Giving Thanks 2020: Centennial of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Quadricentennial of Pilgrims’ Arrival in America

From a homily given after the Thanksgiving Akathist at a service at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission in Lewisburg, PA, on Thanksgiving Day, the Feast of St. John Chrysostom, Thurs. Feb. 26, 2020.

The Thanksgiving Akathist of twentieth-century Orthodox Christian tradition, also known as the “Glory to God for All Things” Akathist, was found in the effects of a Russian Orthodox priest killed in a concentration camp in 1940, one of millions of often unknown new martyrs and confessors of the Orthodox faith in the twentieth century.

Glory to God for all things! We thank Him for all the gifts He gives to us, even in times of severe trial.

The story of the American Thanksgiving is linked to the story of the Akathist of Thanksgiving through that Christian experience of joyful sorrow as exemplified in the Orthodox Church. Joyful sorrow or bright sorrow comes from our training as athletes for Christ, and our embrace of self-emptying in Christ, rather than self-assertion, as the source of identity, the realization that freedom and justice lie in the love found in sobornost, or spiritual unity with Christ in His Church. There we find our true identity in relation with Him.

There we find the union fulfilled in God’s reality that is typed by the union of the American republic, as defined by Abraham Lincoln as one nation under God, associated with Thanksgiving Day, and the earlier story of the American Pilgrims going back to their landing 400 years ago this year, and the later American Declaration of Independence stating that our rights come from God, and George Washington’s first American Thanksgiving proclamations.

The 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims in America this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, by those faithful fleeing Bolshevik Totalitarianism, giving thanks for their deliverance and holding up the standard of the Church for pious Christians everywhere to rally around in the latter days afflected by the spirit of Anti-Christ. Of course, our Lord’s Orthodox Church goes back across millennia, even in prototype rooted in the Old Testament days of yore, even to the Creation, when the first man Adam must have exclaimed in gratitude and wonder, “Glory to God for all things!”

The fleet bearing White Army and civilian exiles, and the free Synod of Bishops, from Crimea to Constantinople, in 1920, fleeing the Red Terror.

President Lincoln wrote in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1863, founding the modern American holiday:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

1914 Painting of the First Thanksgiving by Jennie A. Brownscombe

In the 1600s, John Winthrop wrote in his diary of his experience among the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America that:

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considers ye same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture] as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sum̅er being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world. … What could now sustaine them but the spirite of God & his grace?

May not & ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: 

Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great [97]ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, & his mercies endure for ever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of ye Lord, shew how he hath delivered them from ye hand of ye oppressour. When they wandered in ye deserte willdernes out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie, & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindnes, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.

The story of America is writ large in the story of the Bible carried by her founders into a wilderness. However imperfect their practice of Christianity in that day, amid the heterodoxy of Puritanism, and in alternating hostilities and friendships with Native Americans, the story of American Thanksgiving is one of gratitude and piety, extended across a republic by Washington’s proclamation and across a nation by Lincoln’s. It echoes through God’s word of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in which we worship today at our Russian Orthodox Mission in rural Pennsylvania, welcoming all of all backgrounds. A few generations after the Pilgrims, missionaries would be establishing the first Orthodox worship communities among Natives in Alaska, and among immigrants in the American South and on the East Coast.

Truly, Thanksgiving is a holiday that remains properly more a verb than a noun, and carries with it greater meaning than conventions of family dinners alone. We can remember the history of faith extolled by the Apostle Paul from the Old Testament to his day. We remember those sufferings of the ancient martyrs and trials of Church Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom, whose memory we also celebrate today. And in modern times severe trials like those of Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov in the prison camp in 1940, and the song of praise amid terrible suffering he left behind.

This is the day the Lord hath made, let us be glad and rejoice therein.

Glory to God for all things.

Amen!

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