From a homily on the eve of Mid-Pentecost, Tuesday May 4/17, 7530/2022, at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church
We gather this evening of the Mid-Pentecost Feast for Vespers and for memorial prayers for the blessed repose of our ever-memorable Arch-Pastor, Metropolitan Hilarion. The Feast of Mid-Pentecost is in one sense a commemoration of joyful sorrow, because it reminds us of the movement toward the end of the Paschal season, being the halfway mark between the Resurrection and Pentecost. But it is likewise joy-filled because of that passage. The Church at this feast reminds us of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ as Teacher. The Church’s Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost refers to our Lord teaching in the middle of the Old Testament Feast of the Tabernacles, teaching about Himself being sent from God, and also about the living waters of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The feast thus also prefigures Pentecost, including the tradition of the blessing of water on Mid-Pentecost, while pointing to the upcoming Sunday of the Samaritan Woman’s encounter with our Lord at Jacob’s Well and His telling her there of the living water that He gave. This spring-time festival further pointed to the full establishment of the Church at Pentecost by marking the altar feast of the great Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople. Another icon for this feast reminds us of the account of an incident from our Lord’s youth, when He taught amazed elders in the Temple. The emphasis on teaching in both icon types for Mid-Pentecost parallels His own wondrous teaching between the Resurrection and Ascension to His followers, in their encounter with Him resurrected, as well as in His precious words and farewell. Mid-Pentecost thus is a reminder of the transition from His grounding of the Church in His Resurrection, through His ultimate teaching, toward Pentecost. Then, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the Resurrection’s universal promise by overcoming the divisions of mankind and fully founding the Orthodox Church, against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail. For the same Holy Spirit reaches out to each of us in community in the Body of Christ at Baptism, Chrismation, and each Eucharistic Communion.
Icons of Mid-Pentecost (above) of Jesus Christ teaching the elders as a youth, and (below) of Him later teaching mid-feast (the Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost).
Tonight as we begin Mid-Pentecost we bittersweetly commemorate the start of the third day of the repose of our beloved Arch-Pastor Metropolitan Hilarion. His holy life and his falling asleep in the Paschal season looks toward Paradise with our Lord Jesus Christ. Coming from a rural Ukrainian immigrant farming community in western Canada, he became first seminarian and then monk at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville (where he was cell attendant for Archbishop Averky), and then beloved for his pastoral gifts as a hierarch in eastern America and Australia, overseeing the growth of parishes within the Russian Church Abroad. From the time he was a young seminarian and novice and bookstore worker at Jordanville he was remarkable for his kindness and calm discernment. He went on through God’s grace to become First Hierarch of the worldwide Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
Some here remember so well in 2015 traveling to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Mayfield to receive his blessing to start our mission, in a region of central Pennsylvania where there was no Orthodox parish, and across a wider area no Russian Orthodox parish. He was such a kind and grace-filled pastor and teacher. He joins a line of unforgettable reposed arch-pastors of the Russian Church Abroad, including Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory, who led our Synod out of the Bolshevik Holocaust into the West, where he also taught the importance for our redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord’s human nature vowing “not my will but Thine be done.” His ever-memorable predecessors also included the holy Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory, who suffered torture as a prisoner of the Chinese communists, among other holy teachers and arch-pastors. Metropolitan Hilarion became the first leader of ROCOR born in North America, for his predecessors had originally come from what Americans called “the old world.” He is universally mourned for his loving compassion, and is taken from us at a time of great challenge for the Russian Orthodox Church and the world at large in these latter days. But the Paschal season reminds us of our Lord’s words, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.
When at the end of his last book The Brothers Karamazov the Orthodox writer Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a funeral, he focuses on the same familiar prayer we sang tonight for Metropolitan Hilarion’s blessed repose: “Memory eternal!” This is a plea to God to remember the reposed, as well as for us to remember the reposed, and in effect also for all of us to remember God. It bespeaks the synergy of ascetic prayer with God’s grace emphasized in Orthodoxy. That discussion of death and after-life in the book’s ending features the words of the young man Alyosha, drawn to monasticism and mourning also the recent death of his spiritual father, Elder Zosima. (Some even speculate that Alyosha was based on a young Metropolitan Anthony who met Dostoevsky as a youth when named Alexei or Alyosha, as his elder was based in part on St. Ambrose of Optina Monastery.) IAlyosha tells a group of mourning children at the funeral about the importance of good memories:
“…there is nothing higher or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation. Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today, “I want to suffer for all people”—perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be—and God preserve us from it—as soon as we remember how we buried [him], how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together … the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment! Moreover, perhaps just this memory alone will keep him from great evil, and he will think better of it and say: “Yes, I was kind, brave, and honest then.” Let him laugh to himself, it’s no matter, a man often laughs at what is kind and good, it just comes from thoughtlessness; but I assure you, gentlemen, that as soon as he laughs, he will say at once in his heart: “No, it’s a bad thing for me to laugh, because one should not laugh at that!”
“’I am speaking about the worst case, if we become bad,’” Alyosha went on, ‘but why should we become bad, gentlemen, isn’t that true? Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then—let us never forget one another….
“You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who if not [him whom we remember today]. Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”….
“’Memory eternal!’” the boys again joined in.
“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and him [who has passed]?’”
“’Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,’” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
(Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)
The novel is in many ways, as the Orthodox professor Donald Sheehan noted, about self-emptying in faith versus modern emphasis on self-assertion. In that, the love from the Elder Zosima is transmitted to Alyosha, and from him to the boys he addresses after the funeral.
Elder Zosima’s repose; an illustration by Alice Neel from The Brothers Karamazov
Such a life-changing memory of the funeral gathering is personal as Dostoevsky portrays it, ultimately leading to the real source of our personhood in the God-man Jesus Christ. Persons of holiness implant such memories in us, to the glory of God, as icons of Christ for us in our lives. So, from our childhoods in Orthodoxy, and the childhood of our mission, we honor the memory of our Church’s father Metropolitan Hilarion. He helped guide the birth of this mission and of our lives in the Body of Christ here. We take a memory together today from his kindness in offering us a nurturing shelter as exiles from the world and from turmoil even within the larger Orthodox Church. We take that memory to apply now in our lives and pass forward to others, too, as we grow in Orthodoxy and as we unworthily become, God willing, influencers for good to others also young in Orthodoxy. Dear brothers and sisters, our best remembering of Vladyka is to live those qualities of Jesus Christ we venerate in his life, that his memory may be eternal and shine brightly between God and us, from this time in the joyous Resurrection season, on now to the path toward Pentecost, and unto the Ages of Ages, Amen. For Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!