adam and Eve created by God, but also to Christ Himself as we are adopted into His lineage, which also relates to the ancestry after the flesh of His Mother the Most Holy Theotokos, who becomes our Mother in the Church as well. The Lord setting the solitary in families, indeed, and the Church shows this us especially at Christmas time. Look around you, brothers and sisters, at the icons, as we anticipate receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Christmas Liturgy, and also at all those who worship with us in this community, for this is your family in Christ, together with the genealogy in the Gospel reading.
Based on the commentary in the Byzantine Synaxarion edited by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite: First the Memory of Adam and Eve, the first-created. Then of Abel the son of Adam, the first to prefigure Christ the Just One. Then Seth, who as Christ for us became first-born of a new line. Then Enose, first to call upon the name of the Lord. Then Cainan, Mahalalel, then Jared, then Enoch, who did not experience an ordinary death but was taken to an unknown place to await the resurrection. Then Methusaelah, then Lamech, then Noah who prefigured the Messiah, then Shem ancestor of Abraham, then Japheth who prefigured the entry of our ancestors the pagans into the Church, then Arphaxad, Cainan, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, and Abraham, the forefather of all who are saved by faith. Then Isaac who prefigured the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of Man for our salvation. Then Jacob or Israel, who saw the ladder between heaven and eath prefiguring the Mother of God, then Reuben, then Simeon, then Levi, Judah, father of the royal tribe of David from which Christ the Savior woud come. Then Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin, all sons of Jacob. Then Perez and Zerah, then Heron, then Aram, then Ammindadab, then Nashshon, then Salmon, then Boaz, born of Salmon by Rahab the harlot, who was spared on account of her faith when Jericho fell. God showed thereby that He calls pagans and sinners to share in salvation.
Then Obed and Jesse and then King David who made ready for the coming of the Messiah Who is both his son or descendant and His Lord.Then Solomon, whose temple highlighted Jerusalem as prefiguring the heavenly Jerusalem to come. Then King Rehoboam, whose worship of idols displeased the Lord and during whose reign the kingdom became divided. Then King Abijah, then King Asa who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and then likewise King Jehosaphat, then King Jehoram who abominably gave himself to idolatry, then King Uzziah the leber who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did his on King Jotham of Judah, then the impious King Ahaz who made his sons pass through fire as sacrifices to demons, then King Hezekiah who cleansed the Temple, and then King Manasseh who gave himself to magic and caused his children to pass through the fire but repented after being captured by the Assyrians and taken to Babylon, and so obtained pardon from God. Then King Amon who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Then King Josiah who renewed the Covenant with God in Judah. Then following St Matthew to King Jehoiachin who did evil in the sight of the Lord and was deported to Babylong by Nebuchadnezzer, and his son Shealtiel in exile. Then Zerubbabel who led his people from Babylon to Jerusalem and in rebuilding the Temple, who prefigured the Messiah by being of both kingly and priestly descent. Then not mentioned in the Old Testament, Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, to St. Joseph the Betrothed. Then many other outstanding figures of the Old Testament whose qualities place them in the line of the spiritual forebears of the Lord are honored today as well.
Finally perhaps the greatest of Russian saints just prior to the Revolution, John of Kronstadt, is also commemorated today with all these Holy Fathers. St. John, who was especially revered by our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who helped to win recognition of St. John as a saint by our Synod in 1964. St. John of Kronstadt worked and prayed tirelessly for the poor and the crowds who came to Liturgy at his Church in the industrial and slum-filled city of Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. He started a network of charities for the poor and also healed many. He was also known especially later in life for his prophetic warnings about the direction in which Russian culture was headed toward the materialism of Communism. To whom much is given much is expected as we as Orthodox Christians in America also need to remember.
“Russia has forgotten the saving God; it has lost faith in Him, abandoned the Law of God, enslaved itself to all sorts of passions, deified blind human reason,” St. John of Kronstadt warned. “It has replaced God’s all-wise, holy and righteous will with the phantom of sinful freedom, opened wide the doors to all manner of outrage, and therefore it will become immeasurably impoverished, and be shamed before the whole world—the worthy reward for its pride, for its slumber, inaction, venality, and coldness toward God’s Church. God will punish us for our sins; the Sovereign Lady will not stretch forth her hand to help us. Russia can be called a kingdom of the Lord. This is of course on the one hand. On the other, because of their godlessness and impiety many Russians, the so-called intelligentsia who have strayed from the right path, apostatized from the faith and mock it in every way, having trampled upon all the Gospel commandments and allow all kinds of depravity into our life—the Russian kingdom is not the Lord’s kingdom but a broad and far-flung kingdom of satan…
“The current terrible degradation of faith and morals depends greatly upon the coldness towards their flock of many bishops and the clerical ranks in general.
“Our ancestors sinned, but they called a sin a sin; today’s liberals however sin and try to justify the sin, as if it were a lawful deed. Take the sins of the flesh—all of this according to their opinion is not only simple weakness of human nature, but also the laws of nature and its demands.
“Russia is floundering, suffering, tormented by its bloody inner struggle, from bad harvests and famine, from terrifyingly high prices, from godlessness, from extreme moral degradation. Evil times—people have turned into animals, even into evil spirits. The government has become weak. It itself has falsely understood the freedom it has given to the people. Evil has increased in Russia to monstrous proportions and it has become almost impossible to set it right. When the consequences of all-around non-submission to the authorities and the inaction of the subordinate members of society, and with this inaction the action of the government ceases, as if the blood were to cease circulating in an organic body, then everything in society dies, descends, falls apart; social safety disappears and members of one society attack each other—a total rampage of thievery, plunder, enmity, and murder.”
Thus wrote St. John of Kronstadt. But we today in the suffering American land likewis ehave also the promise of Christ: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Let us remember our true ancestry in the Israel of the New Testament Church and let us go forth with God’s grace, however unworthily, to act with His help to be worthy of that ancestry. For the Holy Fathers who prophesied of Christ and were His ancestors after the flesh are still with us, able to hear our prayers, and to intercede for us. For as the upcoming Nativity service will remind us, God is with us!
Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Oct. 25, 7530 (Nov. 7, 2021 on the civil calendar).
May our reading for this 22nd week after Pentecost, the parable of Lazarus and the Beggar, have special meaning for us.
First, the Church Fathers in interpreting this Parable remind us of the seriousness of what we do here and now in our life on earth in God’s Creation. For each day, our life is a gift from God, and any belongings we have are a gift from Him.
This upends the false stereotype today of cultural Marxists (capitalist or communist) and other atheists that Christianity is concerned only with the after-life. For in fact, it is how we live our life each moment here and now that works toward our salvation or damnation.
How we live our life needs to involve a life of alms-giving, the more excellent way of love as the Apostle Paul called it, and St. Paul was not praising his own strength for as the Protestant Henry Drummond noted in his famous essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” on I Corinthians 13, when we first meet the apostle Paul, before Jesus Christ appeared to him, his hands are stained with blood — from his complicity in the killing of St. Stephen and persecution of Christians.
When we love our neighbor as ourself, and we love our God with all our heart and all our soul and with all our mind, then we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ, for we are already loving God with all our self, we are loving God through our self so to speak. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ asked us, who was the neighbor? And it was the Good Samaritan. And who is the Good Samaritan a type of but Jesus Christ. So again we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ. The famous verses in Matthew 25 indicate this as well. For inasmuch as we have helped the least of these, His brethren, fed them and gave them drink when they were hungry and thirsty, naked and clothed them, and came to them when they were sick or in prison, we have done so to Him.
Brothers and sisters, how far we have to go as Christians, how far we have to go as a mission, to fulfill these charges given us by our Master, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. How tempting it is to be what the Apostle Paul derided as men-pleasers, attending to the small needs of the great and mighty to impress them and further our careers and to flatter ourselves. How often we sustain ourselves in comfort and forgot about those others truly in need, spending our money on things that are not true needs or worrying about our future needs instead of sharing our gifts from the Lord. Yea, whatever we have is more than a gift from the Lord, it is like our lives also in a sense a loan from the Lord. How are we using it? And how much do we spend money on interest for credit and loans of all kinds, and thus engage in usury from the receiving side, instead of balancing our books with God through love of our neighbor.
We do not always think of these things because we are living on borrowed capital especially in America. On a practical level a friend who is an expert in fundraising told me this week that the wealthy in their families go through their wealth in three generations, unless they are super-rich. That is, a family might have say ten million dollars but it will be gone in three generations. In America we have had a history of a strong middle class that has been the most prosperous and most extensive in the history of the world. Yet we have come up on our three generations or more since the so-called greatest generation of the Great Depression and World War II and the so-called silent generation who came of age in the Korean War era in the early Cold War.
There is an evangelical Protestant movie series called God’s Not Dead, a new episode of which came out recently, called God’s Not Dead: We the People. The neopagan modern philosopher Nietzsche infamously proclaimed that God is dead, to which a wag claimed to quote God’s response, that Nietzsche is dead. Orthodox Christians may say that God was dead, in the Crucifixion, but He is Risen. That is the good news we share with the world.
Yet in that new movie installment, there is a scene in which the key character Pastor Dave is very sad sitting in his office about the state of America, and looks at a photo of his dead friend, a Nigerian missionary. Suddenly Pastor Dave finds himself in a dream-like conversation with that friend, who tells him that America has been given much by God, and from her much is expected. It is clear in the movie that America has not lived up to that obligation. Yet that becomes a call to action for Pastor Dave to do something to help.
Likewise we as Orthodox Christians should find our bugle call to action in the Parable of Lazarus and the Beggar. In fact, such is the state of the rich man who lived for his comfort that as St. John Chrysostom points out in his commentary on the parable, his name is not even known to us or to God. The rich man during his life on earth objectified himself through his death and became in effect a non-person. In the after life a chasm separates him from the beggar whose poverty he had ignored on earth. Truly as some have observed, when we help those in need, it is they who are really helping us out of the abyss of self-objectification that is spiritual death, which would turn us into an idol of ourself like King Midas being killed by being turned to gold.
We do know the name of Lazarus, and perhaps, it has been pointed out, this is not really a parable so much as a vision of a real person in the afterlife, shared with us by Jesus Christ. This poor man’s faith was a real support unlike the riches of the wealthy man, which all left him at death. In the Orthodox tradition we are told that in the 40 days after death each of us will face the challenge of being examined for our unconfessed sins and our omissions in life, to determine in what state we will dwell before the Final Judgment. We pray for the dead, as the Church did yesterday on Demetrios Saturday, to ask our Lord Jesus Christ’s mercy for the departed. Only God knows the judgement faced by each of us after death at the particular judgment and then at the General Resurrection and Final Judgement. But the account of Lazarus the beggar and the Rich man shows us the seriousness with which we should take the charge of the Great Commandments and our duty to our neighbor. For our salvation occurs not alone but through the Church and in the sobornost of spiritual unity that in hidden but embodied ways connects each of us in both the grace and struggle of virtue, and the lying objectifications and idolatry of sin. May our Lord through the intercessions of His Most Holy Mother help us and give us good strength in our struggles against idolatry of comfort and apathy towards those in need.
As a mission, one central immediate way we can help others in these latter days is to support in all possible ways our building program, no matter how small or large we can donate our resources, for erecting a temple is a necessity to our outreach and evangelism. But also we must look daily for ways to share any wealth, however large or small, God has given us on loan with each day.
The new God’s Not Dead: We the People movie ends with a ringing declaration by Pastor Dave that this country belongs to “We the People.” But from an Orthodox Christian standpoint there is more than this. Our country belongs to God, like all countries, and like all Creation, and like all people. God is the source of our true freedom in voluntary service to Him. As our Church hymnology tells us: “Who is so Great a God as our God, Thou art the God Who Worketh wonders.” “O Lord of the powers have mercy on us, for in times of distress we have no other help but Thee.”
Pastor Dave in the movie is single pastor of a Protestant Church called St. Jude’s. Maybe in the next film he will convert to Orthodoxy and become an Orthodox monk or marry and ultimately become an Orthodox priest and bring his congregation with him. We can only hope there will be many more such conversions in real life. I will end with a small item of news I learned from Alexei Krindratch who runs Orthodox Church survey projects in North America. He said he found that a survey showed that parishes of our Synod, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), feature an incredibly high 70 percent rate of converts among her members, and also has seen measurable growth especially during the Covid pandemic, with Orthodox from other jurisdictions coming to ROCOR due to more open continuing services. He warns that the sample of converts in ROCOR is small and thus needs to be taken with grains of salt. But we in our mission are perhaps 95 percent converts. We know the appeal of traditional Russian Orthodoxy to Americans today. In giving a cup of cold water in Christ’s name, in feeding the hungry and ministering to the need in His name, we know that one of those desperate needs today is evangelism, and bringing more of our God’s sheep into His Church, for which we should give in all ways that we can with our efforts and resources until it even hurts in bright sorrow.
For redoubling our efforts to build a temple is a service to all in need in our community, and to ourselves as the neediest in supporting that evangelism, even while we also seek out all avenues for individual and community philanthropy, and in the process help to save our country while allowing love for our neighbors as Jesus Christ to lift us up as unworthy sinners. As the Prophet David said in Psalm 50, “restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uplift me with Thy free spirit.” Lord, may it be so. Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us, Amen.
Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Nov. 22, 7530 (Dec. 5, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Brothers and Sisters, This past week we commemorated the feast of St. Philaret Metropolitan of Moscow, one of the great spiritual leaders of the revival of Orthodoxy in nineteenth-century Russia, of which we are direct heirs. That revival brought anew the treasures of the Church fathers of Byzantium and their understanding of hesychastic eldership and prayer to Russia. Our spiritual forefathers and mothers in ROCOR came from that revival into exile, with the discernment it provided into the nature of Bolshevism as the spirit of anti-Christ. They were not afraid of martyrdom, which some received bodily, but as the early Irish Christians in pre-Schism days observed, exile from regular society is also one of the forms of martyrdom, to deepen and extend the faith through evangelism. They helped bring the gift of the Orthodox faith to us at great cost.
I’d like to share today some of St. Philaret’s inspired teaching on the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, which we commemorated yesterday, and in which after-feast we are still in today. This feast, as our Rector Fr. George noted well yesterday, marks a foundational moment in our journey toward the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. It also has been called the most childhood-centered of the 12 great Feasts of the Church. It commemorates our Lady the Most Holy Theotokos at age 3 entering the temple at Jerusalem, up until the time she was 14, when she was then betrothed to the elderly Joseph as her guardian, and then received with her assent the Annunciation. She is the greatest of the saints and our chief intercessor to her Son and our Lord. Her life and faith are an example and inspiration for all of us as she remains a help to us. But before getting to St. Philaret’s words on the significance of this feast, I would like briefly to outline from current developments why the message of her Feast of the Entrance is so important especially to us today in America.
Abbot Tryphon of ROCOR’s All-Merciful Saviour monastery near Seattle noted recently in a homily how a survey indicates that only 40 percent of American young people say they want to have children, because the future is hopeless. Not surprisingly, less than half of American young people according to a newly reported survey express hope in our governmental system. Less than 18 percent of Americans today are in families consisting of married parents and children, a record low down from 40% of all Americans living in married households with children 50 years ago. And a growing number of those remaining households now involve same-sex or altered-sex parents with children conceived through non-organic means, to support such unions that run counter to traditional Christian teaching of marriage and humanity, now falsely called “marriages” under U.S. secular law. We know that people find themselves in difficult circumstances and can express amazing faith and achievement in non-traditional homes. But this data provides a snapshot of overall decline in American family life.
That decline parallels a decline of public morality in our country over the past 50 years at the secular level. Abbot Tryphon himself has seen this in his own home region of the Pacific Northwest, where he was seriously injured in a physical attack two years ago, when targeted apparently for wearing a cross, in our new American “time of troubles.” Early American leaders like John Quincy Adams warned that without strong family virtue, the American constitutional republic could not survive. Historically, we see evidence of American decay in a well-researched book out this past week, which presents new documentation of how an early combination of “fake news” and a “deep state” of immoral power helped lead to the removal of a U.S. president under false pretences in 1974. This was a low point in a period of turmoil from the mid-1960s to early 1970s, bookended by the 1963 US-backed overseas assassination of the president of South Vietnam, which proved decisive in laying the groundwork for the American defeat in the anticommunist Vietnam War, and was indirectly related to that later American presidential scandal Watergate.
Those secular historical milestones of corruption and scandal marked the start and end of a watershed era in American history, which climaxed in the legalization of abortion, wrongly as a “constitutional right,” in 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Millions of babies since in America have been sacrificed to the sexual revolution that undermined both family life and a republic once predominantly Christian in culture, despite her many theological problems and sins. These child sacrifices, reminiscent of the idolaters of Old Testament times, make a mockery of the basic American principle that God created all men equal, as Abbot Tryphon has noted.
Indeed, the emphasis on self-assertiveness without God that permeates our culture today has contributed to new rising racial and sexual divides in our society, which without a sense of God and of Adam and Eve as our common ancestors focus on materialistic ideas of sex and race as the sources of division distracting people from the need for individual and community repentance and return to God. As in the earlier American “time of troubles” 50 years ago, the advance of sexual revolution has accompanied civil unrest, marked first by the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court in 2015 claiming to redefine “marriage,” and then by the Bostock decision in 2020, enshrining transgenderism as a constitutionally protected secular sexual anthropology.
In all this, what some proponents call “cultural Marxism” plays a continuing role. It relates to the Bolshevism that targeted Christianity in Russia a century ago, both with trademark atheism and what Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Orthodox dissident colleague Igor Shafarevich called a “death drive” aimed at destruction, but in forms attractive to prosperous high-tech Western capitalism and its desire for self-satisfaction. It substitutes cultural identity war for economic class war. We see it permeating a new ever-more godless corporate culture in America, in a mix of atheistic consumerism and socialism with identity politics. I recently watched a long promotional video on the “metaverse,” a name for a new proposed corporate online artificial reality and social utopia. It featured all the ways in which virtual technological reality claims to be able to take over in helping our careers, relationships, education, entertainment, material exercise, and home life. But there is no mention of Christianity, not surprisingly. Like many of the idealisms of our time, this new virtual reality essentially disregards the integral relation between body and soul in Christian faith, exemplified in the Incarnation. Like ancient Gnosticism, it works to deny that union, claiming to unloose the self from limits of the body, without God. The Apostle John said that the mark of the spirit of anti-Christ would be the denial that God has come in the flesh. This leads to a denial of our embodied nature as humanity, and leads to ideas that seek to destroy humanity.
Brothers and sisters, the spirit of anti-Christ is abroad in our land. Where do we look for safety and comfort? To the Mother of God, who is also our mother through Jesus Christ, the most holy Theotokos. She points us to Her Son and intercedes for us to Him. She stands as the patron of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who reposed by the Kursk Root icon of her, and whose devotion to her is seen in his writings and homilies. She also remans the patron of the founding of our mission, which was done under the name of her Holy Protection, of which we are reminded by the icon of her Protection that has stayed with us from our humble founding, and remains on the icon stand to your left. She prepared herself in faith, with support from her parents and her ancestors the prophets, for her role in accepting God’s unbelievable gift in the Incarnation. Through God’s grace, as a young child according to tradition climbed the 15 steps to the Holy of Holies, marked by the 15 Psalms beginning with Psalm 119 in the Orthodox Bible, known as the Psalms of Ascent.As a woman her womb enclosed the Creator God and her nurturing love continued in her role in helping to found His Church after His Ascension, in which he embodiedly entered heaven. At the Dormition, her body joined her soul in heaven, helping to show us the way forward through faith and God’s grace.
St. Philaret of Moscow, a spiritual leader in the renewal of Russian Orthodoxy
St. Philaret give us deep insight into this very personal and wonderful feast, one of the Church’s 12 Great Feasts, in a homily of which a short selection follows below. He writes:
“God is wondrous in His ways. For in order to make blessed the being that comes from Him with a most exalted and incomprehensible blessedness, He from the ages deigned to unite His own nature with the nature of man, in the Person of His Only-Begotten Son—thus through Him to extend this union also to the fullness of the Church, which, according to the law of incarnation, is His body, and in this manner dissolving and as if mutually leveling all divinity with all lowly things, That in the dispensation of the fullness of times (Eph. 1:10). As the apostle says, When all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This great resolution of the eternal counsel, or, according to the Apostle, this mystery, although it hath been hid from ages and from generations, is now made manifest also to his saints (Col. 1:26). And the Holy Spirit nevertheless revealed even this very revelation, which bears seven seals, to His mystics, and through them to all humankind to the extent of its gradually growing understanding obligating it to match up to and facilitate its fulfillment. Thus did one of the Prophets [David], who saw mankind in the past days of its infancy and under the guardianship of the law growing to the fullness of its years, when it was obligated to become capable of its task of being betrothed to Divinity and giving birth to a timeless Child, portrays the Son of God as the King approaching the wedding. And taking upon himself the role of the bringer of the bride, or friend of the bridegroom, the Prophet as if impatiently convinces human nature not to further postpone this blessed union by betrayal and insubordination, but to commit itself to it through sincerity and faithfulness. Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty
“Long did this Divine voice call in the Church as in the desert, and apparently did not find a hearkening ear. Humankind did not have the boldness to triumphantly go forth to meet the Divinity. What would have happened to us had the heart of the blessed Virgin Mary not opened to the incomprehensible word of the incarnation, had her boundless dedication to God’s will not responded to the heavenly messenger, Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy will (Lk. 1:38)? She entrusted herself to the King’s desire without holding anything back—and the betrothal of the Divinity with the human race was fulfilled forever.
“From this we Christians can see how such an apparently personal event—the entry into the temple and consecration to God of a three-year-old maiden—becomes the subject of triumph throughout the Church. This venture of the yet infant bride of God constitutes the beginning of her betrothal to the Holy Spirit, and therefore, in a certain sense, the first pledge of all mankind’s betrothal to the Divinity. True, this mystery was to be deeply hidden within her for the time being, like a flower in its seed; but in order to show the perfection of its ways, Providence often precedes its essential actions with certain significant events that give us some understanding of the future. And pious tradition also tells us that the Most Holy Virgin’s entrance into the temple had already been proclaimed by those prophetic words: hearken, O daughter, and see…
“Now, in the days of fulfillment of the ancient beginnings and preceding signs, do you wish to see more clearly the glory of the present solemnity? Then follow the Prophet’s command: The virgins that follow after her shall be brought unto the King (Ps. XLIV:13. Do you not now see that the leading of the Most Holy Virgin to the king of Kings is the beginning of a great, solemn procession, in which all pure, chaste souls shall follow after her; that the present solemnity, by the Church’s intention, is a part and continuation of this great procession; that those who wish to participate in the present solemnity must unite themselves to it with a solemn procession, arraying themselves accordingly in the image of the great Leading Personage—the virgins that follow after her?
“Lest we Christians become hard-hearted, and in this sacred procession remain no more than idle spectators of another’s feast, let us address our souls with this prophetic call: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty, for He Himself is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.”
So let us unworthily join this procession, with all those who have gone before us in the Church, following her. May we too, as unworthy followers of Jesus Christ, and in imitation of His Mother, heed the message of the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple, of preparation and openness to grace, and of the realization of the transfiguration of the Old Testament Church into the New Testament Church, the Body of Christ, in which we partake at every Eucharist from the altar of Orthodoxy. My we share the spirit of that message and experience with our family, friends, and country, like the Apostles after Pentecost, so that our sorrowful land America may turn to a fuller and truer vision of her heritage in the Orthodox Christianity, and that we may as a community be worthy and prepared participants in the Church as the Bride of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A homily given at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Lynchburg, VA, by Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway), on Sunday Nov. 1, 7530 (11/14/21 on the civil calendar). Fr. Dn. Theodore is interim Dean of Students at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY. He also presented on that same trip a talk to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Liberty University, which is available at this link on video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBtTUU64o8o This is on the same topic as the talk that he gave recently at Bucknell University, co-sponsored by our mission, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Church in Lewisburg, PA.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters!
Today’s Gospel reading is full of both fear and hope. Fear, because we are confronted with the foolishness of the Jews and how we ourselves can fall into the same mistake. Hope, because we see in this reading everything that our good God has done for us and offers to us.
The king in the parable is, of course, God Himself, and the wedding is the mystical union of Christ and His Church. The Lord compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet because the wedding banquet is the celebration of a new life, a new beginning, and the fulfilment of the desires of one’s heart in an act of love, for do we not, when we are married, leave the household of our old family and begin a new life in a new home, united spiritually to the one whom we love? Indeed, this is an icon of the penitent answering the eternal call of Christ to “give me your heart” and entering into the many paradisiacal mansions of the heavenly Father through being united to the Holy Church.
Those who are bidden in this parable are the Jews and the messengers of the King are the holy prophets, calling the people of old Israel to hearken to the words of the Lord and turn their hearts back unto His Law. Did they listen? By no means! While many who were called were satisfied in simply ignoring the call to repentance by making light of it and heading back to their farms or being happy merchants, which of course represents the love of carnal pleasures, the life of ease, material comforts, and the love of money.
A remnant, however, did not simply ignore God’s call to repentance, but actively opposed it. As the Lord Himself told this “stiff-necked people” who are “contrary to all men,” “you are the sons of them that killed the prophets!” This bloodthirsty hatred for truth – God’s Truth – led to these men, blinded by their impiety and madness, killing those true servants of the God of Israel, the prophets, and, ultimately, murdering God Himself when the incarnate Son came down to earth Himself and presented them with their last opportunity to turn away from evil. Ultimately, as the parable says, their city, Jerusalem with its temple, was razed to the ground. Despite this, we have an entire religion that, to this day, is explicitly based on the rejection of Jesus Christ.
We gentiles, then, are those who were summoned to the marriage feast from the highways and byways, which represent the foolish paths of paganism and idle philosophy, those paths which ultimately lead nowhere. We see this harvest being reaped even now, as more and more people, especially young men at this present time, hearken to the Lord’s invitation and are welcomed into the marriage feast of the holy Orthodox Church, turning away from heresies, false religions, and vain ideologies in order to pursue salvation in Christ Jesus.
At this halfway point in the parable, it is easy for us to look at those unfortunate men, the Jews, and be amazed at the rejection of the Messiah. If we consider things carefully, however, this is where the fearful aspect of this parable is most evident, for are we not just like the Jews, in that we have received the fullness of the Truth? Yet, we continually harden our hearts to the Word of God and His commandments. Actually, I will correct myself: we are in a more grievous position than the Jews, for while they received the Law and the Prophets, we have received the Gospel! When we Christians ignore the words of Christ and do not pursue a pious life, we fall from an ever greater height than the Jews!
This parable should warn us against complacency in our spiritual and moral lives, since just as those who were “of the seed of Abraham and slaves to no man” became the “Synagogue of Satan,” we who are the sons of the Apostles, “begotten through the Gospel,” can become the greatest enemies of Christ – apostates, heretics, schismatics, persecutors, and, possibly worst of all, lukewarm, half-hearted Christians because of whom the “Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.” Just as Jerusalem and its Temple were crushed under the feet of Roman paganism because of apostasy, so to was our Constantinople and its Hagia Sophia crushed under the feet of the Hagarenes, and our Moscow and its forty times forty churches crushed under the boot of the Bolsheviks, so take heed, we that “think ourselves to stand, lest we fall.”
As we continue the parable, we see that it is simply not enough the heed the call, but to continually transform oneself through repentance, co-operating with the bountiful mercies of God’s grace and love towards us. The king in the parable comes to inspect the guests and finds a man with no wedding garment. Contrary to popular belief, this wedding garment is not holy baptism, for to enter the banquet is to be received into the Church and to actively participate in the holy sacraments. No, this wedding garment is the virtues that we are called to cultivate through our life in Christ. The king’s appearance at the banquet is the dreadful Second Coming of Our Lord and that man with no garment represents all of those Christians who, despite receiving the fullness of Truth, despite receiving the fullness of grace, have not multiplied their talents, have not struggled to develop virtue, have not fought the good fight, have not run the race, and, ultimately, have not loved the Lord, because they did not keep His commandments. These are the whitened sepulchres that we too can become if we simply reduce our Christian lives to external pieties and empty religious observances, instead of cultivating true Gospel love in our hearts and genuine religious devotion. We can know all the dogmas and all the rules, but if this knowledge is not filled with a genuinely spiritual love, then we are just clanging bells.
This is why the Holy Apostle Paul warns us to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise.” “The fool says in his heart that there is no God,” but even more foolish is he that claims to believe in God but doesn’t do anything about it. Maybe ignorance will be forgiven on the last day, but laziness and negligence certainly will not be. The Apostle calls us to “walk circumspectly,” because we need to be cautious in all things pertaining to the spiritual life: be vigilant, be reserved, be obedient, and, most importantly, be attentive to those things that are taking place within our hearts, using discernment, discretion, and a little bit of common sense to prevent ourselves from falling into the snares laid out for us by the enemy of mankind.
The Apostle tells us to “redeem the time” because we need to make use of every moment that God gives us in our earthly lives to cultivate those virtues, so that we may through His grace and mercy, be cloaked in that wedding garment on the last day, pure, undefiled, and spotless before Him. Every day, every hour, every minute that we waste will never be given back to us, with the exception of those to whom the Lord gives back the years “which the locusts have eaten,” which is those who have spent a great deal of time in the spiritual wilderness. For those of that that know Christ and know His Church, however, we are without excuse.
We redeem the time by “giving thanks always for all things unto God.” We redeem the time be using each day profitably, starting and ending it with prayer. We redeem the time by ensuring that God is glorified in all that we do during the day, making sure that our words are seasoned with salt and our deeds are in keeping with His commandments. We redeem the time by resisting evil and not giving in to temptation. We redeem the time by holding our tongue from gossip and criticism, from slander and insult. We redeem the time by controlling our appetites, neither gorging ourselves on food nor “being drunk with wine, wherein is excess.” We redeem the time by averting our eyes from carnal distractions and sinful indulgences. We redeem the time by not judging our neighbours but instead meditating on our own sinfulness and seeking to overcome it. We redeem the time, brothers and sisters, by simply being Christians and struggling to remain Christians from our baptism until our dying breath.
Saint Paul, when telling us to “redeem the time,” tells us to do so because “the days are evil,” and how many Jeremiads could be said about this! How many lamentations we could make about our current state of affairs! Our days are indeed evil, brothers and sisters, very evil. Now, the foolish are wont to tell us that we’ve always had problems and sin has always been with us, how immorality has always been rife and there have always been brutal murders. This is of course true, but in no time in history, since maybe the days of Noah, has evil ever been considered good and good considered evil. Such are our times! We are living in times of complete moral inversion. Whereas in pagan Rome, they pointed to Christians and said “see how they love one another,” due to the high moral and ethical standards of the Church, in our modern enlightened world, they say “see how they hate everyone,” because of these same high moral and ethical standards. I, for one, am happy to be a hater if that means hating sin.
The days are evil because we are once again being confronted by a beast system that threatens to destroy body and soul: a so-called healthcare system that churns out millions of corpses of infants every year, a so-called education system that seeks to extinguish the burning desire for God in every soul, a so-called justice system that sends the righteous to prison while the evil roam freely, and a so-called department of defence that actively seeks to destroy anyone who says “no!” to the globalist hydra, wherever they may be.
The days are evil because we are once again being confronted by a new religion that seeks to supersede the divine revelation of the Gospel, a religion that, unlike Islam which embraces death, seeks to avoid death at all costs. A religion of fear where no fear is, a religion of paranoia, of isolation, of cowardice, of disinfectant, and of casting aside of common sense for the sake of some measure of a temporary feeling of safety, a religion that throws aside its dogma of “my body, my choice,” when it is convenient, a religion of hypocrisy, of division, and of lies, all of which come from Satan himself.
We can choose to live the lie, or we can choose to stand against it, but we should always keep in mind that “our war is not against flesh and blood, but the spirits of evil in the high places.” Don’t be deceived into thinking that we are to take up arms against the beast, for you will fail. As we read at Matins today, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” We are simply called to persevere. As dogs, maybe, but alive to love and serve the Lord. We will be cast out from society, we will be vilified, we will be ridiculed, we will be mocked, we will be reviled, we will be slandered, we will be hated, we will be persecuted, but we will persevere, for “great is your reward in the Kingdom.” Just as the world hated the Lord, so too will it hate us. We simply need to persevere, brothers and sisters, enduring the spittings, the buffetings, the mockings, and following our Lord to the Golgotha that waits for us all. Remember, that without the Cross there is no Resurrection, and without a righteous death there awaits no eternal life. Rejoice, brothers and sisters, for this is a great time to be alive, as God is calling us to great things and promises us much in return for our labours!
This is the hope we find in today’s parable: a wedding banquet, laid out for us in the Kingdom, waiting for us to simply answer the call to return to the One Who loves us and gave His life for us. That wedding banquet, the eternal heavenly banquet, is here today in the holy Eucharist, and we, those who are called and those who are chosen, stand inside this holy church, which contains within it the holy throne room of God Himself. He calls us to Himself, not simply to keep His commandments, but to partake of the eternal life that He offers to us through His most precious Body and Blood, wherein we find the grace to persevere, the strength to struggle, and the love that we ourselves are called to bring to others. Come, then, and receive all the good gifts of our good God Who loves mankind, that we may be worthy of a wedding garment on that dread day and, instead of the outer darkness and weeping, there is eternal light and rejoicing in His presence. Amen.
Note: This paper was given remotely to the “Links between Times: Conclusions and Perspectives on the Centennial of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad” conference in Belgrade and Sremski-Karlovci, Serbia, on American Thanksgiving Day 2021 (11/12/7530 on the Church calendar; 11/25/21 on the civil).
Pictures from the blessing of the land for our mission’s planned temple in northern Appalachia, by Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, on our feast day 2021. A sudden downpour amplified the holy water in the blessing, glory to God!
It is an honor to be included in this conference although I must confess to a conflict of interest today. I am an American convert to Orthodoxy and in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, addressing the topic of contemporary converts in America. But I also am an academic whose work deals with narratives and how to contextualize them. The scarcity of hard evidence on my topic today works in my favor hopefully, in trying to contextualize the stories of contemporary American converts in the Russian Orthodox Church. I have found relatively little deep research evidence on this still new topic, although I have found much debate and commentary. Two crucial questions loom over trying to understand this topic. First, why would Americans convert to Orthodox Christianity–and specifically why would they align themselves with the Russian Church Abroad in a period of renewed hostility by Western media and elites toward Russia and Russian culture? This relates I think to a second larger question at the centenary of ROCOR: What is the purpose of ROCOR now that the Soviet Union has fallen a generation ago, when ROCOR is fully now in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, and a regular autonomous jurisdiction of the same? I hope to return to these two connected questions at the end.
First, let me share one data point from our small Russian Orthodox mission parish in northern Appalachia, which perhaps does help to provide context for the stories of converts who have become part of ROCOR in America. Almost all our members are converts. They left mainly Protestant churches or atheism because of their search for authentic roots of Christianity and their sense of spiritual need, including dissatisfaction with the directions of modern American forms of non-Orthodox Christianity, which they saw as moving further away from any traditional roots. The small data point I would like to share is that among our convert families we have at least four (about one-seventh of the official membership) whose baptismal names are from Celtic saints of the pre-Schism West: Bridget, Brynach, Dayfdd, and Kentigern. In addition, the mission requested and received a blessing to be named for St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, in part because of his bridging of Russian and American worlds of Orthodoxy. Several of our members have been significantly influenced by the writings of Fr Seraphim Rose in becoming Orthodox. He was a notable American convert and spiritual son of St. John, and hieromonk in ROCOR. St. John himself did much to highlight the veneration of early Western saints in the Russian Church. In this connection, another convert ROCOR parish in our diocese recently held an Akathist for Alfred the Great, recognized as an Orthodox saint-king of Anglo-Saxon England. Other convert communities across jurisdictions in North America show special dedication to St. Moses the Black, highlighting African-American Christian heritage, and to Russian Alaskan saints. It seems that Orthodoxy in America generally has an appeal to converts that includes saints seen as bridging ancient Christianity and American culture, including ancestry of Americans of varied backgrounds. Albert Raboteau, who wrote a book about his journey to Orthodoxy, was an eminent African-American scholar who saw joyful sorrow as a link between Orthodoxy and historic African-American experience of Christian faith in America.
Statistical data about Orthodoxy Christians in North America today on a large scale comes from Alexei Krindatch and his extensive surveys and census of American Orthodox churches. In 2020, he found about 24,000 adherents in ROCOR communities in the U.S., and only about 10,000 regular attendees. This compares to a total of about 676,000 adherents in Orthodox churches of all jurisdictions in the U.S., mainly Greek Orthodox, and about 183,000 regular attendees overall. Those figures are all much smaller than numbers of 1 million that have been cited in the past by members of a couple other jurisdictions for the size of their own communities alone. But this research found that a distinctive characteristic of ROCOR in America is that it has many tiny communities without a full-time salaried priest. Perhaps there is a bit of an undercount for us due to a lack of support staff so to speak; alas I think our own mission did not return the survey forms. But interestingly for what I mentioned earlier about the Celtic names in our parish, as a scholar of early Irish Christian culture, I can say that the pattern noted of tiny American ROCOR Churches across the countryside was the pattern seen in early Christian Ireland and western Britain before the Schism. These also were coupled with a heavy presence and influence of monastic communities. ROCOR has also seen the founding of some new monasteries in America in recent times alongside a preeminent influence of Jordanville.
Also of interest, although according to the statistical surveys ROCOR shares in a decline of membership with other Orthodox jurisdictions in America, due apparently both to aging congregations and an increasingly secularizing youth culture in America, Alexei Krindatch found in a survey in 2020 that the average or mean percentage of converts among ROCOR active members is 70%, the highest among American jurisdictions. Although this was based on a small sampling of only 30 parishes, which he indicates must be received with caution, it coincides with another more recent survey of his, which showed ROCOR parishes gaining members from other jurisdictions during the COVID shutdown. That gain was due to a greater range of openness to maintaining services with relatively less restrictions in some ROCOR parishes compared to other jurisdictions. Based on percentages and anecdotal evidence such transfers likely include those of convert background significantly.
This overall picture fits what we have seen in our region in central Pennsylvania, at our mission and two long-established ROCOR sister parishes in the Pennsylvania coal country. Our mission, while small, has grown, and has acquired six acres of land including a small cemetery and is actively planning construction of a temple, although our membership is not wealthy. At our last Liturgy we had 45 people present. Our attendance has been moving upwards with families coming in the last two years both through baptisms and through joining from other jurisdictions. One of our two sister parishes has seen a rebirth recently. It has gone from being near closure to renovating its small temple and often being filled with attendees. The other parish with which our mission is associated recently acquired a new priest who came over to ROCOR from another jurisdiction, due to the developing schism over the Ukraine situation and dissatisfaction with actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in various areas. Key elements of the growth and renewal of the three ROCOR parishes in our region involve clergy from backgrounds in other jurisdictions. One, Hieromonk Claude Vinyard, is 92 years old. He was a priest for many years in the OCA. At an age when many would be deep into retirement, he decided to return to ROCOR, in which he had been received as a child, because of a feeling of affinity with what he saw as its more traditional approach to faith. He founded our mission six years ago. Likewise our current rector, Fr. George Sharonoff, was trained at an OCA seminary and originally part of the OCA, although his family has roots going back to Russian clergy associated with Harbin. Mentored by Fr Claude, he came over to ROCOR, and at one point was tending all three of our related parishes temporarily, although now he is pastoring two. Many in our mission are former Lutherans, who first came into the OCA, but became dissatisfied with what my wife, who is from Russia, characterized as a more American business approach to administration there. This involved some distressing problems locally at the time that Metropolitan Jonah was forced out of office in the OCA and also received into ROCOR. No disrespect is meant toward the dedicated and pious OCA laity and clergy with whom we have worshipped and still love and who may have different perspectives on that.
But such controversy among American jurisdictions leads to a final area of discussing evidence about American converts in relation to Russian Orthodoxy – debate. Debate is more plentiful than research, but also indefinite. Discussion online about converts to Orthodoxy in America includes papers and blogging by writers in venues such as Public Orthodoxy of the Fordham Orthodox Christian Studies Center, the allied Orthodox Theological Society of America, and various blogs and social media. Some of this commentary focuses on criticizing the alleged “fundamentalism” of converts, and our alleged ideological baggage from American Protestantism and derided “culture wars.” Sometimes such criticism comically implies a connection between American conversions to the Russian Orthodox Church and politics associated with former President Donald Trump’s alleged Russian ties. It also suggests connections between allegedly fundamentalist Orthodoxy and alleged nationalism of the Russia Church, which is then paradoxically linked to white American nationalism. In some commentaries, I was struck by how supposedly objective intellectuals seem swayed in their commentary by unfair criticisms of the Russian Church voiced internationally by supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They tend to identify ROCOR with both Tsarist politics and American nationalism, while themselves sometimes advocating for secular American trends contrary to Orthodox tradition, such as women clergy and pastoral acceptance of secular sexual anthropology.
I will read here the publisher’s summary of a forthcoming book by the American anthropologist Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, entitled Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia. This book is to be published by Fordham University Press’ Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought series, which has links to Fordham’s Orthodox Studies Center, which in turn is aligned intellectually with and has some personal connections to Ecumenical Patriarchate circles. Dr. Riccardi-Swartz has been a prominent academic voice commenting online on American Orthodox converts, in particular those in ROCOR. She stayed with and studied members of a ROCOR parish near Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia, which community later objected to her conclusions and methods. While it may be unusual to refer to a forthcoming book’s promotion, the storyline it presents seems in line with Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’s previous presentations, and indicates a pattern of American academic narrative on this topic. It begins:
“In one corner of Appalachia, a group of American citizens has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church and through it Putin’s New Russia. Historically a minority immigrant faith in the United States, Russian Orthodoxy is attracting Americans who look to Russian religion and politics for answers to western secularism and the loss of traditional family values in the face of accelerating progressivism. This ethnography highlights an intentional community of converts who are exemplary of much broader networks of Russian Orthodox converts in the US. These converts sought and found a conservatism more authentic than Christian American Republicanism and a nationalism unburdened by the broken promises of American exceptionalism. Ultimately, both converts and the Church that welcomes them deploy the subversive act of adopting the ideals and faith of a foreign power for larger, transnational political ends.”
There is much here that would seem questionable, especially the implication that ROCOR has larger transnational ends of a foreign power in a political sense. Such implications fundamentally misread both the spiritual dimension of the stories of American converts and ROCOR’s own story as an autonomous Synod of the Russian Church, having emerged from the worst anti-Christian persecutions in history, as well as misreading Orthodox ecclesiology from a standpoint of Western bias. To understand Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’s position, however, it is necessary to understand the narratives that frame secular American academic approaches today. These involve a paradoxical emphasis on a neutral secular objective viewpoint, combined with a sense of the need to prioritize the “lived experience” of certain perspectives. Those perspectives reflect secular American concerns with Antiracism, Antifascism, and anti-patriarchalism, all related to the recent revival of what has been characterized as Russophobia in America. A few prominent but statistically insignificant cases of far-right American political extremists associating with Orthodoxy helped fuel such views. The danger of such academic framing, in its own terms, is that it can easily ignore the lived experience of converts in the context of a minority non-Western Christian tradition, with its own epistemology and teleology. Thus researcher-commentators themselves can ironically fall prey to what they themselves might call Eurocentric bias.
The promotional book summary continues: “Offering insights into this rarely considered religious world, including its far-right political roots that nourish the embrace of Putin’s Russia, this ethnography shows how religious conversion is tied to larger issues of social politics, allegiance, (anti)democracy, and citizenship… this book provides insight in the growing constellations of far-right conservatism…. Russian Orthodox converts are … an important gauge for understanding the powerful philosophical shifts occurring in the current political climate in the United States and what they might mean for the future of American values, ideals, and democracy.” The narrative frame is American, indeed.
I must add here, as an aside, that I have had the pleasure to meet Dr. Riccardi-Swartz in real life. She is personable and thoughtful in conversation, an Orthodox convert, too. I look forward to reading the book, which undoubtedly will present more details, and hopefully nuance, than the political framing of its promotion, although such publisher summaries usually are approved and written by the author in my experience. Still, negative analysis of converts in Russian Orthodox churches in America reflects not only secular academic views, but also contexts of a particular intellectual culture within world Orthodoxy, aligned with the outlook of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Beyond this, we can also recognize a deeper potential cultural bias, inherent in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the secular age of modernity, in an individualistic distant view of self, exemplified in American culture. Taylor contrasts this with what he calls the porous or relational view of self in premodern cultural traditions, which we can see exemplified in the idea of sobornost‘ in Russian Orthodoxy. The latter differs from Western liberalism and can be hard for the latter to translate. Reviews promoting Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’ book include one from Professor Robert Orsi that categorizes the story of Orthodox converts as “political religion” in American terms. Journalist Sarah Posner states that the study transcends “straightforward ethnography” to describe “fixation with the fascist ideologues of Eurasia,” a “global movement that poses a dire threat to secular democracy around the world.” If this description, applied to ROCOR, sounds like an old Fu Manchu movie, orientalizing Russian Orthodox faith, it indicates unfortunately how secular American academia may seek to frame the narrative of American converts in ROCOR today.
(Above) Orientalizing non-Western faith, like “Eastern” stereotypes of old? Image from the 1932 Hollywood film The Mask of Fu Manchu, part of a book and film series that like contemporary Flash Gordon serials drew on stereotyped themes of peril from the East (at a time when a significant element of ROCOR was in China, from whence came St. John of Shanhai and San Francisco to America).
Inside Orthodox intellectual circles, negative attitudes toward alleged fundamentalism and chauvinism of American converts go back at least to Father Seraphim Rose’s influential writings in the 1970s. He criticized what he called “crazy converts” and the “zealot party.” Yet Fr Seraphim’s writings themselves today are often attacked as fundamentalist and over-zealous by those who critique not only current-day converts in ROCOR, but also in other traditional communities in North American Orthodoxy, such as at the 17 Greek Orthodox monasteries founded by Elder Ephraim. Against the Russian Church, charges of ethno-phyletism or nationalist religion come from academics with affinities to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and draw on recent US political phobias of Russia, rooted in American neoliberalism and neoconservative exceptionalism. But ethno-phyletism ironically can be seen in American Orthodoxy that stresses Americanness. Sometimes critics of converts on sites like the Public Orthodoxy blog are of ethnic Orthodox background, but well-assimilated into U.S. culture, and some also support issues such as women clergy and pastoral assimilation of LGBTQ culture, while criticizing converts paradoxically for not being traditional when opposing such American liberalism.
(Above) Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory, a spiritual son of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. An American convert of the 1960s, his writings were influential in both America and Russia. He criticized “crazy converts” and over-zealotry, but his traditional perspectives now would fit some definitions of “fundamentalist” by writers with affinities for Ecumenical Patriarchate intellectual culture today.
So the academic landscape for examining the phenomenon of Orthodox converts in America remains poorly formed and politically charged. We await deeper and fairer assessments. Perhaps the epistemology of secular academics in America in this era hinders understanding stories of Orthodox conversion in an objective way. But to take a leaf from postmodernity, the lived experience of the converts needs to be taken into account more fully in an Orthodox context. From that standpoint, I can say that in our Appalachian mission parish and neighboring ones, there is not much interest in Russian nationalism or in a particularly positive view of the Russian government politically. There is however investment for example in traditional Christian anthropology undergirding family and the right to practice and express marriage and sexuality in a traditional Christian way, and to have the freedom for that to be taught as a legitimate life in education, media, professions, business and public spheres apart from the new secular US ideology of pansexualism. I detect a lack of interest among our network of converts in either American neoconservatism or neoliberalism in relation to foreign interventions and systems of global economic control. But there is interest in the Christian ethos of service, in which many parishioners are involved in their work and spiritual lives, a commitment to what the American academic convert Donald Sheehan called self-emptying rather than self-assertion, in building community. This is in line with Orthodox tradition voiced by the exile St. Jonah of Hankou and Manchuria, who in the 1920s stated that podvig is to live for our neighbor.
That final observation links to a hunger among many converts, with, like all human beings limitations and sins, myself the worst, to commit to the Orthodox Christian faith — not to capitalism, communism, fascism, or any other ism. This leads back to the main questions asked at the start of this paper: Why are American converts attracted to Orthodoxy, and why may they currently end up in apparently higher percentages in ROCOR communities than in other jurisdictions, and in a pattern of relatively tiny worship communities? And what is the role of ROCOR today? I would answer these connected questions by indicating from my experience in several American parish communities with predominantly converts, that converts are attracted to Orthodoxy in America most of all by authentic spiritual experience and by sobornost‘ or spiritual unity in our Lord Jesus Christ’s Church. The fact that Russian faith survived the extreme persecution of Communism and with the prayers of all the new martyrs and of the saints of exile in the past century such as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and St. Jonah of Manchuria, makes the authentic faith of Orthodoxy that much more legible in depth to converts in America today. I felt this years ago while reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago when it first appeared in English, as a high schooler searching for a Christian faith. That was a decisive moment on my path to Orthodoxy. The old saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is again in our time and place showing forth its yield of fruit, God willing, however humbly and unworthily. This also addresses the role of ROCOR today at 100 years old. It bears witness from the martyrs of the greatest persecution of Christians in history in a recent age, to a West that is lost today in the depths of great materialism and confusion that shape a new and different kind of emerging cultural totalitarianism, hostile to traditional Christianity. The mid-20th-century Russian Orthodox exiled philosopher S.L. Frank, himself a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy, provides an underlying explanation in the title of one of his books, borrowed from Scripture: “The Light Shineth in Darkness.”
End note: Thanks to the conference co-organizer, Fr. Dn. Dr. Andrei Psarev, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Holy Trinity Seminary, and my former instructor in Church history at the St.John of Kronstadt Pastoral School, for all his work on the conference, and for inviting me. Thanks also to researcher Alexei Krindatch for his kind help from his in-depth studies, and to Walker Thompson for his technical assistance. Being able very unworthily to participate in a conference on the centennial of the Russian Church Abroad was a great blessing and the highlight in terms of venue of any academic conference in which I have participated (even if remotely conducted in my case!). The conference was held in Serbia because that is where the ROCOR Synod was headquartered for many years between the world wars and into World War 2, after its move to Constantinople with elements of the White Army and other refugees from the Red Terror in 1920, into the old patriarchate palace at Sremski-Karlovci, whence ROCOR had sometimes been called the Karlovsky Synod. There it kept alive a free Russian Orthodox Church for many years, before continuing to do so from its new post-World War 2 headquarters in New York City. I would be remiss also, given that geographic and historic locale of the conference, if I did not thank on a personal note Fr. Vedran Gabric of St. George Serbian Church in Hermitage, PA, and parishioners there for ongoing generous hospitality to our family. May God always prosper the friendship and historical link between the Serbian Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church on the Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, Sunday, Oct. 18, 7530 (Oct. 31, 2021, civil calendar).
Today we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, who is shown in the icon before us working on the writing of his Gospel, with the symbol of a winged calf above him. That symbol is one of the four winged creatures in Ezekiel and one of the four beasts in Revelation perpetually singing the Trisagion prayer. St Gregory the Dialogist and the Church identify the Calf or Ox with the Evangelist Luke and also with the virtue of sacrifice and service, and with the Incarnation and Crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Luke begins with an account of the Priest Zacharias, including the setting of the Temple where sacrifices occurred, and ends of course with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion and then his Resurrection and Ascension. The Evangelist Luke himself was especially a servant of the Lord whom the Church identifies as one of the Seventy and who also is known as the beloved physician and a patron of healers. He became especially close according to Church Tradition to the Apostle Paul in his missionary journeys, who like Luke was not one of the original 12, although both Luke and Paul are numbered among the Apostles by the Church.
Luke is also identified by Church Tradition as the first iconographer, that was part of his service to our Lord and His Church as well. He painted an image of the Holy Mother of God in her lifetime, and two other icons of her, as well as panels of the Apostles Peter and Paul, according to Church Tradition. The Theotokos it is recorded said to him of his iconography: “May the grace of Him who was born of me be upon this image.” This icon of the Theotokos holding the Christ child, called the Hodegetria or Directress, because she is pointing to Jesus, was sent from Palestine to Constantinople later by the Empress Eudocia, where it was a prime icon of veneration until supposedly destroyed by the Turks, although some Russian traditions maintain it was moved and preserved at Smolensk until destroyed in the burning of that city during the Nazi invasion. In any case, many copies and types of it were made and venerated, which also survived the earlier disaster of Iconoclasm within the Church and the Byzantine empire in Late Antiquity.
Of course Luke also wrote the Gospel and also the Acts of the Apostles, and the Lives of the Saints have been described as a continuation of the Acts by St. Luke. As the Apostle Paul wrote “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.” The Acts of the Apostles, and their extension in the Lives of the Saints down to our time, and the iconography of the Church begun by St. Luke with the blessing of the Theotokos, these all help us however unworthily with God’s grace and ascetic struggle to imitate the holy ones who themselves imitate Christ. This is the golden link so to speak of service and sacrifice in the life and work and example of the Apostle Luke, which connects integrally his life, his writing, and his iconography.
There are some details of the life of the Apostle about which various early sources differ, but what is certain is that his life really began, like ours, with his decision to follow Jesus Christ. He accompanied Paul on some of his mission journeys and remained in Philippi and Macedon to help build up the early Church. Then he went to Rome with the Apostle Paul, where according to some traditions he wrote the Gospel and Apostles. His Gospel has a special emphasis on the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ as the Great Physician. After the martyrdom of the Apostle Paul, St. Luke returned to his work in Greece, where he himself was martyred according to tradition at the age of 84, flayed alive and crucified on an olive tree by idolaters. Long afterward his relics were placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople.
The integral relation between the Apostle Luke’s inspired writing and the lives of the saints and iconography, in the example of holiness given to us in the Church, shines forth in an icon very close to us in time and experience here today in our mission in central Pennsylvania. Many of us have venerated with joy and reverence the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon of the Most Holy Mother of God from Hawaii, at our Cathedral in Mayfield, PA. This is a copy of the miraculous myrrh-streaming Montreal icon, in the style of the Apostle Luke’s work. On this same day today, the Feast of St. Luke, is commemorated the martyric death of the keeper of the Montreal icon and the disappearance of that icon, in 1997 in Athens. Tragically, José Muñoz, now known as Brother Jose, was tortured and killed ,and the icon stolen, apparently by a gang of robber, in what an investigation by Archpriest Victor Potapov of ROCOR concluded was a type of martyrdom, Our diocesan website has this statement:
“What led to the murder of Brother Jose and this holy image being hidden from us? This question was answered by the hierarchs of ROCOR in 2002, in a special “Appeal to the Flock on the 20th anniversary of the Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon of the Mother of God of Montreal:” “This icon, which abundantly streamed miracle-working myrrh for 15 years, consoled our Russian [Church Abroad], a visible and tangible symbol of the mercy of the intercession of the Mother of God for us sinners… Did we act in a worthy manner during the presence in our Church of this Icon, which clearly performed miracles? Did we put to good use this visitation of the Mother of Our Lord for our souls, and is it not our collective sin of having grown cold towards this holy Icon and in our prayers, cold to the works of charity and witness to the Orthodox faith, that was the reason for its disappearance, through God’s will With tremulous gratitude we prayerfully recall the arrival of this wondrous myrrh-streaming Icon in our Church, and with repentance we pray to the Most Holy Mother of God for the forgiveness of our transgressions, for peace to reign in our Orthodox Church…”
God in His goodness and mercy has allowed the Hawaiian copy to stream myrrh since, to bring consolation to us. Brothers and Sisters, on this Feast of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, and remembering on this day the death of Brother Jose and of the disappearance of the Montreal Iverson icon of God, let us re-dedicate ourselves to our baptism and to our experience of the wonder-working Hawaiian copy of that icon at our Cathedral and elsewhere in its travels. Let us with gratitude for the examples of holiness all around us in our mission Church icons and in the Scriptures we hear, ask for the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God and of St. Luke, that our hearts be warmed and that we be forgiven our transgressions and that we move forward with our mission work here in our valley, to help bring the message of salvation to our friends and enemies and strangers in need. May the Lord God strengthen our efforts and have mercy on us for our sins. Amen
Paper presented at ”Scél lem dúib: Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics Revisited. A Symposium to Celebrate the 65th Anniversary of the Publication of the Anthology,” also marking the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Columcille (Columba). University College Cork, Department of Early and Medieval Irish. Friday, Oct. 16, 7530 (Oct. 29, 2021, civil calendar).
It’s an honor and joy to present at this event at University College Cork, amid some friends whom I have not seen for a long time, but who were very kind when my family and I spent a term with you all. My topic, “Ecosemiotics in Early Irish Lyrics,” references a fairly new field, which however I will argue has relevance for the ancient literary culture we are examining, as well as in a generic way to nature writing. Ecosemiotics is also called environmental semiotics, a companion field to biosemiotics. It involves a view of meaning as entwined with the natural world, on a spectrum of communication that would include the way that a bird might find meaning in the color and other signs of a plant in gathering nectar, and how a work of poetry or prose might shape a human community’s sense of a natural landscape.
The field emerged in the last couple decades from what it sometimes called the Tartu-Copenhagen-Moscow school of semiotics, which has a relation to the early-twentieth-century work of the Baltic biologist Jakob von Uexküll who developed the concept of the Umwelt as a meaningful world of an organism, as a basis for understanding life as based on communication or information. There is a kind of Venn diagram there between secular ecosemiotics and what has been called early Christian pansemiotism, or a view of Creation as a communicative experience of mysterious meaning fully known to God. There arguably is a link in that overlap to the literary culture of what Gerard Murphy called early Irish lyrics.
I would like hopefully to illustrate how a model from ecosemiotics can be applied to three poems in the collection, indicating also the relevance of Professor Murphy’s work to this field, and then talk briefly about how this new model relates to the early Irish Christian cultural context and its engagement with nature.
Ecosemiotics stems partly from the work of von Uexküll and partly also from that of the American semiotician Charles Saunders Peirce in the nineteenth century. Peirce has rightly been called the most famous American philosopher that Americans do not know, as attested by his popularity in circles of ecosemiotic study such as at Tartu University in Estonia, while his work sadly is virtually unknown in American academic circles today. Peirce’s contribution to semiotics was to emphasize, at odds with De Saussure’s more influential work in the modern West, that signs relate to the environment. Peirce said the making of meaning or semiosis involved a threefold overlap of sign, object, and what he called interpretant, the coupler between sign and environment, which has since been unpacked into the categories of both author and reader. De Saussure’s binary view of semiotics famously placed the making of meaning in signs arbitrarily, and internalized, in the factors of the signified and the signifier. Peirce’s work raised the possibility of an environmental link to semiotics. More recent writers such as Timo Maran at Tartu have adapted Peirce’s terminology. So Maran speaks of the text, the environment, and unpacks the interpretant into both reader and author. This makes the Peirce model more of a fourfold than a threefold, although still in effect based on the latter. Maran calls his model of text, environment, reader, and author the nature-text. It seeks to articulate how a text does not exist in isolation or in total internalized and arbitrary processes of meaning, but exists in relationships of contexts, which can include the environment. In this way, the ecosemiotic model combines aspects of interpretations of texts through reader reception, historicism, and close reading, as well as ecocritical. The environment as a component of Maran’s model can include physical and cultural environment.
I’ll first briefly try to sketch simply how this twenty-first century approach can be highlighted by poems 51, 52, and 53 in Gerard Murphy’s collection, and then talk about early cultural conjunctions with this approach.
Poem 51 comes from the Acallam na Senorach. Scottish musicologist John Purser has compared it to the tone of James Macpherson’s later Ossian poems, with regard to what he called the early poem’s quote “romantic scene-painting, tinged with a world-weary nostalgia.” Yet there is a contrast between Cailte’s lament for the past, identified with winter, in the introductory frame, in which he says time has arrived for stags and does to withdraw to inmost parts of hills and rocks, and the poem itself, which speaks actively of the swift stag belling, a stag not lying to the ground, and another listening also to wolf-music. At the same time, another stag is described as pressed to the earth sleeping as if beneath water on a very cold night. They all are identified with the narrator as aged, and his season passed with the coming of winter. The poem is said to be recited at Samain on the cusp of the death of the year that also marks its birth. The night, as in biblical and monastic traditions, is the start of the day, vesperal. So the belling of the stag suggests the rutting season at the end of a cycle that points toward spring. At the end the narrator’s voice, and the poem itself perhaps, is identified with that cycle of life, with the explicitly Christian ending. The poem expresses thanks to the higher king, Christ, and His Mother, identified with the portal between the earth and heaven, beyond the narrator’s old role in commanding armies. Now he is cold in the cycle of mortality, but there is both a natural and a higher hope of rebirth and resurrection.
Here Maran’s model can be applied rather simply. The first of the four elements, the text, relates to stories of the Finn Cycle, the Acallam, Irish lyric poetry about the natural world, place and kingly lore associated with pagan times, and Christian texts. The environment references specific place names and a sense of physical landscape identified also with both animals and the narrator being part of the seasonal cycles of mortality and rebirth in a landscape. For the author, we have the person of Cailte, and the context of the Acallam as a dialogue, overall between pagan and Christian lore, the latter personified by St. Patrick. In the reader’s context, we have what we can surmise of the early audience, including perhaps nobles and monastics and listeners from among various other classes of people at the time, when Norman rule was being established over Ireland, and perhaps a native Irish landscape was especially being asserted or reimagined in response to that cultural stress. Of course the reader component can also include modern scholars in early Irish, as well as translations in modern Irish and other languages. Current readers can bring interests such as ecosemiotics. All of these contexts together overlap and arguably help shape the text as kind of a landscape itself, in which the identity of the reader as a reader emerges as part of engagement with the text that is also a landscape, identified with the natural world and a particular geography, yet also with suggestions of a kind of otherworldliness of the landscape, through its connections to the Finn cycle and the non-human world, the stag sleeping in winter as if underwater, as well as the Christian reference to divinity and the Mother who bore the Creator God in her womb.
In Poems 52 and 53 we have also texts related to the Finn cycle, although the provenance of 53 according to Prof. Murphy’s notes is a gloss on a poem attributed to Saint Columcille. Poem 52 highlights the entwined elements of text and environment in a close evocation of a landscape, in which a reader is invited to form an identity associated in the opening introduction with pagan spiritual practices. These also have Christian resonances, arguably, in the contexts of author and reader in the early audience, as a poetic practice of what I’ll call landscape-grounding. The May Day poem arguably offers a kind of grounding in the natural order of things. The pagan illumination techniques narrated in the introduction also might have been seen as types for Christian monastic meditative and chanting prayers, such as those known from the desert fathers. While the latter did not involve marrow-chewing for example, they did involve rumination, and what church fathers described as getting the mind into the heart, and of course Christian communion of the body and blood of Christ. There is a going out of thought and vision in the poetry into the landscape, yet it has a predominantly embodied aspect as well as an ecstatic one, hence the sense of grounding At the end, we are told that unlike the frail man who fears loudness, the constant man sings with a heart on May day. This may not be the quietude of meditative prayer. But it does invoke an embodied singing or chanting in the horizon of the natural order, a mindfulness, so to speak, appropriate for a season of rebirth and resurrection. A flock of birds settles on land where a woman walks, with noise in every green field through which a swift bright rivulet flows. The harmonies of Creation flow here for different senses, a reminder perhaps that harmony as well as word is a translation for logos, and that Christian commentators like Gregory of Nyssa referred to Creation as a symphony. The walking woman might well evoke also thoughts of the Mother of God, and the noise of the rivulet of living waters of baptism amid green pastures. Yet it is all reminiscent, too, oddly of the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in which humans and animals move together in a natural order rooted in spiritual mystery. I can’t resist mentioning here, by the way, that although Chaucer’s models are usually cited as continental, he was attached as a young man to the earl of Ulster, and some have seen echoes of Irish poetry too in his iambic pentameter, and speculated that he may have visited Ireland, so that personally forgive me but I like to think of him as a potential partial Anglo-Irish poet as well. But getting back to the definitely Irish poem at hand, its practice of what I have called landscape-grounding involves getting the mind into the heart in a connectivity with landscape. This reminds a bit not only of Chaucer’s frame but of the modern cure for seasickness—looking to the horizon, a grounding in focus in the natural world, here through lyric.
Professor Murphy’s poem 53 is short. It appeared as a gloss about the sea, a note to a poem attributed to the Christian saint Columcille. Here the sea is described in the otherworldly side of the year, of darkness into winter. Perhaps this parallels Adomnan’s Life of Columba in which the Latin word desertum is used for the sea, a reminder also of the otherworldliness associated with landscape by the desert fathers of the East, a tradition translated to the islands by the texts of Cassian and others, where the sea became the desert. This otherworldly yet natural landscape may remind us of the otherworldliness of the sea in the voyage of Bran. Like the desert, it can be terrible and also a rich place of spiritual growth in the apophatic darkness of the waning year. Yet in this poem any otherworldliness is definitely quite incarnational in specific ways. This latter point or paradox will carry me into the last section of my paper, on Christian ecopoetics.
Here I’ll try to suggest further how the ecosemiotic model of Timo Maran, in the secular twenty-first-century context of environmental humanities, overlaps in some ways with what has been called the pansemiotic view of Creation as a symbolic network in first-millennial Christian literature culture, which helped shape these poems. Perhaps most articulate and exemplary of this are writings of Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century in Greek, but mainly written in Rome, which not coincidentally greatly influenced the Hiberno-Latin philosopher John Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century. I have elsewhere called Eriugena in a sense the theorist of what has been called often romantically the Celtic Otherworld, in the sense of a view of nature as both that which is and that which is not, a kind of overlay landscape of mysterious symbolic meaning with embodied physical experience. This reflects Maximus’ earlier writings, which sought in part to offer a kind of early summa of Chrisian philosophy of nature. Maximus significantly was a great retrospective apologist for the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which was called at Constantinople in the sixth century under the Emperor Justinian. That Council famously condemned what it characterized as the disembodied abstractions of Origenism and upheld an incarnationalist view of Christian teaching that emphasized Theopaschism, or the birth and suffering and death and resurrection of an embodied God. A later Byzantine hymn would describe Christ on the Cross as the “hidden God,” Whom the Wise Thief recognized, although a bloodied tortured human being. That phrase the “hidden God” can also be a useful one I think in thinking about early Irish poetry that claims to bridge pagan and Christian worlds with a focus on the natural world and in the case of these poems with a dearth of direct religious references.
Interestingly, it is also during the time of Justinian that reconquests of territory in the West and an expansionist culture of the Christian Roman Empire that came to be known as Byzantium, left archaeological evidence suggests some trade with the Eastern Mediterranean in the Irish Sea zone. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the sixth century was also a time of some communication between Eastern desert monasticism and the establishment of early Irish monasticism and what became its literary culture.
To the aftermath of that era, Maximus brought a sense of the textuality of the natural world. He did so through his writings, particularly in his Ambigua, about what he called the logoi of the Logos, most often translated in English as the words of the Word. Of course the range of meaning of the word logos is tremendous, and that phrase can mean also the harmonies of the Harmony, the reasons of the Reason, the stories of the Story, and so forth in English. Yet for Maximos the Greek phrase indicated how the Logos, Christ, spake or sung into being the Creation that God sustains and grows by His Providence. In this Maximos indicates the logoi to be expressions of the energies or grace of God, which in Greek tradition are articulated as uncreated divine energies or grace. They in a sense both shape and sustain, as well as redeem Creation, in a kind of living, embodied, and immersive textuality based in God the Word. This pansemiotic sense of Creation as textuality again could be described, drawing on the Byzantine phrase already mentioned, as a poetic tradition of the hidden God in nature.
Such immersive, incarnational yet transcendent textuality of nature, highlights some issues of emerging yet conjoined genres of literature in the first millennium of the Christian era and beyond. There is in that incarnational yet transcendent sensibility, I would argue, an unexpected parallel between elements of this early lyric nature and vision poetry and the development of the novel. There is a shaping of a world within this poetry, related to Timo Maran’s nature-text model. The encounter of the persona of the poet in the poem with the persona of the reader establishes a sense of dialogue as landscape that reflects not only the secular nature-text but also arguably four elements of Christian ecopoetic literary tradition. The latter is related also to the development of the novel, emerging in Byzantine Greek contexts, but paralleled in elements in other forms in the West such as the Acallam na Senorach and even the Ulster Cycle and Icelandic sagas, all of which like the Byzantine novels emerged from a re-imagination of dialogue between pagan landscape and Christian literacy. Ecosemioticians like the term ecotone to describe boundary areas in landscape that are especially ecologically rich because of the boundaries between types of life and related human cultures they engender. The Baltic region itself could be considered such a boundary region. But so too the archipelagic region around the Irish Sea, with a literary culture occupied also with the boundary of pagan and Christan landscapes.
There are four elements in Christian ecopoetics that lent themselves to the development of novelistic forms, but which find parallels in elements also of this early poetry of nature and vision. These include an overlay landscape, about which we have already spoken, the shaping of an imaginary world still related to physical landscape and actual geography. Then also there is a sense of relational identity, such as that between authorial voice and readerly experience in such a nature-text, and the human and the non-human. Then there is also a sense of transfigurational virtue, virtue that is identified with otherworldly grace, with the logoi of the Logos, and which in the poems at hand could said to be implicit in a kind of humble and mindful experience of Creation. Finally, a fourth element of this tradition, that of the cosmic symbolism of marriage, is least apparent in this poetry, but could be echoed biologically in the belling of the stags in the poems, in the reference to the migratory cycle of the barnacle geese, and spiritually in the mention of the Virgin Mary who is described in Christian tradition both as the Mother of God and the Bride of God, as well as perhaps archetypally in the lady walking among a set of flocking birds. In Christian scripture there is an association of the Church as the Bride of God with the wings of a great eagle, given to her that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, given the identification also of the Mother of God with the earth, and parallels in early Irish tradition between figures of the goddess of sovereignty and the Christian Mother of God. Symbolically, the relation of male and female in Christian ecopoetics involved a sense of the reciprocal coming together of worlds, as well as the intimate relation of the divine and the human. Those early religious frameworks find parallels in Timo Maran’s model of the nature-text, in which the worlds of the text and the environment come together, as well as those of the reader and the author, and both with natural landscape. These shape the type of experience of a landscape in a text that became later familiar on a larger scale in the novel. Such elements of Christian ecopoetics, however assembled in different genre forms, relate to an extent to an underlying premise of ecosemiotics, namely the close intertwinement between language and the physical world, at least in certain types of texts, and the role of that intertwinement in shaping human identity in the environment, as a landscape text or assemblage of cultural landscape.
But there is, in the original contexts of these poems, a reflection also I think of the apophatic and cataphatic sides of theology referenced in the works attributed to St Dionysius the Areopagite, an influence on the writings of both Maximus the Confessor and Eriugena. The Dionysian writer indicated a cataphatic sense, of being able to find signs of God in Creation, the pansemiotic incarnational words of the Word so to speak. Yet he also most famously wrote of the apophatic mystery of the essence of God, the hidden God of nature, Whose Essence is beyond explanation, even as His uncreated energies expressed in His logoi can be experienced and even participated with in theosis. There is a conjunction there of the hidden in the incarnational, which I think carries us as readers across the centuries into the miraculous impression of natural detail and presence in this nature poetry.
Given on Sunday Oct. 3, 7530 (Oct. 17, 2021, civil calendar) at St. John the Wonderworker Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg PA, by Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway), Interim Dean of Students, Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, NY
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters!
I feel very privileged to join your mission community on this, its secondary feast day, a feast day which is not celebrated at my own monastery. I rejoice in particular because to magnify the memory of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a great universal hierarch of the past century, is always a most blessed occasion that I am glad to participate in.
The opening of the relics of Saint John almost twenty years ago was, like any such occasion, a real revelation that the God of Israel is truly wondrous in His saints, showing His triumph over death through their incorrupt and death-defying bodies. In the case of Saint John, we have a hierarch, a man of God, whose entire life bore witness to this fact that God is wondrous in His saints, those who act as conduits for His life-giving and soul-saving grace.
I spoke of Saint John as a universal hierarch because, in his holy life, we can see how our church, the Russian Church Abroad, has been providentially given a universal mission in the world and how we have strove with all the powers of our soul to carry out this mission, a mission that was recognised by Saint John from the very beginning. We can see the five marks of our church’s universal mission played out in the path of what we can call Saint John’s universal life, one in which he faithfully served God, the Church, and the faithful all across the face the earth, ministering in numerous countries, cultures, and epochs of modern history.
The first mark of our church’s universal mission is, of course, its ministry to the post-revolutionary Russian refugees who were scattered across the four corners of the globe in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power and the tragic, yet heroic, defeat of the White Army in the civil war. The young future saint, exiled from his homeland and forced to live in Yugoslavia, began his service to the Church among these refugees who sought to try and rebuild their lives in exile. Following this, the Russian Church Abroad organised monasteries, parishes, and seminaries to serve these people and ensure them that, despite their separation from the earthly homeland, they would not be deprived of their heavenly homeland, which they – and we – can always find in the holy churches. The young Saint John studied and taught in these seminaries, where his reputation as a holy man of God became well-known.
We are not simply a church of Russian refugees, however, for are we not all spiritual refugees, exiled from our heavenly homeland until we come to the knowledge of the true faith? For this reason, the second mark of our church’s universal mission is its being a church of missionaries. The Russian Church Abroad inherited the pre-revolutionary missions of the Russian Church and it is in one of these – China – where Saint John began his episcopal service to the Church. For many years Saint John struggled in asceticism, piety, and humble service to the flock which had been given to him, enduring poverty, disease, civil war, invasion by foreign enemies, and the eventual fall of China to communism. Through all this, the holy hierarch served as a beacon of light in the darkness of that pagan land, not only ministering to the flock entrusted to him, but expanding it through the preaching of the true faith, the serving of the holy sacraments, and through his ascetic and holy example of genuine Gospel love, a love that was not self-interested or self-serving, but self-sacrificing. Here, in the mission field, Saint John gained a reputation as a wonderworker and holy healer, manifesting God’s boundless love for man in all of his actions.
Following the war, Saint John left China to undertake his new responsibility, in which we see the third mark of our Church’s universal mission manifest: its role as the custodian of the universal Orthodox tradition. Saint John was assigned to be the bishop of Western Europe and it was during his time among the ruins of what was once Christendom that we see the large-scale reawakening of interest in the long-forgotten Orthodox saints of the West. Everywhere Saint John the Barefoot, as he is known in France, trod, he revered and revived the memory of its God-pleasers of ages gone by: through his efforts, Saint Genevieve in France, Saint Gall in Switzerland, Saint Benedict in Italy, Saint Dymphna in Belgium, and Saint Edward in England, to name only a few of the thousands upon thousands of saints who shone forth in the West returned to the consciousness of the Orthodox world.
It is to Saint John that we owe this revival in veneration of Western saints, who are now so beloved by many Eastern Orthodox Christians, a love especially manifest in the Russian Church, which now has a church dedicated to Saint Patrick of Ireland in Moscow itself, as well as many others dedicated to Western saints, spread throughout the world. It is to Saint John that we owe this remembrance of the great Celtic saints of old, like Saint Brendan the Voyager, who arrived in these American lands many centuries before Christopher Columbus, and Saint Kentigern, who founded Glasgow, the city of my birth, and serves as one of the heavenly patrons of your very own Father Deacon Paul.
It is not only the remembrance of the ancient saints of the West that we owe to Saint John, but he was also partially responsible for the re-introduction of the Western Rite into Orthodoxy, in which the ancient liturgies of the Orthodox West have been reconstructed, revived, and used as a missionary tool to draw Westerners back to the faith of their ancestors. Despite the criticisms that many had, Saint John placed the salvation of souls first, and sought to make Orthodoxy accessible to all men.
In the final chapter of his earthly sojourn, here in the United States, Saint John lived the fourth mark of our Russian Church Abroad’s mission, which is to be a defender of Truth. Saint John spent the last years of his life in San Francisco during the countercultural revolution that struck the West in the 1960s onward. He was a witness to the early stages of our society’s being toppled from its Christian foundations and its rebuilding as the relativistic, secular, materialistic, and man-centred order that we find ourselves in today. Seeing this, he lived his life as a prophetic witness to Truth, which is the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, a Truth that Saint John carried with him to give light to a quickly-darkening world.
Seeing the dissolution of the spiritual life of his flock, he did not fear to famously turn up unannounced at their Halloween ball, shaming their impiety with his silent presence. Seeing that the youth of the Orthodox Church were being led astray by strange new doctrines and eastern philosophies, he taught, encouraged, and blessed the young missionary, Father Seraphim Rose, to join him in prophetically witnessing to the Truth, a deed that has impacted many, many thousands of lives throughout the entire world, bringing masses to a knowledge of the True Faith and to a deep desire for a serious spiritual life.
Finally, in his blessed and incorrupt repose, Saint John the Wonderworker displays the fifth mark of our church’s universal mission: that of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Of course, there are a great many stories of Saint John’s mercy in his life time, but there is one particular occasion that manifests this tendency in a tremendous manner. Our Church, long separated from the mother church in Russia, a church that for many years we condemned and fought against, had to make the decision whether or not to show mercy and reconcile with our estranged brothers in Russia, acknowledging that they had overcome their previous compromises under the Soviet regime.
At the 2006 Sobor in San Francisco there was an impasse, no decision could be made, and the future unity of the Russian Church was on the line. The divided group of clergymen and monastics decided to serve a moleben before the relics of Saint John and ask for his intercessions to have clarity mind and discernment in making this massive decision. By the accounts of many, immediately after the prayers were offered, a great peace came upon all assembled and unanimity, oneness of mind, brotherly love, and concord were reached, all divisions, doubts, and fears being washed away by the prayers of Saint John and, thus, unity was achieved in the sorely and bitterly divided Russian Church. God has blessed this reconciliation, as we today see our Russian Church Abroad, remaining steadfast in adherence to the five marks of its universal mission, continually growing all over the world, especially in North America, where this very mission community, dedicated to Saint John the Wonderworker of America, stands as a witness to our ongoing work of bringing the full truth of the Orthodox faith to those who need to hear it.
Now, brothers and sisters, as the world around us continues to darken, we have been given a sixth mark, the mark not assigned simply to our Church, but to all Christians, as commanded by the Saviour Himself: to be the little leaven that leavens the whole lump. Just as the presence of Saint John’s holy relics is seemingly the only thing stopping San Francisco suffering the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah, so too is the presence of faithful Orthodox Christians, struggling in piety, striving to keep the commandments, and endeavouring to grow in genuine Gospel love, the only thing stopping the wrath of God falling upon a world that hates the Truth and, ultimately, hates God.
If this little leaven is nurtured with the pure water of the holy Gospel and warmed with the zeal of faith, then the fragrance of piety and holiness will draw those around us who are hungering for genuine spiritual life to the true faith, to salvation, and to eternal life with Christ Himself, just as the smell of fresh bread draws those who hunger after earthly things to the local bakery. This is not simply the work of the clergy here at the mission, but every one of us who come here to receive the life-transforming teachings of Christ and the life-giving sacraments of the Church. Strengthened and empowered by these things, all of us then have the responsibility of living according to God’s commandments, continually striving to conform ourselves to His will, and become instruments of His grace, love, and mercy in the world.
We cannot do this on our own, however, and it is only by truly being the Church – a Gospel-centred community that commits its whole life and one another to Christ our God – that we can fulfil the mission given us by the Divine Counsel of the Holy Trinity. He does not leave us to our own devices, however, as it is through the holy sacraments that God Himself imparts His life to us, imparts His grace and love to us, and imparts His strength to us, so that we can become fellow workers with Him in the field in which we have been placed, reaping the rich havest that He has prepared for us.
It is to these life-giving sacraments of the Lord’s very own Body and Blood that we are today invited to partake, brothers and sisters, so let us draw near with faith and love. Let us receive the gift of salvation, which is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven with our Saviour, through the prayers of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the universal witness of the Kingdom, who stands before the noetic altar on high, ever interceding for us, that we may, in some small part, assist in the apostolic work of making disciples of all nations, bringing men to the knowledge of God, and spreading the Orthodox faith, which is the only path to salvation in Christ. Amen.