Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Nov. 22, 7530 (Dec. 5, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Brothers and Sisters, This past week we commemorated the feast of St. Philaret Metropolitan of Moscow, one of the great spiritual leaders of the revival of Orthodoxy in nineteenth-century Russia, of which we are direct heirs. That revival brought anew the treasures of the Church fathers of Byzantium and their understanding of hesychastic eldership and prayer to Russia. Our spiritual forefathers and mothers in ROCOR came from that revival into exile, with the discernment it provided into the nature of Bolshevism as the spirit of anti-Christ. They were not afraid of martyrdom, which some received bodily, but as the early Irish Christians in pre-Schism days observed, exile from regular society is also one of the forms of martyrdom, to deepen and extend the faith through evangelism. They helped bring the gift of the Orthodox faith to us at great cost.
I’d like to share today some of St. Philaret’s inspired teaching on the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, which we commemorated yesterday, and in which after-feast we are still in today. This feast, as our Rector Fr. George noted well yesterday, marks a foundational moment in our journey toward the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. It also has been called the most childhood-centered of the 12 great Feasts of the Church. It commemorates our Lady the Most Holy Theotokos at age 3 entering the temple at Jerusalem, up until the time she was 14, when she was then betrothed to the elderly Joseph as her guardian, and then received with her assent the Annunciation. She is the greatest of the saints and our chief intercessor to her Son and our Lord. Her life and faith are an example and inspiration for all of us as she remains a help to us. But before getting to St. Philaret’s words on the significance of this feast, I would like briefly to outline from current developments why the message of her Feast of the Entrance is so important especially to us today in America.
Abbot Tryphon of ROCOR’s All-Merciful Saviour monastery near Seattle noted recently in a homily how a survey indicates that only 40 percent of American young people say they want to have children, because the future is hopeless. Not surprisingly, less than half of American young people according to a newly reported survey express hope in our governmental system. Less than 18 percent of Americans today are in families consisting of married parents and children, a record low down from 40% of all Americans living in married households with children 50 years ago. And a growing number of those remaining households now involve same-sex or altered-sex parents with children conceived through non-organic means, to support such unions that run counter to traditional Christian teaching of marriage and humanity, now falsely called “marriages” under U.S. secular law. We know that people find themselves in difficult circumstances and can express amazing faith and achievement in non-traditional homes. But this data provides a snapshot of overall decline in American family life.
That decline parallels a decline of public morality in our country over the past 50 years at the secular level. Abbot Tryphon himself has seen this in his own home region of the Pacific Northwest, where he was seriously injured in a physical attack two years ago, when targeted apparently for wearing a cross, in our new American “time of troubles.” Early American leaders like John Quincy Adams warned that without strong family virtue, the American constitutional republic could not survive. Historically, we see evidence of American decay in a well-researched book out this past week, which presents new documentation of how an early combination of “fake news” and a “deep state” of immoral power helped lead to the removal of a U.S. president under false pretences in 1974. This was a low point in a period of turmoil from the mid-1960s to early 1970s, bookended by the 1963 US-backed overseas assassination of the president of South Vietnam, which proved decisive in laying the groundwork for the American defeat in the anticommunist Vietnam War, and was indirectly related to that later American presidential scandal Watergate.
Those secular historical milestones of corruption and scandal marked the start and end of a watershed era in American history, which climaxed in the legalization of abortion, wrongly as a “constitutional right,” in 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Millions of babies since in America have been sacrificed to the sexual revolution that undermined both family life and a republic once predominantly Christian in culture, despite her many theological problems and sins. These child sacrifices, reminiscent of the idolaters of Old Testament times, make a mockery of the basic American principle that God created all men equal, as Abbot Tryphon has noted.
Indeed, the emphasis on self-assertiveness without God that permeates our culture today has contributed to new rising racial and sexual divides in our society, which without a sense of God and of Adam and Eve as our common ancestors focus on materialistic ideas of sex and race as the sources of division distracting people from the need for individual and community repentance and return to God. As in the earlier American “time of troubles” 50 years ago, the advance of sexual revolution has accompanied civil unrest, marked first by the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court in 2015 claiming to redefine “marriage,” and then by the Bostock decision in 2020, enshrining transgenderism as a constitutionally protected secular sexual anthropology.
In all this, what some proponents call “cultural Marxism” plays a continuing role. It relates to the Bolshevism that targeted Christianity in Russia a century ago, both with trademark atheism and what Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Orthodox dissident colleague Igor Shafarevich called a “death drive” aimed at destruction, but in forms attractive to prosperous high-tech Western capitalism and its desire for self-satisfaction. It substitutes cultural identity war for economic class war. We see it permeating a new ever-more godless corporate culture in America, in a mix of atheistic consumerism and socialism with identity politics. I recently watched a long promotional video on the “metaverse,” a name for a new proposed corporate online artificial reality and social utopia. It featured all the ways in which virtual technological reality claims to be able to take over in helping our careers, relationships, education, entertainment, material exercise, and home life. But there is no mention of Christianity, not surprisingly. Like many of the idealisms of our time, this new virtual reality essentially disregards the integral relation between body and soul in Christian faith, exemplified in the Incarnation. Like ancient Gnosticism, it works to deny that union, claiming to unloose the self from limits of the body, without God. The Apostle John said that the mark of the spirit of anti-Christ would be the denial that God has come in the flesh. This leads to a denial of our embodied nature as humanity, and leads to ideas that seek to destroy humanity.
Brothers and sisters, the spirit of anti-Christ is abroad in our land. Where do we look for safety and comfort? To the Mother of God, who is also our mother through Jesus Christ, the most holy Theotokos. She points us to Her Son and intercedes for us to Him. She stands as the patron of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who reposed by the Kursk Root icon of her, and whose devotion to her is seen in his writings and homilies. She also remans the patron of the founding of our mission, which was done under the name of her Holy Protection, of which we are reminded by the icon of her Protection that has stayed with us from our humble founding, and remains on the icon stand to your left. She prepared herself in faith, with support from her parents and her ancestors the prophets, for her role in accepting God’s unbelievable gift in the Incarnation. Through God’s grace, as a young child according to tradition climbed the 15 steps to the Holy of Holies, marked by the 15 Psalms beginning with Psalm 119 in the Orthodox Bible, known as the Psalms of Ascent.As a woman her womb enclosed the Creator God and her nurturing love continued in her role in helping to found His Church after His Ascension, in which he embodiedly entered heaven. At the Dormition, her body joined her soul in heaven, helping to show us the way forward through faith and God’s grace.
St. Philaret of Moscow, a spiritual leader in the renewal of Russian Orthodoxy
St. Philaret give us deep insight into this very personal and wonderful feast, one of the Church’s 12 Great Feasts, in a homily of which a short selection follows below. He writes:
“God is wondrous in His ways. For in order to make blessed the being that comes from Him with a most exalted and incomprehensible blessedness, He from the ages deigned to unite His own nature with the nature of man, in the Person of His Only-Begotten Son—thus through Him to extend this union also to the fullness of the Church, which, according to the law of incarnation, is His body, and in this manner dissolving and as if mutually leveling all divinity with all lowly things, That in the dispensation of the fullness of times (Eph. 1:10). As the apostle says, When all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This great resolution of the eternal counsel, or, according to the Apostle, this mystery, although it hath been hid from ages and from generations, is now made manifest also to his saints (Col. 1:26). And the Holy Spirit nevertheless revealed even this very revelation, which bears seven seals, to His mystics, and through them to all humankind to the extent of its gradually growing understanding obligating it to match up to and facilitate its fulfillment. Thus did one of the Prophets [David], who saw mankind in the past days of its infancy and under the guardianship of the law growing to the fullness of its years, when it was obligated to become capable of its task of being betrothed to Divinity and giving birth to a timeless Child, portrays the Son of God as the King approaching the wedding. And taking upon himself the role of the bringer of the bride, or friend of the bridegroom, the Prophet as if impatiently convinces human nature not to further postpone this blessed union by betrayal and insubordination, but to commit itself to it through sincerity and faithfulness. Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty
“Long did this Divine voice call in the Church as in the desert, and apparently did not find a hearkening ear. Humankind did not have the boldness to triumphantly go forth to meet the Divinity. What would have happened to us had the heart of the blessed Virgin Mary not opened to the incomprehensible word of the incarnation, had her boundless dedication to God’s will not responded to the heavenly messenger, Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy will (Lk. 1:38)? She entrusted herself to the King’s desire without holding anything back—and the betrothal of the Divinity with the human race was fulfilled forever.
“From this we Christians can see how such an apparently personal event—the entry into the temple and consecration to God of a three-year-old maiden—becomes the subject of triumph throughout the Church. This venture of the yet infant bride of God constitutes the beginning of her betrothal to the Holy Spirit, and therefore, in a certain sense, the first pledge of all mankind’s betrothal to the Divinity. True, this mystery was to be deeply hidden within her for the time being, like a flower in its seed; but in order to show the perfection of its ways, Providence often precedes its essential actions with certain significant events that give us some understanding of the future. And pious tradition also tells us that the Most Holy Virgin’s entrance into the temple had already been proclaimed by those prophetic words: hearken, O daughter, and see…
“Now, in the days of fulfillment of the ancient beginnings and preceding signs, do you wish to see more clearly the glory of the present solemnity? Then follow the Prophet’s command: The virgins that follow after her shall be brought unto the King (Ps. XLIV:13. Do you not now see that the leading of the Most Holy Virgin to the king of Kings is the beginning of a great, solemn procession, in which all pure, chaste souls shall follow after her; that the present solemnity, by the Church’s intention, is a part and continuation of this great procession; that those who wish to participate in the present solemnity must unite themselves to it with a solemn procession, arraying themselves accordingly in the image of the great Leading Personage—the virgins that follow after her?
“Lest we Christians become hard-hearted, and in this sacred procession remain no more than idle spectators of another’s feast, let us address our souls with this prophetic call: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty, for He Himself is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.”
So let us unworthily join this procession, with all those who have gone before us in the Church, following her. May we too, as unworthy followers of Jesus Christ, and in imitation of His Mother, heed the message of the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple, of preparation and openness to grace, and of the realization of the transfiguration of the Old Testament Church into the New Testament Church, the Body of Christ, in which we partake at every Eucharist from the altar of Orthodoxy. My we share the spirit of that message and experience with our family, friends, and country, like the Apostles after Pentecost, so that our sorrowful land America may turn to a fuller and truer vision of her heritage in the Orthodox Christianity, and that we may as a community be worthy and prepared participants in the Church as the Bride of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.