Into the Woods for Pentecost

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Homily for Pentecost 7528 (civil year 2020), at Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission, Union Township/Winfield, PA. Photos from Pentecost services courtesy of Rev. Ricky Phillips, above; and Luke/Austin Soboleski, the three below. Please consider donating to our mission’s building program @ stjohnthewonderworker.com Thank you!
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In Old Holy Rus’, the desert of the Near East was translated into a forest, just as in Ireland the ocean was termed a desertum for monks.

In Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania, much of the American old-growth forest is now farmland or developments, but our small Russian Orthodox mission, transplanted here with a group of mainly converts from Protestantism, finds its “desert” (пустынь) on a few acres of field, cemetery, and some cool tree cover. Here we pray and work toward, God willing, a temple some day, worshipping outdoors when weather permits, away from our regular rental space downtown in the nearby university town of Lewisburg.

We are here in the great natural riches of the Susquehanna River valley, which enfolds much of the anthracite region where many Slavic immigrants brought their Orthodox Christian heritage with them, and which finds its source as a river according to some hydrologists in marshes on the grounds of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary, in Jordanville, New York, near Cooperstown.

This day of blooming green, the green of Pentecost, we are here under the trees in rural central Pennsylvania. Traditionally, trees are brought into Church temples on Pentecost in the Russian tradition, and vestments change to green, to remind us of the life engendered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from Genesis in the Old Testament to the founding of the New Testament Church on Pentecost, to right here in worship.

When the Comforter arrived, the inspired Church suddenly could speak and hear in different tongues understandable to one another. It was the undoing of the Tower of Babel, just as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were the undoing of Adam’s Fall. Pentecost shows us the underlying spiritual unity of life, the sobornost as the Russians call it, or reality of unity that links us in an unseen dimension all around.  Today, for Pentecost, we renew our baptismal ties or move toward the Church, and in any case renew our spiritual lives. We recommit our missionary work, to link ourselves and our neighbors to the invisible dimension of the spiritual universe in Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and ascetic struggle.

It is easy for mortals through the influence of the evil one to downplay the power of this dimension of spiritual inner unity that joins us together through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel reading for today, the agents of the chief priests and Pharisees greet with scorn the news of the Messiah coming from Galilee. Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet, they say. Well, in a sense they were true, He was no mere prophet, but the Son of God. Today, here, in rural central Pennsylvania, many might say also that no truth can emerge. Our great cities are stricken with pandemic and economic shutdowns, with civil unrest and violence, and no prophet ariseth out of the rural fields of central Pennslvania, seemingly far from that drama of our civilizational centers.

Yet the Holy Spirit calls us, as He does all Christians in the Church, to renew our land from within, and to see His power in the spiritual dimension of connectivity energized by God, in the truth of Jesus Christ. God’s power shapes a space-time warp of faith, so to speak, in which the margins are the center, for He is with us. When Russia was so gravely troubled by Revolution and the sin of regicide, Holy Icons appeared showing the crown given to our Lord’s Mother, the Theotokos, to intercede for us in these Latter Days, as in the Icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos to which we said an Akathist for intercession last evening.

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In His realm, physical distance does not matter, and proximity to material power and riches can even be imprisoning. Galilee was only about 80 miles from Jerusalem. That is less than half the distance from Lewisburg to Washington, DC.

Here on these fields the seed of faith is sheltered, God willing, to come forth like the mustard tree. Through our Lord we are not on the margin but in His Church, His Body, are linked to the center of the spiritual universe, as the grace of the Holy Spirit shows us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those humble and humbled to enter into that dimension of faith, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Holy Spirit takes us to that kingdom and lets us live and move and have our being in that realm, even to breathe in it, with Christ every day, if we open ourselves to Him in prayer and in our lives.

Jesus Christ said in the Gospel reading,

If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

And we are told that in this He spake of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive, once Jesus was glorified and the Holy Spirit given.

The Holy Spirit moved through the Church as a great gust of wind. In Greek, pneuma carries meanings of spirit, breath, and wind, all together, a reminder through the breath of our prayer of how Scripture tells us that our very bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. We stand out here under the trees, open to the whole of Creation, with the universe indeed all God’s Church, still. Let us remember here how some of the brightest lights of the first millennium of the Church in terms of holy saints and missions came from some of the remotest margins of Europe, including the islands around the Irish Sea.

The Western Roman Empire had collapsed and barbarians advanced, and the great missionary work of the Celtic saints took place, often in worship services outdoors, with standing Crosses like the one near us, the Tree of the Cross as it was called, under the trees. The Tree of Life in Genesis and Revelation, according to St. John of Damascus, is a biblical type of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, through Whom and in Whom we find our identity through the Holy Spirit. The roots and branches of that tree nourish and protect and house all in His spiritual realm, however unseen it may appear to be to only materialistic sight.

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So here, under the sky that He created and sustains, we pray to feel that wind of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost breathe through us and our words of prayer, establishing our place in His Church, His Body, both more deeply rooted and higher than earthly winds can blow. Many worldly winds, some demonic in force, buffet our country and its great material centers today. Archbishop Peter of Chicago of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia wrote this week of these storms:

Since the day of Her foundation, the Holy Church always defended and cared for the oppressed, widows, orphans, and homeless. Besides, all charity was of free will and non-compulsory. And so it was throughout the ages. State social services appeared rather recently.

The Holy Church was always against any kind of revolutions or forceful overturning of power. Instead, She supported civil evolution. For example, being persecuted, She peacefully, without any riots, changed the course of the pagan Roman Empire, having completely regenerated it. The same was done by Orthodox Christian missionaries, who spread the Holy Gospel among different nations.

Look at the history of Holy Russia and compare by what means the Bolsheviks planted ‘equality.’ Now we are experiencing great turmoil in our United States. Attempts are made to destroy all foundations of law and order. In the name of ‘justice’ we see looting, destruction, and mayhem. The Holy Church was always against such actions, and Orthodox Christians cannot participate or support them. The Apostle Paul writes that we should pray for the land we live in and its authorities. If there is peace in the land, so will the Church and Her children live in peace and prosperity. Therefore we should enforce our prayers for our American land and its peace and tranquility.

“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, do Thou calm the agitation and discord in our American land, banish from us slander and conflict, murder and drunkenness, bitter disputes and scandals, and burn out of our hearts every impurity, conflict and evil, that again we may all love one another and abide, as one, in Thee, our God, as Thou has commanded and directed us. Grant peace to Thy Church and to her children, that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify Thee, our Lord and Savior, unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

Returning to our Gospel reading today, we find in it a message worth remembering about true freedom:

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Pentecost reminds us that true freedom is found in voluntary service to universal truth in the Person of Jesus Christ, not in fighting with each other for survival or advancement or any tribes or markers of identity apart from Him. Jesus Christ is the source of our identity, not our passions, our race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, wealth, job, etc. Through the Holy Spirit, we call Him Lord. The Holy Spirit lifts us in the Church into His arms in that Tree of Life that is both deeper and higher and more safe than any worldly movements, just as we may remember as children climbing a tree both for a higher view and a place of refuge.

The troubled but brilliant Austrian Poet Rainer Rilke developed a great love for the Russian Orthodox Church during his time as a writer in the early 20th century, and wrote verses about the shaded summer cool of the sobor or Russian cathedral, with reference to a tree:

There is little sun in the sobor
Everything is watched with soaring kindness
by a goodness ready to fly–
every stone and flower
and every little child at night.
Only we, in our impatience,
fly in search of freedom
in the emptiness of space
instead of yielding to wise powers
that sweep us up like a tree.

This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit renew our baptisms, and gather us into the Church like birds on the branches of the Tree of Life, which is the Body of Christ, into true freedom.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us, Amen.

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