So wrote the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, 3:17. This verse stood out on the afternoon of the Fourth of July 2021 (Orthodox Church calendar, June 21, 7529), as I sat reading some of the Apostle’s writings, along a sun-drenched bike trail in our rural northern Appalachian area in central Pennsylvania (known affectionately or dismissively as “Pennsyltucky”), between a trip to our Cathedral for Divine Liturgy that morning and a night-time fireworks display along Penns Creek in the country near our local Russian Orthodox Christian mission’s land.
Spiritual Coincidences on the Fourth of July
On the American Fourth this year (June 21 on the Church’s Julian calendar), the Russian Orthodox Church worldwide commemorated All Saints of the Russian land, marking the Second Sunday after Pentecost (the First Sunday after Pentecost commemorates All Saints generally). Commemorations on the American Fourth this year thus included the many martyrs to Communism who triumphed in their faith, as Russia has re-emerged with the help of their prayers to become the major country in the world today with an openly Christian culture, as the West including America seems entering an aggressively anti-Christian cultural era. But those saints also included a small number who found their way to North America in pre-revolutionary days when the Russian Church provided a unifying diocesan framework and financial support for American Orthodoxy, and also later exiles, blazing the trail for our mission and others.
But also, July 4 on the Church’s Julian calendar is the date of the murders of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, the royal family killed in 1918 by Bolshevik terrorists. (That is July 17 on the civil calendar in general use in America; the Bolsheviks changed the calendar from Julian to Gregorian style in nearly 1918, moving dates 13 days later, but the Church retained the old calendar for its sacred time.) So the Fourth of July on the Church calendar also marks the killings that signaled the establishment of the most deadly totalitarian movement in world history, and the spiritual triumph of the Christian martyrs over it. (Sadly many secular-minded Western intellectuals continue to engage positively with that murderous atheist movement’s ideology, even as the mass-murdering Chinese Communist regime survives as its worldly power.)
Indeed, the conjunction of the American and Russian meanings of the Fourth of July this weekend, on both sacred and civil calendars, highlights the Apostle’s words: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” That’s because their overlap highlights the underlying real nature of freedom, as service to truth, not self-assertion, including witnessing against atheistic totalitarianism.
This year, the Fourth also came a day after our Northern Appalachian mission’s feast day, commemorating St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who reposed July 2 on the civil calendar. His feast is honored on the nearest Saturday, this year on July 3. His life personified the triumph of the Orthodox Christian faith over massive atheistic terrorism in the past century. A refugee from Communist Russia, he cared for his flock in exile in China, including a large community of orphans under his care. When the Communists took control of China, he brought the orphans safely across the Pacific, ultimately settling with them in San Francisco, while even traveling to the Capitol in Washington, DC, to hep them find legal safe haven.
St. John inspired both many Russian exiles and many American converts to Orthodoxy in the West, including the former nihilist Fr. Seraphim Rose of 1960s California (regarded by many now unofficially as also a saint), whose writings and life after his conversion under the influence of St. John went on to inspire many worldwide, including my own unworthy conversion to Orthodoxy from being a lapsed American Christian Scientist. St. John reposed in 1966, revered by many as a loving spiritual father, a barefoot holy fool, a builder of the cathedral in San Francisco and renewer of the veneration of ancient saints of the West in the Orthodox Church, and a miracle worker through his intercessory prayers before and after death. The greatest demonic principalities and powers could not overcome his faith and love, nor sunder his flock from his care. Nor could the forces of evil erase the Church that Jesus Christ founded in Russia and elsewhere. The Orthodox Church, has spread further throughout the world as a result of that persecution and the prayers of her martys.
On the Saturday for observance of the feast of St. John, this year July 3 on the civil calendar, we were blessed to gather for worship in downtown Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with His Grace Bishop Ncholas of Manhattan and the visiting miraculous Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God the Sign from the 13th century, witness to many significant events in Russian and world history. It was under this same icon that St. John reposed, and our mission icon displayed at each service of our local Church shows our patron saint holding the icon.
Then, after lunch, we traveled to our mission land and cemetery in nearby rural Winfield, PA, for Vladyka Nicholas to dedicate the Cross at our building site. Our mission is the first Orthodox Christian parish in Union County and in the Susquehanna River confluence area, where the West and Main branches join a short distance to the south. (The Main Branch starts according to hydrologists on the cypress marshes on the grounds of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, New York, a spiritual center of our Church in North America.) It is the first Russian Orthodox parish in central Pennsylvania.
As the Bishop began his dedication, a short but intense downpour descended, as can be seen in the sequence of photos below: A cleansing like a baptism, a multiplication of the holy-water blessing. Bishop Nicholas reminded us to follow St. John in our dedication to prayer and evangelism. May God prosper our humble missionary efforts in northern Appalachian America through His grace and love for mankind.
A secular celebration of liberty is not enough
The overlay of the sacred calendar of Orthodox Christianity with the time of America’s Fourth of July reminds us that any secular celebration of liberty is not enough. The martyrdom of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II and his family marked the end of the great Christian empire and successor to the earlier Roman Christian Empire known as Byzantium, a legacy stretching across most of two millennia. It marked the start of modern totalitarianism and the hyper-perilous times of our now-nuclear age, with its ever-expanding technocracy and global persecution of Christians, both under Communism and Near Eastern genocide. Today, globally, Christians are the most-persecuted major faith population.
America’s founding documents gave the underlying source of American pluralistic identity as related to Christian faith: “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator…” God is referenced in the Declaration of Independence also as “Divine Providence,” “Nature’s God,” and the “Supreme Judge.” The Constitution is signed beneath the prominent date “in the year of our Lord.” Abraham Lincoln sealed this foundation in his Gettysburg Address in south central Pennsylvania, not too far south of our mission dedication, when in 1863 he wrote and spoke of “this nation under God” (commemorating a battle there, the largest in Western Hemisphere history, fought July 2-4). Lincoln, incidentally, found an ally in international diplomacy during the Civil War in Russia’s Tsar-Liberator Alexander II, who had emancipated the Russian serfs in 1861.
But the foundational sense of Christianity in American civil religion did not hold amid fragmenting Protestantism, secularization, and the capitalist forms of technocracy emerging in the twentieth century and accelerating today, notably the sexual revolution. Our town of Lewisburg is not having its famed Fourth of July downtown parade for the second year in a row, due to fallout from the Covid pandemic, paralleling the chill of civil unrest. Near the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up, Evanston, IL, had a larger famed Fourth parade also canceled again this year, unlike new Gay Pride and Juneteenth parades held instead. In some cities such alternate parades eclipse the Fourth.
Harvard historian Eric Nelson notes the role of what has been called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis, identified with Byzantium, in America’s cultural deep structure, through an important trilogy of books — The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding; The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought; and The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought. That synthesis of Classical and biblical foundations in Byzantine Orthodox civilization became in the Reformation era of the West a significant influence on America’s formation. Anthony Kaldellis’ study The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome, read in tandem with Nelson’s trilogy, highlights this historical parallel. The Russian Orthodox philosopher and exile S.L. Frank provides more depth spiritually to understand those Christian foundations of society, East and West, in relation to sobornost, the underlying spiritual unity or communion in society shown by Orthodox tradition. Frank’s books The Unknowable, The Meaning of Life, and The Spiritual Foundations of Society, provide a trilogy of Orthodox Christian insights on the nature of society as a Christian commonwealth, dimly present in America’s founding, and more fully recognizable and realizable only in Orthodox Christian tradition. So do publications of the Russian Orthodox Church at the opening of the twenty-first century, including the “Social Concept” (2000) and “Human Dignity” (2008) documents of the Bishops’ Council.
The Apostle Paul wrote, in the context for the title quote of this reflection, of how this true freedom in our Lord Jesus Christ goes beyond any constitutional legalism or atheistic utopian theory:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away. Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
(II Corinthians, Chapter 3)
America’s Future: Fulfilling Her Christian Past
In its spiritual dimensions of sobornost, this Fourth of July weekend connected the royal martyrs of Russia with St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, with the American founding’s historically Christian roots, and the dedication of our mission’s land in a corner of rural America today. The answer to the historic storms now buffeting America lies neither in a revolutionary erasing of her founding (as some want, based on neo-Marxist hostility to the faith), or in trying to return to a weak American civil religion based in secularizing Protestantism (as some nostalgists desire), or in a legalistic reading of her founding documents without Christ (another false utopianism). Consider in your mind’s eye crossing much of the beautiful green early-summer landscape of the Keystone State of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania this Fourth 2021, to worship at Orthodox Divine Liturgy commemorating All Saints of the Russian land, at the historic Russian Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the coal valley at Mayfield with its otherworldly iconography and choir, while driving past rural American Protestant, Catholic, and Mennonite houses of worship in the Susquehanna Valley on the way. The day before, along the Susquehanna, local services in Lewisburg had remembered St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, with the Kursk Root icon processing with the Bishop along its hipster main street, followed by the prayers dedicating the Cross on our land in the country. Fireworks on the night of the Fourth on Penns Creek lit up the sky across woods near that field with its double-barred Orthodox Cross made from local hemlock-tree beams, marking the future site of an Orthodox Christian temple. How much the future of America lies in such unworthy hidden leavening today of her roots of faith in Orthodox Christianity returning to the West, in countless places and lives around our country, in self-emptying in our Lord and God Jesus Christ, rather than the self-assertion of materialism, and in the sorrowful joy of Christian thanksgiving, not in technocratic will to power, God willing. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
To give to the St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church building fund, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com