This homily was given by Hieromonk Theodore on Sun. Jan. 24, 7530 (Feb. 6, 2022 on the civil calendar) at Holy Trinity Cathedral at Jordanville NY’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary. It is posted here as an appropriate reflection as we approach Great Lent in a world of crisis today.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters!
Today we commemorate a paradox. The feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is paradoxical in that it is one of the greatest tragedies in human history, while at the same time being the crowning glory of the Orthodox Church of Rus. On one hand, from a worldly point of view, we see the tragic deaths of millions upon millions of innocent men, women, and children, who were beaten, tortured, shot, starved, stabbed, burned, buried alive, hung, drowned, and violated in manifold unspeakable ways, while on the other hand, from our Orthodox Christian perspective, we see the radiant adornment of the heavenly throne room, millions upon millions of martyrs vested in pure white robes who are glorified, magnified, beseeched, blessed, and prayed to by the faithful, and who in turn help, comfort, save, and intercede for the faithful.
While it is beyond us to know the inscrutable mysteries of God’s judgement, what we do know and what has been revealed to us is that Our Lord brings the greatest blessings out of the darkest times. As from Golgotha of old came our salvation, so too now does the greatness of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia come from what we now know to be the Russian Golgotha, where our Church was nailed to its Cross for seventy five years. In those three Biblical generations, the Church of Rus offered more martyrs for the Orthodox Christian faith than in the previous two millennia combined.
How could this happen? The largest Christian empire in world history becomes the largest concentration camp ever devised by the fallen and perverse human mind. The Third Rome becomes the Third International. The pious Tsar is replaced by a godless dictator. The episcopacy is replaced by the Politburo. The priesthood is replaced by commissars. Monasteries are turned into NKVD prison camps. Holy confession is replaced by brutal interrogation. Fasting is replaced by mass starvation. Asceticism is replaced with torture. Large Christian families are replaced with abortion on demand. The icons are smashed, the churches defiled, the relics desecrated, and the Holy Cross that for almost a thousand years proudly reigned over the lands of Rus is taken down and broken. How could this happen?
Simply put, brothers and sisters, it happened because of our sins: the sins of the faithful, our negligence, our taking the holy things for granted, and our neglect of God’s law. As the prophet says, “this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips glorify me, but their heart is far from me.” The people had fallen far from the lofty heights of God’s calling. What we saw in Russia immediately prior to the revolution and the outburst of violence against the Church was the more or less complete externalisation of Orthodox Christianity in the population. A faith based simply on externals is no faith at all, and, as we see from the Russian experience, can very quickly be replaced by godless materialism.
While many may have made the sign of the Cross properly, came to some of the divine services, maybe even fasted, and “kept the rules,” their hearts were far from the Holy One of Israel. While there were many, many genuinely pious people in Russia, many more had become corrupted by worldliness and attachment to the passions, beginning with the aristocracy – the elites – and the rich and powerful for, after all, the fish rots from the head.
Holy Rus was holy not because all of its people were saints, but because the holiness of Christ was the standard by which the people measured themselves. When this lofty concept had been forgotten and the faith had been reduced to the mere observance of externals, then the drift away from a genuine, living faith in God was inevitable and when faith in God dries up, the people, deluded and misled, will find other doctrines to quench their first. Unfortunate, then, is that nation whose people drink from the bitter and toxic wells of Marx and Engels, of Bakunin and Kropotkin, of Lenin and Trotsky, for instead of “seeking first the Kingdom,” they instead look for a worldly utopia, a utopia built not on humility, repentance, and self-abnegation as paradise is, but on the corpses of those with whom you do not agree, of whom you are jealous, and whom you simply hate.
We are at risk too, brothers and sisters, of this temptation if we do not remember to first of all offer our hearts to the Lord God, and instead fall into mere observation of externals, a disinterested sign of the Cross here, a half-hearted fast there, a perfunctory and shallow confession here, and an unworthy Communion there. Prayers said by rote but with no spiritual feeling, psalms perfectly read and pronounced but with no effect on the heart. Beautiful divine services, glorious singing, but with no intention of striving to be Christlike, to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” It’s easy for us to claim that we know better and that we have learned from Russia’s mistakes, but is it so? Have not the holy elders stated that “what begins in Russia ends in America”? Did not Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory often state in his day that it was “today in Russia, tomorrow in America”? Tomorrow draws ever nearer and, unless we continually strive against complacency in our spiritual lives as individuals and in the life of our Church as a whole, then we will share the unfortunate fate of Russia.
Beyond simply having our own responsibility to struggle to live a virtuous and God-honouring Christian life, those of us who are numbered among the clergy or those of you who are here studying and preparing to be numbered among the clergy, have a special calling to warn, to encourage, and to guide the faithful away from the darkness of life away from Christ, even if we ourselves are completely broken down in the process. As Father George Calciu, a man who martyric witness in the communist prison camps of Romania should serve as an inspiration to all of us, said, to be a priest “means to be an enduring witness of human suffering and to take it upon your own shoulders. To be the one who warms the leper at his own breast and who gives life to the miserable through the breath from his own mouth. To be a strong comfort to every unfortunate one, even when you yourself are overwhelmed with weakness. To be a ray of shining light to unhappy hearts when your own eyes long ago ceased to see any light. To carry mountains of others’ suffering on your shoulders, while your own being screams out with the weight of its own suffering.”
This powerful meditation reflects Saint Paul’s advice to Saint Timothy, which was read today, in which he exhorts him, “we labour and are reviled, because we hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of the faithful […] be an example of the faithful, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in chastity […] Neglect not the grace that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood […] For in doing this you shall both save yourself and them that hear you.” This is our calling, brothers. Are we worthy to take up this Cross? Are we ready?
Of the millions of New Martyrs and Confessors, that the clergy are the most prominent is telling. They were ready to take up this Cross and they set the greatest example to the believers in their lives and especially in their deaths. Despite human frailties, passions, and weaknesses, these bold pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ laid down their lives for the sheep in imitation of the Saviour. This is why the Bolsheviks sought to liquidate the Church and its clergy from the earliest days of the revolution, for they sought to kill the shepherds and scatter the sheep. They sought to remove the head, that the body may die. These men were seized, persecuted, delivered up … imprisoned, and brought before rulers for the sake of Christ’s most holy name, being turned into a testimony by the Lord, as He promised in today’s Gospel reading. Truly, this has been the case in all major persecutions, when the clergy have always been the first and most prominent victims of brutal repressions against the Church of God, and today we invoke the memory of Saint Tikhon of Moscow, Saint Benjamin of Petrograd, Saint Peter of Krutitsa, and all those other hierarchs who said “no!” to compromise, “no!” to submission, and “no!” to apostasy, instead setting an example of resolute faith and trust in the Lord God that, even if they were to die defending the Church of God from its enemies, they would never besmirch the name of ‘Christian,’ never allow our faith to be mocked, and never allow our Most-Holy God to be blasphemed by the godless.
It is not the case, however, brothers and sisters, that it is simply the clergy’s responsibility to maintain fealty to Christ and His truth in a time of persecution. No, it is incumbent on all of us that we must be willing to walk to Golgotha with the Lord, for, “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it.” The persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union was an opportunity, permitted by God, for the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church to truly bear witness to their faith. Our Lord tells us that “many are called, but few are chosen,” and the chosen ones – the holy martyrs of Christ – were, as Saint Paul tells us in today’s epistle reading, predestined, called, justified, and, finally, glorified, becoming “more than conquerors” through Him Who bestows His mercy, grace, and love upon us, especially in times of trial, struggle, persecution, temptation, and trouble.
Looking forward and, some would say, into the abyss, we must cleave to the godly example of the New Martyrs and Confessors of our Church – all those who calmly, humbly, and piously went to their fates knowing that the greatest reward, that of eternal life, awaiting them at the end of the revolver of a Chekist or the bayonet of a Red Guard. We don’t know what the future has in store for us, brothers and sisters, but if the blessed elders who witnessed the death of Holy Rus are correct, then it is not good, at least from a worldly perspective. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, if such persecutions are to befall us as befell Russia, we should “rejoice and be exceedingly glad,” for, if we persevere, “great is our reward in heaven.” Remember, Our Lord counsels us that “in your patience, possess ye your souls,” and this is all He requires from us: perseverance. A resolute, solid patience that, fuelled by a burning love for God and His Truth, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” will undoubtedly persevere to the end and, as the Lord promises us, “he that perseveres to the end will be saved.”
Such a profound calling, yes? Such a lofty demand, yes? How can we, who are weak, attain to this? How can we possibly to manage to survive the madness that is to befall us? Simple, brothers and sisters, very simple: we must cling to the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Church, with all of our strength and submit ourselves to the commands of its Helmsman, Christ the Lord. Only with a burning love for God can we even think about making through the trials to come, and only by keeping God’s commandments can we grow in love for Him.
Brothers and sisters, our good God gives us everything necessary for our salvation, for our strength, for our endurance. Just as no right-thinking general sends his army to the frontlines without all the necessary supplies, our God does not call us to this glorious struggle without the ways and means of receiving His strength to fight, as it is not through our own strength that we succeed. Here, in our beloved Church, Our Lord provides for us the holy sacraments to strengthen us, divine wisdom to illumine and guide us, and the examples of the saints who adorn the walls around us to inspire us. Nothing is absent and everything is available if we indeed answer the call to take up the Cross and follow Christ.
Take a look at yourselves: are you carrying the Cross? Are any of us? If we are honest, many of us are not. Many of us simply fall into the externalisms that led to the destruction of Russia. Let us take heed and catch ourselves before we too fall, let us turn back and fully commit ourselves and one another to Christ our God before it is too late.
One more thing that the holy Church gives us is Great Lent, for our correction, to initiate our repentance, to guide us into having a contrite and humble heart that God will not despise. Today, the final Sunday before our Lenten cycle begins, we also remember Saint Zacchaeus the repentant publican, who turned away from his life of corruption, theft, deceit, and self-serving greed and, answering the call of Christ, received the Saviour into both his home and his heart, that he himself may be granted an abode in the heavenly mansions. Zacchaeus climbed a Sycamore tree to see the Lord because he was short in stature. Let us, who are short in spiritual stature, also ascend a tree to behold the Saviour, but let that tree be the Cross that He gives us, however large or small it may be. Let us take up that Cross, follow the Lord to Golgotha, and, as the Holy Apostle Thomas said, “let us go die with him!”
The Holy New Martyrs and Confessors did not seek death like some insane jihadists, but they simply accepted sufferings, tribulations, and martyrdom as being God’s all-good, all-knowing, and all-benevolent will, for “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” We do not fear death, brothers and sisters, for it has no power over us. To paraphrase Saint Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor Marx, nor Engels, nor Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor Stalin, nor communism, nor capitalism, nor godless materialism, nor globalism … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can face all trials and all enemies of the faith confident in the knowledge that we can overcome all things through Christ, Who has overcome the world.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, knowing what the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors experienced and what may befall us at any time, let us hasten to make our religion not merely one of externals and pious appearances, but one of the heart, with a real, burning faith that drives us on. Let us prepare for this season of renewal, Great Lent, and take it as a God-given opportunity to start the essential work of repentance, purification, and humility, so that, with our bodies weakened, our souls may be strengthened. Let us approach this holy chalice which is before us, receiving the great gifts of remission of sins and life eternal, and once again commit ourselves to the loving mercy of God, so that, like Zacchaeus, salvation may today come to our house, for the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost and today, brothers and sisters, if we turn our hearts unto our loving Saviour, we have been found. Amen.