A homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Christian Mission Church, Nov. 23, 7529 (Dec. 6, 2020 on the civil calendar)
Three commemorations on the Church calendar today perhaps could not seem more different in character, but are all part of our Lord’s Church with a combined message to us as His followers. The first, involving one of the 12 major feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar, is the After-Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the temple as a young girl of 3. The second is the feast of the Grand Prince Saint Alexander Nevsky, known for his defense of the Orthodox faithful in Russia against both Catholic Crusaders and the Tatars. The third is the feast of an Irish missionary who set the stage for the Christianization of the Franks, St. Columbanus of Bobbio. Jewish, Russian, Irish; mother, warrior, missionary. They are all part of the Orthodox Christian heritage, our ancestors in the faith, our spiritual family, starting with the greatest of saints, our most Holy Theotokos.
The Entry into the Temple
On the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Synaxarion, or collection of our traditions of the saints, compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetras Monastery and based on an earlier compilation by St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite originally from Byzantine sources, draws on the accounts of the Proevangelium of James in apocryphal tradition, and also on St. Gregory Palamas’ 53rd Homily. When the young Virgin Mary was 3 her parents took her to be raised in the Temple, according to a vow they had made to dedicate their child to the Lord. Older maidens accompanied the young Theotokos.The High Priest Zacharias blessed her, prophesying her role in the coming of the Messiah, and bringing her into the Holy of Holies, onto the third step before the altar, where she danced before the Lord. She dwelt in the temple until age 12, when she was given to the chaste elderly Joseph as guardian of her virginity in the outside world. Tradition says that during her time in the Temple she fed on spiritual food brought by an angel of God. “She lived for God alone,” we are told, “her intellect fixed at every moment on the contemplation of His beauty,” purifying her heart to make it a pure mirror to reflect the glory of God, adorning herself as a bride in the raiment of the virtues. “When she had become like unto God by virtue, she drew God to make Himself like unto man by His Incarnation.”
Listening to Scripture and the teaching of God’s law in the Temple, and of the history of His chosen people, “She understood that all of that time was necessary in order that God might prepare for Himself a mother from out of rebellious humanity, and that she, pure child chosen by God, must become the true living Temple of the Godhead.” “…the Sanctuary, the Tabernacle of the Word of God, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Vase containing the heavenly manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, the Table of the Law of Grace,” all these holy things in the temple were signs to be revealed in her. “She is the Ladder joining heaven and earth which the Patriarch Jacob saw in a dream; she is the Pillar of cloud that reveals the glory of God; the cloud of dew of the Prophet Isaiah; the uncut Mountain of Daniel; the shut Gate that Ezekiel spoke of by which God has come to visit mankind; the living Fountain sealed, from which the waters of everlasting Life pour forth upon us.” Her entry marked the end of the time of preparation and testing of the Old Covenant. It is commemorated as the feast of the betrothal of God to human nature. Following her example, and strengthened by her prayers to her Son our God, let us enter the temples of our hearts, “there to make ready for the coming of the Lord by silence and prayer, withdrawing from the pleasures and cares of this world.” (The Synaxarion)
St. Prince Alexander Nevsky
(icon from the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg)
St. Alexander Nevsky also is commemorated today. The Synaxarion says of the saint-prince that he was a courageous and virtuous Christian prince, a shining light during the most critical period in all the momentous history of the Russian people. Full of energy, a defender of the faith of all that is fair and equitable, he was called by God to spend his life serving his people; who were beset on all sides. A pious and diligent church member and brave warrior, he was the beau ideal of Orthodox knighthood. When he became prince of Novgorod as a boy, he became soon “a patron of the clergy, the monks and the poor, he devoted all his strength to the protection of his threatened city,” in a time of dire plague and then invasion and oppression. Alexander came to the throne in 1236 facing Mongol-Tatar oppression and also the Crusading Teutonic Knights and their Swedish and Lithuanian allies from the West. On July 16, 1240, he led a small army against the Catholic Crusaders. The Synaxarion tells us
“That night on the eve of battle, Saints Boris and Gleb appeared in a mysterious boat on the River Neva, pressing the celestial oarsmen to hasten to the aid of ‘Alexander their kinsman.’ Encouraged by this vision and with the help of the Mother of God, Alexander and his men inflicted a crushing defeat on their enemies.” Despite political turmoil at home, he won a second such victory at Lake Peipus in 1242. Summoned before the Tatar Khan with the other Russian princes in 1246, he refused to participate in pagan rites. He said, “My Liege, I do homage in that God has granted you sovereignty, but I am unable to worship idols because I am a Christian and adore the one and only God in three Persons, the Maker of heaven and earth!”
Usually such refusal met with death. But the Khan admiring his courage received him as an honored guest. Four times Alexander would go to Tatar headquarters to intercede for his people against heavy taxes and forced conscription of them into the Mongol army, to ransom hostages and help release captives. A protector of the Orthodox faith against Catholic missionaries sent by the Pope to Russia and against heresy within his land, he continued to fight back the Western Crusaders, and in a victory in 1256 came to occupy Finland. Many miracles and apparitions happened at his tomb, especially on the eves of the great future Russian victors over the Tatars in 1380, 1552, and 1572. From St. Alexander we see how we all in the Church, our Lord’s Body, also must in sobnornost or spiritual unity in the Church be in service to one another, in service to truth in Christ, of Whose body we are all a part. As our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The Venerable Columbanus of Bobbio
Finally, the third commemoration highlighted today is our Holy Godbearing Father Columbanus of Bobbio. The Synaxarion also tells us of how in the sixth century, as Ireland became Christian, “holiness flowered there abundantly. Monks gathered by the thousand in great monastic settlements like those of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, in order to give themselves up to the voluntary martyrdom of ascesis. Ardent love of God linked to characteristic forcefulness led them to go to extraordinary lengths in mortification but, by the same token, they drew upon themselves the grace of God and the power of working miracles. The depth and outreach of Christianity all over the West in those days owed much to these intrepid monks, who were the very heart of the Church of Ireland. Among them all there is undoubtedly none more attractive than Saint Columban, ever zealous for the commandments of God.”
Born about 540, Columbanus put himself under the spiritual direction of the holy elder Sinell, a disciple of St. Finian, and then entered the Monastery of Bangor in Ireland, there under the direction of Saint Comgal. Then he felt a call to accept voluntary exile to preach the Gospel to people in foreign lands. He left for Gaul with 12 disciples holding all in common in a pilgrim community. By example he converted many. The King of Burgundy gave him land in the Vosges mountains where he founded a monastery that grew. He founded a second monastery at Luxeuil, and a third Fontaines. In these he led several hundred monks. The communities under his spiritual eldership were places of fierce spiritual warfare, including severe fasts, scourgings, and time spent in freezing water to subdue the vigorous temperament of the monks. But they also foreshadowed heaven in chanting unceasing praise to God in services that cycled throughout all the hours of day and night. After 20 years he was exiled due to his condemnation of immorality in the royal family of the Franks, and continued to preach and earn converts in what is now the boundary of France, Germany, and Switzerland, and started a new monastery at Bobbio in Italy in 612, falling asleep on this date in 615. It seemed that he had failed to convert the Franks, but not so. By 730 there were about a hundred monasteries owing their foundation to his disciplines, spreading the Irish monastic tradition and introducing the practice of private asceticism and penance among the people. The land of the Franks would become after Byzantium the oldest longest Christian realm, although falling into the Catholic schism and later a hotbed of secularism. Today, the Orthodox resurgence in the diaspora includes France as an important field of evangelism, we ask her saints from her Orthodox past for intercession, including in modern times our patron St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who for a time was often in France as a bishop of Western Europe and renewed the veneration of pre-Schism saints there such as St. Columbanus.
St. Columbanus was a spiritual warrior for the faith in spreading the Gospel. St. Alexander was a protector of the Orthodox Christian people. Our Lady the Most Holy Theotokos is the greatest of all saints by the grace of God and her pious embodied attentiveness to the faith. She became the Mother of God and the mother of us all, identified with the Church, as the mother who carried in her womb the Creator of the Lord, in Whose body we live in the Church, her temple where His body is contained in the Eucharist and given to us. A pure heart self-emptying in service to God, the courage of a warrior of Christ, the zeal to spread the gospel following our Lord Jesus Christ’s great commission: These are all the qualities to which we must aspire as Orthodox Christians in our mission work in this year 7529 on the Church calendar. For those virtues as grace we ask the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Great Prince-Saint Alexander, and St. Columban, and all the saints on the icons around us, our spiritual family portrait gallery, that we we fervent re-dedication to our baptism may in their family tree bear good fruit, grafted into the branches of the Tree of Life that is the Cross of Victory of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is King of Kings.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.