This introduces a homily by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Metropolitan Philaret, of blessed memory, with some thoughts on American mission today, as given at an outdoor Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in central Pennsylvania on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council today.
We are in that mystical time between the Ascension and Pentecost, when the Church Calendar seems especially timeless. We say Christ is Ascended to the heavens, or from heaven to earth, and await the descent of the Holy Spirit, founding the Church in tongues of fire, in a spiritual language uniting all brothers and sisters once divided at the Tower of Babel. It is the blossoming of the new life in Christ along with the spring, awaiting the full blooming. And for the moment in this very troubled world all the Orthodox Churches everywhere are still united in the same sacred cycle of sacred days at least on the trajectory from Pascha to Pentecost, though soon some will slip back fully onto the civil calendar. We are all still worshipping together on the Ascension-Pentecost bridge just now.
In the middle is this Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, who gave us the core of what we say every Sunday and often in daily prayers, the Nicaean Creed or Symbol of our Faith. This is a meaningful coincidence, as is our Church calendar generally, because the Ascension reminds us of the Incarnation, upheld by the Ecumenical Council, even as Pentecost established the Church fully as the Body of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Both Christologically and ecclesiologically, the Ascension revealed the mystical hierarchy of our faith, as Christ went bodily into the heavens, bringing with Him our human nature, fully God and fully man. We as part of the Body of Christ, His Church, are under his headship of the Church as part of His Body, in which we participate as emphasized in the Eucharist. Pentecost soon will also remind us of the mystical conciliarity of the Church, how all gathered together and were filled with the Holy Spirit. The combination of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity marks Orthodox ecclesiology with a completeness of which Protestantism and Catholicism have only one piece each.
Orthodoxy shows us how that intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity saves us, makes us complete in Christ. The Cross is a symbol of this, with one beam pointed toward heaven and its cross-beam embracing the oikumene or inhabited world of men. In our Russian Orthodox Cross before us today, an additional cross-beam, at a tilt, reminds us of our own place with the Wise and the Wicked Thieves, the former St. Rakh asking Christ to remember him, and “stealing Paradise,” symbolized by the part of the diagonal beam pointing up to the right from the vantage point of the Cross. The wicked thief, by contrast, continued to revile Christ, and is represented in the part pointing down and to its left. So, this stands as a question to us, too: Which will we follow? Christ upward to the Heavens, in anticipation of His return, or the wicked thief toward Hell? And will we take up our Cross?
This Cross right here on our land, where we hope to build a temple, is from a small old coal-town Church in Sheppton, Pennsylvania, where the Patriarch-Martyr Tikhon served when he was the lead Bishop of American Orthodoxy, before the 1917 Revolution. Back in Russia by the time of the Revolution, he became the first Patriarch of Moscow to hold that title since the 18th century.
Cruelly, St. Tikhon’s assumption of the title of Patriarch occurred just as the Bolsheviks began their effort to eradicate Orthodox Christianity from Russia, in a great holocaust of suffering. The Patriarch was driven to his death, some say poisoned. However, before that, he gave the blessing that enabled the start of our Church Synod, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, known as ROCOR. Today our ROCOR parishes including our mission still have a distinctive witness, but to the increasingly atheistic and materialistic West, based on that witness to the horrors of nihilistic totalitarianism.
Today, as we worship outdoors in this Reader Service, I would like to read a short homily for this Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, by one of our early ROCOR Metropolitans, Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory. He had endured great suffering, too, at the hands of the Chinese Communists, who at one time even tried to burn him alive in his monastic cell, leaving him badly injured. He was one of the last Orthodox hierarchs to remain in China after it turned Communist in the late 1940s, for a decade afterward caring for the remnant Russian Orthodox exile community there, finally forced into exile in Australia, and then elected First Hierarch of ROCOR. Our mission’s patron Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, then a senior bishop in ROCOR, agreed with other hierarchs to elect Philaret to that leadership role, because he was the youngest bishop, who could preserve that witness of the joyful sorrow of persecution from those times for younger generations of the Church Abroad.
Here is Metropolitan Philaret’s sermon for this day.
“The Orthodox Church today prayerfully remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which once met in the city of Nicaea in order to investigate and judge the heresy of Arius. We know that in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church endured severe persecution, first from the Jews and then from the pagan Roman imperial power. But despite the fact that the persecution was bloody, despite the fact that thousands of “Christians died under torture for their confession of faith, nonetheless, it was not dangerous for the Church.
“The Christian of the first centuries remembered well that the Lord Jesus Christ said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the sou: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). And in the Apocalypse, He said: “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2:10). In these bloody persecutions Christians were faithful to death, went to martyric death, and received from the Lord Savior the crown of eternal life earned by them.
“When the era of persecution ended, another began. This was much more dangerous for the Church. Then inside the Church appeared heresy, delusion, and distortion of the truth. They appeared immediately, but the first were not much noticed, and did not attract many followers. The heresy of Arius, which appeared when the persecution had ended, agitated the entire Church. Arius was a scholar and an eloquent presbyter, that is, a priest – a pastor in the city of Alexandria. The bishop of Alexandria died. At that time the flock choose its own pastors. The eloquent, educated Arius, who held a prominent position, was certain that he would be chosen, and that he would be the bishop. But the majority of the clergy and people chose another bishop, the presbyter Alexander, who was also well read, educated, and knowledgeable. He was not as outstanding and talented as Arius, but he was marked by his piety, and was truly of righteous and holy life. For this reason, the clergy and flock honored him and elected him.
“This piqued Arius’ wounded self-love. Unfortunately, this is always the story in the history of heresies. In the beginning there lies an evil motive, an evil impulse of a personal character, which is wrapped in a robe as a kind of fidelity to truth.
“Thus Arius, in his self-love, decided to speak out against his own bishop – he could not accept the fact that he was not a bishop. Once Bishop Alexander spoke with his clergy about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, about the equality of its Persons, that the Holy Trinity is a Trinity of Unity, inasmuch as in three Persons there is One Divine Essence, One Divine Nature. Arius boldly stood up and began to contradict him and began to assert that the Son of God is not equal to God the Father, as Bishop Alexander had said, or not born of Him, but created by Him, as a creature, as creation. True, higher, more perfect, but still creation, a creature. Alexander tried to reason with gentle admonitions to reason with Arius, but he persevered. And since he was eloquent, this heresy arose, and because of him it spread and eventually roused the entire Church.
“Alexander, as a bishop, excommunicated him from the Church. He left, but began to spread his doctrine further and further. In the end, the Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine himself commissioned the Elder Hosius of Cordova, well known for his piety and deep wisdom to make out what this was, what this was for a heresy. The elderly Bishop Hosius, pious and wise, arrived in Alexandria. Without any prejudice, absolutely impartial, he investigated this question, and returned and told the Emperor that Arius was preaching a horrible heresy, which subverts all of Christianity. For if the Son of God is not equal to God the Father and is not born of Him, then He is not God, but creation, which means that he was not incarnate as the true God-Man. That means that the deed of our salvation was not accomplished as our Christian faith teaches us.
“In the end, an Ecumenical Council assembled. Arius had only a few bishops on his side. The overwhelming majority of bishops (and more than 300 assembled for the Council) stood firmly for the Orthodox faith, condemned the heresy of Arius, and excommunicated him himself from the Church, as a persistent and uncorrected heretic.
“This heretic died a horrible death, but his heresy agitated the Church for a long time. Only gradually did it begin to subside. It had to be fought by Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, who lived after Arius. But, in the end, truth triumphed, but there was a moment when in the East, of all Orthodox bishops, only St Athanasius the Great remained, and in the West only St Hilary of Poitiers; all the other episcopal cathedras, hundreds of cathedras, were taken by bishops who were themselves Arian heretics.
“The Church, however, was not lost. It was difficult for St Athanasius to fight with the heretics in the East. Many times he was exiled, but he remained unmoved. When he learned in his solitude that at last he had an ally, a successor, in St Basil the Great, did this great defender of Orthodoxy breathed a sigh of relief. Thus did the Church experience this heresy, that is how it was disturbed by it.
“After Arius there were other heretics. They were also condemned by Ecumenical Councils. But today we remember the First Ecumenical Council, which condemned Arius and his heresy. Amen.”
That is the end of the saintly Metropolitan Philaret’s homily. The defeat of the Arian heresy was a defeat of the spirit of the Anti-Christ, which the Apostle and Evangelist John said denies that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh as God become man.
That is our hope of salvation, which the Apostle Paul called our faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Today the spirit of Anti-Christ would, like the atheist Bolsheviks, although often in subtler and more attractive and thus even more deadening ways, deny the Incarnation of Christ. But here between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, we are filled with the joy of the Risen Lord Who is ascended bringing our human nature to heaven.
Our hierarchs, clergy, and faithful, who exactly a hundred years ago fled from the Bolsheviks in a flotilla of scores of ships from Crimea to Constantinople with the remnants of the White Russian Army to start the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, believed they were experiencing a sign of the latter days, in the end of the last major Christian empire and what seemed to be the destruction of Orthodox Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Today in America, we face many other signs that can be interpreted as of the latter days, whether of pandemic or of deep divisions suggesting the possibility of yet another civil war to come in America, and principalities and powers seeking to eradicate traditional Christianity.
Yet we remember that Communism in Russia had its day and passed, and the Church there is going through a renewal, even as America has become a post-Christian nation in many ways. So, our small Russian Ortodox group gathers at this Cross in rural Pennsylvania today, dedicated humbly to spreading the Gospel and reconnecting the people of the West with the one Holy and Apostolic Church of the Creed, both hierarchical and conciliar. Suspended timelessly for a moment between the Ascension and Pentecost, we may like the earlier Apostles be both overjoyed to witness to our Risen Lord and also fearful of what may come. But our Lord will not leave us comfortless. Like the early Russian missionaries to Alaska paddling their kayaks in the Aleutians or the early Celtic saints navigating in their currachs through the Western Isles and setting up their own standing crosses like ours, let us hold fast navigating in the darkness by our Bright and Morning Star, Christ, knowing that as he ascended, so shall he come again.
There is an Appalachian folk rendition of the Pascha troparion that here in Northern Appalachia perhaps we may sing one more time on this last Sunday before Pentecost, in Appalachian style, “Christ is Risen from the Dead…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmJ8PJH2-6U&feature=youtu.be
(Thanks to my godson Luke (Austin) Soboleski for the photo of this talk being delivered before our mission Cross.)