Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg PA, on the Feast of St. Athanasius the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria, 18 Jan., 7529 (Jan. 31, 2021, civil calendar)
Both the Gospel readings today remind us that material comfort is not the road to the Kingdom of God, and that we should let our light shine to the world through our following of God’s commandments.
Commandments are laws or rules or principles. The Law of God is a term used in Russian Orthodoxy also a name for classes and basic catechism books, and it has a deep meaning in the Church: Principle is one English translation of the Greek word logos. We know that the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John in his Gospel begins by identifying our Lord Jesus Christ as the Logos. St. Maximos the Confessor in the seventh century, in developing the teachings of the earlier Church Fathers, spoke of the logoi of the Logos, the words of the Word, as both constituting and redeeming Creation. These logoi, the meaningfulness of each of us, also express or manifest the uncreated energies of God, for another meaning of logos is harmony.
All that means that the commandments, laws, or principles we need to keep are identified with the uncreated grace and energy of God. This is no merely legalistic or moralistic life that our Lord lays down for us as Christians. We must keep the commandments, yes. But in doing so we are also realizing ourselves in God’s love, in self-surrender rather than self-assertion: We love Him with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbor as ourself.
In this we crucify ourselves with the Lord, like the Wise Thief. With all our sins, we reach out to Him: Remember me, O Lord when, Thou comest into Thy Kingdom, when Thou returnest. His response to that wise Thief, known in Russian tradition as St. Rakh, is, immediate: Yes, today Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
The Wise Thief had recognized the hidden God, as a liturgical verse for Holy Friday Matins tells us. He recognized in our Lord Jesus Christ the fulfillment of the commandments of the Old Testament, in the embodied grace of the New. For us, our lives according to the commandments are also according to the uncreated grace or energy of God sustaining and transfiguring us in our Lord, as the Apostles beheld Him on Mount Tabor at His Transfiguration.
Brothers and Sisters, as we move closer to Lent, and as we contemplate our mission’s work in building a temple this spring, let us stay close to our Lord and find in Him our own transfiguration humbly in His Transfiguration of infinite love and the power of the uncreated energy of His grace. We look into Scripture and the law of God, expressed also throughout our liturgical services, and we find the hidden God, we find the grace that energizes our life in His law, which is also grace.
St. Athanasius the Great, whom we commemorate today, understood and lived his teaching that “God became man so that man could become a god”–not the essence of God, but deified through grace. He learned this in part from the desert ascetic struggle of his older contemporary St. Anthony the Great, whom we commemorated yesterday, and whose Life St. Athanasius wrote. Of the logoi as both principles and harmonies, St. Athanasius wrote in his Letter to Marcellinus that singing and chanting the Psalms in Church and in our own prayer should be done “so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us; yes, and even more, that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the self-same words that He inspired, may join us in them, too.”
Our own ascetic struggle each day in living God’s words or commandments must be as if it is our last, because it may be. The hour grows late and we must choose whether to emulate the Wise Thief or be robbed by the thief in the night about whom we are warned by our Lord Jesus Christ. Yesterday a fellow Orthodox Christian, the author Rod Dreher, gave the well-known annual Schmemann Lecture for St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, surveying the dire signs of our times and the prospect of increasing cultural totalitarianism in the spirit of anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation and warring against the Church. His message was that there is no Christianity without tears, without what Winston Churchill famously called in the secular struggle against earlier forms of totalitarianism “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” We face an even more enormous spiritual struggle spiritually. But as the liturgical refrain tells us, God is with us. And, as Scripture adds, then Who can be against us? We embrace God’s commandments as grace, take up the Cross, and find the bright sorrow of serving Him. For in that service we find true freedom because we find our true selves in Him, in Whom as St Paul said, we live and move and have our being.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God and Savior, have mercy on us, and save us, and protect our mission as we seek to proclaim His Gospel to our region.