Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, for the Vespers for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
Gardening before Vespers on our mission land in rural northern Appalachia.
In America historically, Lady Liberty was cited as a kind of icon of the nation, symbolized in the Statute of Liberty in New York harbor, and at times on U.S. currency.
A Statue of Liberty replica on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, an hour south of our mission.
But to Orthodox Christians, we know that we must dedicate this American land to the Most Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, of whom Lady Liberty can only at best be seen as an obscurely related type. Our Lady points us to liberty, in voluntary service to universal truth, in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our Lady of Triumph, also called Our Lady of Unachieved Victory, and most familiarly the Icon of the Theotokos of Port Arthur; she is crowned to honor her as Queen in the wake of the loss of the last Orthodox monarch of Russia. We chant the Akathist of this Icon once a month at our mission, seeking intercession from Our Lady for our evangelizing of central Pennsylvania. The original name of our mission, Holy Protection, relates to the image of the protecting veil of our Lady here; our current patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, was devoted to Our Lady, and associated with the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God (he is pictured on our new mission icon below, holding the icon of Our Lady, which was commissioned by our Rector, Fr. George Sharonoff).
Let us, planted originally as the Mission of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God in 2015, with God’s grace unworthily dedicate our mission land to be a garden of the Theotokos. She points us to her Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Directress, the holiest of all the saints. Under her patronage, may our mission land bloom forth for future generations, until our Lord comes again, with gardens, with berry patches, perennial flower beds, orchards, a pumpkin patch, beehives, a chicken yard, as we are planning, along with space for festivals and outdoor events, our already dedicated Orthodox cemetery, and most of all with a temple for worship, blossoming forth as the center of our community for generations to come, God willing. So with God’s grace we hope unworthily to nurture the kind of faith-based traditional community that Orthodox writer Rod Dreher calls for in his books The Benedict Option and Live not by Lies. Glory to God!
When we talk about our Lady the most Holy Theotokos, we also at this time of year during Great Lent, prelude to the spring of Resurrection, note the life and icon and inspiration of another Mary, St. Mary of Egypt. That wonderful saint is a model for us in America and in our mission’s evangelism work. Why was she given the honor by our Lord’s Church of being commemorated on the Sunday before Palm Sunday? She is not part of the Gospel narratives. She was a great sinner. But she was a great penitent, helped by the intercession of the Mother of God. The other, greater Mary so to speak, the Virgin Mary, undergirds and overlies the life of St. Mary of Egypt, and ultimately this Sunday points to her pointing to her Son in the upcoming Holy Week.
St. Mary of Egypt was 12 when she left home and began her life of licentiousness. She lived this way for 17 years. So that means she was 29 years old on the fateful day when God enlightened her and she left for the desert. According to her recounting to Zosimas the first time they met…she had lived in the desert for 47 years/ That would have made her 76 when she first met Zosimas. Add to that another year for when Zosimas brings her communion, and that means that she was 77 when she died. And her body was preserved unharmed, undecayed for a year until Zosimas came to bury her. We hear in her ancient life during Lent of her early encounter at age 29 with our Lady the Most Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary.
“My native land, holy father, was Egypt,” St. Mary of Egypt told Father Zosimas. “Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.
That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Lybians and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, `Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied, `They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, `Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’ `No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I have a body — they shall take it instead of pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosimas, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”
Zosimas, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”
And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’
I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once.
How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him. At last we arrived in Jerusalem. I spent the days before the festival in the town, living the save kind of life, perhaps even worse. I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped be to get to Jerusalem; many others — citizens of the town and foreigners — I also seduced.
The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I ad at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.
Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said:
`O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy ikon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners an for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’
Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium. Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. The I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed to her such words as these:
`O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfil my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: `If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: `O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’ With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey.
So the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Lady with Her son our God resulted in a changed life for St. Mary of Egypt, whose faithful penitence in the Desert then gave us such a blessed example for Lent, and for the joyful sorrow of Lenten asceticism for all of us, whether laity or monastic.
As we dedicate our mission land as the garden of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, as a type of Paradise around the Temple of her Son our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, perhaps our prayer for “this land” in the Divine Liturgy may take on an extra deep meaning. Let us remember the final words of the last Christian leader to leave the Soviet Union at the very end of the Russian Civil War, from the Far East, with exiles into China. General Diterichs in fall 1922, temporary head of a pocket of free Christian Russia in the east awaiting the return of a Christian monarch, when departing under the force of the atheistic communist regime into exile, said: ‘I believe that Russia will return to the Russia of Christ, the Russia of the Anointed of God, but I believe that we were unworthy of this mercy from the Supreme Creator.” May God give us the grace, faith, penitence, strength, wisdom, and health to help prepare the soil of this American land for the spread of the Orthodox Gospel, especially in our region, from our garden of the Theotokos, our Church home in the country, embracing through our Lady’s help the rule of our King of Kings, and Emperor of Emperors. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy us and our mission, and save us. Amen.
Icon of the Theotokos Enthroned, showing her crowned, which re-appeared at the time of the Russian Revolution.
This homily was given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church on March 9, 7529 (March 22, 2021). Afterward, those worshipping went around the block in procession, following the Cross, holding icons of our faith and the Gospel, censing, and chanting, in the middle of Lewisburg, PA, a secular university town, past emblems of secular radicalism on some homes and apartment buildings. There were a few surprised looks, some smiles and nods, and one older gentleman who, seeing the Cross, took off his hat and stood in respect.
Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 7529 (2021).
Brothers and sisters, the scriptural readings today remind us that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, as do the icons around us of our spiritual family, the saints, at their head the most holy Mother of God. They are witnesses, prophetically, historically, personally, to the Incarnation of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Whom we worship, and in Whose very body and blood we participate in the Church.
We are never alone, brothers and sisters, because He is always with us, and our spiritual family is always with us, as we march together on this Sunday of Orthodoxy. If we feel alone, let us pray to our Lord, and ask the saints our spiritual family for their intercessions, for as scripture tells us, the Lord setteth the solitary into families.
Through our Lord we gain friendship that is deeper and more authentic and more real than any we can hope for materially apart from Him. In our faith we have the answer to today’s epidemic of loneliness from the faithlessness in our world today.
The icons remind us of this. And so, amid the rigors and blessed struggle of the start of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the restoration of the veneration of icons in the Orthodox faith for all time, by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the pious rulers and right-believing hierarchs and faithful who supported its decree, completing the teachings and canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils that based in Holy Scripture and Tradition direct the Orthodox Church to this day.
“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” And he goes on to tell us of all those mighty spiritual ancestors or ours who through faith achieved seemingly impossible witness for the Christian faith amid all trials.
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” the Apostle tells us. And then he asks us to gaze upward towards Him Who is above and beyond infinitely all the others. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Nathaniel doubts that Jesus is the Messiah, probably because Jesus comes from rural simple Nazareth, and not as a magnificent king. But his friend Phillip didn’t contradict this prejudice, as Archbishop Averky of blessed memory notes in his commentary. Phillip simply said “Come and see!” Come and see! This is the invitation to us every day before our icons at home in prayer, and to come join in worship in our Lord’s Church, His Body and the Bride of the Lamb. This is the invitation we make to our neighbors as we march through our community today in procession.
The Lord meeting Nathaniel says He saw him under the fig tree. As Archbishop Averky writes:
“What happened to Nathaniel under the fig tree? This is hidden from us, and it seems that this was a mystery that no one could possibly know other than Nathaniel and God Himself.”
Perhaps Nathaniel had regular prayer under a certain fig tree, and had had a particular moving experience in that prayer recently. Hearing those words of recognition, Nathaniel in his heart knew they proved that our Lord is the Messiah. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel said.
Indeed, the Incarnation made Israel the Church, to which all, Gentiles and Jews, could join, of which Christ is King. Our King sees us in prayer under our fig trees, and we see Him in the icon on our banner, as we process today behind it as our standard of spiritual warfare before us, for this Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. As we process around the center of our town, we bear the banner with the Icon not Made by Hands of our Lord, and the Cross, which on one side depicts His crucifixion, and on the other His Resurrection.
We chant and proclaim the kingdom of our King, which is His Church, and invite others to join with Him from under their fig trees, as we journey further into Great Lent, the time of bright sorrow and repentance and ascetic struggle, toward the light of the Resurrection, which now is always with us. “Come and see” is the message of our proclamation of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
For as our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ has told us, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” and “Lo I am with you, even unto the end of the world.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Sunday, March 1, 7529 (March 2, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Today on the doorway of Great Lent we commemorate the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, and also Forgiveness Sunday. The linking of these commemorations on the ancient Orthodox Church calendar, as a living tradition of spiritual practice, therapy, and worship, is a link of unforgettable beauty in its joyful sorrow. It reminds us that Orthodox Christianity is a faith of the heart and not merely the head, for ours is a faith of getting the mind into the heart.
The Gospel reading for today sets this forth, telling us, in part, “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:…. be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance… But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our Lenten journey must be one of fasting not merely from dairy and meat, fish and wine. It is a hidden spiritual practice of looking away from comfort toward the uncomfortable truths and witnessing of our faith, expressed outwardly in love for each other based on truth, our Lord God, Who sustains us.
I recently viewed a short documentary about Ptesti Prison in Romania. Here Communists imprisoned Orthodox Christians, like Father Roman Braga and Father George Calciu. Physical and psychological tortures were combined in an effort to shape them into a Communist personality. Today in America we are subject to a different but also insidious type of behavior modification, efforts to refashion our personalities in the spirit of the Anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Christ, in the hours that we spend online and often in educational, professional, and work interactions. More strongly to uphold ourselves as Christians in the face of such psychological manipulation against our souls, this today must be part of our Lenten witness.
We know what we face against our Christian faith today in America. Just in the past month we have had great promotion in media of polyamory, yet another insane sin promoted by the pansexual materialistic anti-Christian culture today. This includes the idea, likely to become a mandated category of social and legal support, that multiple parents of undetermined sex should raise children in the same household, living without moral boundaries. The state of California this coming week will consider adopting school curriculum that in the name of racial equity seeks to target Christianity in K-12 education as oppressive and could promote schoolchildren offering prayers to Aztec gods who historically were part of pagan practices involving human sacrifices. These different forms of madness involve Anthropocenism, a spirit of our age that centers on a human virtual reality, in which materialistic human science and technology as the Anthropocene age claim to take the place of God. It assembles an official anthropology and culture seeking to elide and erase traditional cultural communities, through direct state relationships with children overriding parental faith, as well as a dominant digital environment and economy, controlling human life for supposedly “therapeutic” reasons. But these are all delusions of disembodiedness, a gnostic living in virtual reality that Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the “Soul and Barbed Wire” section of The Gulag Archipelago uncovered as “the permanent lie,” and which Hannah Arendt in her works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem came to term “the banality of evil.”
Solzhenitsyn and Arendt were writing about the twentieth-cenury precursors to disembodied, digital, and atheistic systems advocating transhumanism today in “soft” totalitarian ways. Such madness and insanity are harbingers of anti-Christ, as the Apostle John warns us against the spirit of anti-Christ that rejects the Incarnation of our Lord God, and would seek to destroy the embodiedness of our lives and faith. Our parish Bible study has been reading the Epistles of the Apostle John in the New Testament, in which he gives us our standard for Forgiveness Sunday today, that God is love, and that the source of our love for Him and for our neighbor is the truth that is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We must not shirk from witnessing to that love in truth, from carrying our cross. For to proclaim the Gospel in our lives daily is to witness. We witness for something, for the Resurrection, not merely against things, and to our neighbors and on behalf of the vulnerable.
Now the gateway to Lent stands before us, symbolized in the royal doors of the iconostasis, the gateway to Paradise, through which Communion comes to us today. Behind the iconostasis and above us in this worship space, the copy of the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God on the wall above the altar witnesses to our journey through Lent to Holy Week and to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of her Son, and to our hopes for building a temple this year. This icon was known as a palladion or protecting standard of the Russian imperial Army. In 1920 it went with the remnants of General Wrangel’s White Army and the group of bishops who became our Synod on the fleet of ships that crossed with many exiles from Crimea to Constantinople. It was present at the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose centennial year we are commemorating. It now rests in our cathedral on 93rd Street in New York and indeed humbly rested on one of the stands here we use in worship when it visited our mission in the early days of our founding.
The Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign
The icon dates back to the 13th century, and is one of the most ancient of the Russian Church, herself an heir in her roots to Byzantium and the Churches of the Holy Land. The icon comes into our history at the time of the Tatar invasion of Russia, its discovery by a peasant at the root of a tree in the forest by Kursk at that time was a sign of hope for the preservation of the Orthodox Church. It is linked with the liberation of Russia in the Polish-Lithuanian incursion in 1612, and in the 1812 Fatherland war. Now may this beloved standard go before us in our spiritual battle for freedom in America during this Great Lent.
The icon is of the Annunciation and includes the figure of the Sign of our Lord God within the womb of the Mother of God whose hands are outstretched in prayer, in an ancient depiction of the Theotokos, accepting the Annunciation. We commemorate the Annunciation during Great Lent. It is a reminder of our own rebirth during this time in our journey toward the Resurrection of Christ, even as the icon before us beyond the royal doors today is a reminder of God with us as we march into Lent. Interestingly, the Scriptural account of the expulsion from Paradise, and the traditional name of this Sunday’s commemoration, focuses on Adam’s expulsion, which perhaps can be taken to indicate how the “Second Eve,” the greatest of the saints, the Mother of God, would bear the Savior Who would restore the faithful to Paradise.
Around the Mother of God and the figure of our Lord are prophets of the Old Testament Church who wrote of the birth of Christ—the Holy Prophets King David, Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, Elijah, Habakkuk, Judge Gideon, Isaiah, Moses, and above them all the Lord of Hosts. This icon, our standard in marching into our spiritual warfare of Lent, tells us of the cloud of witnesses who are with us, all the prophets saints who intercede for us, led by the Theotokos, to our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. It reminds us of the love of God for us and of all in our great Church family who love us, as we unworthily seek forgiveness today. Let us remember as we go forth into Lent with joyful sorrow, under the standard of our Kursk Root icon, that our God, Who is truth and love in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, is with us.
Embarking on the journey of Lent, toward the Pascha of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ
Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg, PA, on Zacchaeus Sunday 7529 (2021 Civil Calendar), Feb. 1/Feb. 14
The account of Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading today tells us, as we prepare to enter the preparatory season for Lent, of how a money-loving tax collector became the good fruit of the sycamore fig tree he climbed. He left his love of materialism for the love of truth in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He did this through humility and repentance and practical deeds of charity, through the love of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel commentaries based in our Orthodox Church tradition by Archbishop Averky of Russia in the twentieth century and of the Blessed Theophylact of Byzantium in the twelfth century help provide background.
Zacchaeus as a publican was a tax collector and chief tax collector in the very rich Jericho area, which would have been a source of great income for him. This position also identified him closely with the colonial Roman oppressive regime, ultimately implicated also in the Crucifixion of our Lord. Zacchaeus’ position exemplified the love of money and materialism, and the status and power they were seen as conferring. This is even more of a temptation arguably today in our society.
The Blessed Theophylact notes that “The Lord seizes the mightiest of the devil’s vessels and destroys his cities. See how the Lord not only makes publicans His disciples, but He even takes prisoner, in order to save him, the chief of the publicans, Zacchaeus.”
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, actually a sycamore-fig tree, to see Jesus, but before he saw Jesus, Jesus had already seen Him. So it is with the grace of our Lord, Who answers our willingness and eagerness even before we know. Our Lord urges Zacchaeus to come down quickly. Zacchaeus followed the law of God in the restitution of his fraud, in true alms-giving, giving all he had, not only half to the poor, but of the rest fourfold to all he had defrauded, and his whole business so to speak had been in fraud.
The Lord then says that now Zacchauus is a son of Abraham. For our Lord knew Abraham, and in His theophany had been a guest of Abraham’s hospitality, and he saw that same hospitality in Zacchaeus’ repentance and active love, in giving up his possessions.
Short of stature as the chief wicked-doer in the area, Zacchaeus symbolically and literally could not see Christ until he had climbed up the sycamore-fig tree, past its sweet fruits, to make an ascent in his heart, to see Jesus. Jesus then called him to “make haste and come down,” so as to humble himself and not fall into pride because of that ascent to a higher life through repentance. Our Lord would abide in the house of a humble man, who proved this in his experience. The fourfold restoration by Zacchaeus of his fraud symbolizes the healing of his sins through the four virtues, known to the Church Fathers as courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. As the Blessed Theophylact concludes, Zacchaeus had long lived in the house of his father, the devil, and when he went out of the house of his father, out of himself and changed, he found salvation, as had Abraham.
Archbishop Averky noted, “The repentance of Zacchaeus is a model of true repentance that is not limited by a fruitless remorse over sins committed, but strives to expiate the sins through virtues that are the sins’ opposites.”
A couple other short items of note in this story include further Zacchaeus’ short stature. Some talk of the Napoleon complex by which short stature can relate to a desire for power. But as fallen human beings we are all short of stature in God’s eyes and prone to power. Zacchaeus gave this up symbolically by climbing the tree. In Egypt the sycamore-fig tree was widely cultivated, and it is thought that its cultivation spread from there to the Holy Land. In ancient Egypt that tree was known as the Tree of Life. So too St. John of Damascus referred to the Tree of Life in Paradise and in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, as symbolizing our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Maximos the Confessor spoke of the logoi or words of God, constituting our identity, as singing in the tree of the Logos. Jesus Christ referred to Himself as the true vine, and the Apostle Paul said that those becoming Christians who were Gentiles are engrafted in that true vine or tree.
Zacchaeus, although a Jew, had to leave his love for power and money to become a Christian, a follower of our Lord, climbing the tree and then following without hesitation our Lord’s command, and surrendering that which he had worshipped, his wealth. In the news today, new forms of crypto currencies raise questions about the nature of money freed from the gold standard. So this ancient Gospel account reminds us also of scriptural and canonical limitations in the Church on greed. We see this in prohibitions on usury. In the Old Testament we see how the laws of God incorporated regular forgiveness of debts in Jubilee Years and also recycling of land ownership, a reminder that the gifts and blessings of the Creation come from God. They are ours only in the sense that we are good stewards, as in the parables of the New Testament, for our Lord. Central to that sense of a gift economy based in God is philanthropy and alms-giving, as we should remember as we enter into Lent as well. As the Apostle Paul wrote, the love of money is the root of evil, because it involves a fundamental lie about the nature of things, leading to idolatry. How much all people today especially in our global consumer culture are engaged in such idolatry, even in our worship of material images online, and of materialistic success in careers and image and status for ourselves. This curse affects in different ways all political ideologies today, which all participate in the worship of materialism.
Like Zacchaeus, brothers and sisters, let our eagerness for Christ at each day and each moment lead us to climb the tree of repentance, ignoring the sweet fruits of materialism for a glimpse of Him. He will already be seeing us, and let us heed His command with the speed of little Zacchaeus, to follow Him and host with generous hospitality our Lord, as Zacchaeus’ spiritual father Abraham had done.
For little Zacchaeus truly became great only in Jesus Christ after practicing the grace-filled virtues that provided an antidote for sin. He became the good fruit of the fig tree. The sycamore fig tree became to Zacchaeus a type of the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations because of his zeal, his repentance, his humility, and his active expression of repentant love in charity, entering into the Body of our Lord, His Church. Let us heed and follow little Zacchaeus’ example as we enter the weeks preparing for Lent, and as we also prepare this month for building a temple for our worship in proclaiming the Gospel to our region.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A paper delivered to the Orthodox Scholars Association, 31 Jan. 7529 (Feb. 12, 2021, on the civil caledar).
I would like to suggest today insights that the Russian philosophical term sobornost offers for our current situation in the United States with regard to Anti-Racism. That capitalized term is shorthand for an intellectual, cultural, and social movement rooted in Critical Race Theory (CRT), but also related politically to Antifa, Pansexualism, Anthropocenism as in the Green New Deal movement, and through them all to the project called Cultural Marxism. While that term Cultural Marxism has been criticized as a straw-man phrase, it has also been used by proponents to describe their hopes to shape a society of equity based in Marxist principles through cultural struggle, not economic class struggle. Black Lives Matter (BLM), alongside Antifa, the Green New Deal of the Sunrise Movement and the ongoing movement of Pansexualism, arguably form the vanguard of cultural Marxist politics in the United States today. BLM involves leaders who claim to be “trained Marxists,” and for a long time the BLM website (until it was revised after criticisms) cited the need to move society past the oppressions of the nuclear family, in agreement with the anti-family social model of Marx and Engels, and BLM still upholds its dedication to Pansexualism. In this unified ideology of cultural revolution, as the chief diversity administrator on our campus reportedly told students, Christian values are seen as an originator of white supremacy. To that alleged unforgivable crime is added sexual oppression and environmental devastation.
Defending Christianity in this intellectual and cultural moment seems a daunting task. But in a recent online article previewing his upcoming book The Elect: Neoracists Posing as Antiracists and their Threat to a Progressive America, John McWhorter, an African-American professor of the Left at Columbia, criticized current Antiracism for fostering what he calls neo-racism, reducing American life to one binary, racism and anti-racism. Beyond what McWhorter criticizes as a neo-racism of totalitarian spirit, Critical Race Theory offers a framework that highlights the philosophical justification for the cultural revolution spurred by Cultural Marxist efforts in America today. However, it is so full of paradox and mystery as to qualify in the view of McWhorter and others as a kind of secular activist para-religion. As such, this underpinning is worth especially unpacking for Orthodox Christians in educational roles in Church and society.
- When black people say you have insulted them, apologize with profound sincerity and guilt. But don’t put black people in a position where you expect them to forgive you. They have dealt with too much to be expected to.
2. Black people are a conglomeration of disparate individuals. “Black culture” is code for “pathological, primitive ghetto people.” But don’t expect black people to assimilate to “white” social norms because black people have a culture of their own.
3. Silence about racism is violence. But elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.
4. You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people. But you can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist.
5. Show interest in multiculturalism. But do not culturally appropriate. What is not your culture is not for you, and you may not try it or do it. But—if you aren’t nevertheless interested in it, you are a racist.
6. Support black people in creating their own spaces and stay out of them. But seek to have black friends. If you don’t have any, you’re a racist. And if you claim any, they’d better be good friends—in their private spaces, you aren’t allowed in.
7. When whites move away from black neighborhoods, it’s white flight. But when whites move into black neighborhoods, it’s gentrification, even when they pay black residents generously for their houses.
8. If you’re white and only date white people, you’re a racist. But if you’re white and date a black person you are, if only deep down, exotifying an “other.”
9. Black people cannot be held accountable for everything every black person does. But all whites must acknowledge their personal complicity in the perfidy throughout history of “whiteness.”
10. Black students must be admitted to schools via adjusted grade and test score standards to ensure a representative number of them and foster a diversity of views in classrooms. But it is racist to assume a black student was admitted to a school via racial preferences, and racist to expect them to represent the “diverse” view in classroom discussions.
While such contradictions seem comic, the political effects, McWhorter argues, are serious.
The ideological roots are outlined in the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3rd edition). CRT’s genealogy lies in critical theory approaches that have become deeply rooted especially in the humanities and social sciences in recent decades, now spreading to STEM. I will suggest that not all of the more philosophical insights of CRT are inimical to Orthodox Christian perspectives on society as reflected in modern Russian philosophy. But their development as an alternative atheistic para-religious system at odds with Christianity betrays the roots and trajectory of their underlying cultural Marxism in the spirit of anti-Christ, that which denies the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh, opposed to His Body, the Church.
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction first describes racism as ordinariness, in the sense of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “permanent lie.” But this masks the very totalitarianism of cultural Marxism that underlies its own approach. CRT’s own totalitarian spirit would enforce the arbitrariness of a virtual reality of binarized racism and antiracism, enforced by socioeconomic elites operating in dominant institutions today, from media to business to education. The complicity of Marxism in deaths of millions in racial and cultural genocides in the past century under Communism is ignored in favor of total focus on the alleged inherent and systemic evils of America’s constitutional republic and historical Protestant civil religion and culture. Yet the hate-filled legacy of Communism remains the American revolutionary Left’s great unacknowledged and un-reparated moral debt, in which CRT also ignores its own complicity in justifying the eradication of minority faith-based traditional Christian cultures in America.
Another principle of critical race theory according to the activist authors of the introductory book is material determinism. This alleges an unspoken alliance of elite economic interests with psychic needs of the white working class. A version of dialectical materialism, its materialistic approach however is undermined by the embrace of CRT by “woke” capitalists and privileged cultural elites. Their material role in the economy would seem to belie the working class’ pre-determined support for revolution, even with the paradox of what CRT alleges to have been an alliance between working-class whites and elites in systemic racism, another fissure in the idea of material economic determinism.
A third principle offered by the book is social constructivism of race accompanied by “differential racialization.” This proposes that race is a fluid identity and constructed for purposes of social control, and marginalized or privileged in varied ways across time. Following this, CRT promotes the idea of “intersectional anti-essentialism,” asserting that varied identities can simultaneously shape a person’s socially constructed situationality, thus in effect limiting exclusionary aspects of race as a factor of constructed but determinative identity. But paradoxically CRT also asserts that the united “voice of color” deserves privilege as a revolutionary force against racism. In this mystical amalgamated “voice of color,” “people of color” unite to assert the primacy of their own narratives, although in a white American culture that is itself becoming a minority culture, by comparison with the aggregation of groups claiming both to be minorities and the new majority, and thus by right dominant.
There are aspects of Critical Race Theory that overlap with perspectives from the Russian philosophical critique of the West historically. The Slavophile movement in the 19th century involved philosophical views highly critical of the Western Enlightenment and the development of a focus on the autonomous individual in Western thought. That critique would include categories of race that sought in effect to universalize Western European culture (including individualism) as superior to the culture and developmental stages of other peoples. The Pochvennichestvo or “back to the soil” movement in late 19th century Russia included much of that critique but coupled it with a more positive engagement with the Westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter the Great and an effort to include the industrialization and modernization of the Russian Empire as a means for competing with the West. Dostoevsky sympathetically engaged with this movement, and expressed also its mix of universalism and nationalism in his suggestions that Russian Christianity, as the legacy of the Third Rome so to speak, offered insights important to all people, and not specifically just to Russians or even Slavs at large. That universal significance was closely tied of course to Orthodox Christianity. Wilfred McClay in his recent American history survey entitled Land of Hope: An Introducton to the Great American Story, has suggested a parallel to this in the history of American patriotism as having both universal and exceptionalist aspects to it.
In the post-Revolutionary era the Russian Orthodox exile philosopher S.L. Frank articulated furthest a case for a balance between sobornost or spiritual unity and obshchestvennost or the mechanical and individualistic aspects of society, especially as developed in the modern world. He did this in his book The Spiritual Foundations of Society but also in other works. In them he was highly critical of atheistic Communism and its effects in Russia and essentially anti-Christian nature. Like Dostoevsky, Frank saw this model as having both particular aspects to Russian culture and universal aspects.
Sobornost as a term exemplifies that. The term in adjectival form translated „catholic“ in the Slavonic Nicene Creed. It etymologically means „cathedral- or council- mindedness,“ the root sobor or „cathedral“ itselfderiving from roots „together“ plus „to bear.“ A gloss on a French essay by the mid-nineteenth-century Slavophile Russian philosopher Aleksei Khomiakov fashioned sobornost as an abstract Russian noun.It could also be regarded as parallel to the Greek term koinonia with a meaning of communion. Another way to think of its meaning is an intersection between mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, as expressed in Orthodox ecclesiology.
Marx’s definition of freedom as „conscious, rational control over economic and social forces“ differs fundamentally from the oikonomia, or operation of grace as cosmological law, in sobornost. By contrast, Indo-European roots of terms for freedom feature meanings of fecundity linked to community– to be „liberal“ or „free,“ as in being generous—related to Christian sobornost. Sobornost’ involves “ togetherness, wholeness, communality; it emphasizes a oneness, but without uniformity or loss of individuality,” as the Russian émigré scholar Nicolas Zernov put it. It “means a symphonic Church which forms a harmonious unity out of the diverse gifts of its different members; like a well-conducted orchestra it produces one harmony, although each musician plays his own part on his own particular instrument.” It has also been defined, through Dostoevsky’s literary expression, as organic collectivity, “a free, inner, organic ‘unity in multiplicity,”” or the freedom of human personhood realized in the Person of Christ.
The Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote of the logic of sobornost that,
“Therefore, every villain, whilst in the commission of evil acts, must be met with all who unite to resist him; this resistance is conducted by few on behalf of all, and on behalf of a people’s unified, common goal. This is the meaning of any spiritually consequential social organization. A sense of mutual connection and mutual responsibility, when it has matured, indicates to people their common spiritual goal and induces them to create a unified common authority to serve it…. It is the living body of that power which is made up of all individual, spiritual forces connected by a social solidarity with the common sacred space: this force has the power of the sacred space, and it is its living phenomenon and its living sword.”
A commentator on Ilyin adds that sobornost is the unity of people “who, in an act of spiritual freedom, forego their individualism out of love for a greater good. This stands in contrast to social contract theory, in which people submit to authorities for their own benefit.” By contrast, it involves submission “for the greater good of the fight against evil, that is, the work of God.” Boris Jakim glossed Frank in writing, “The spirit of sobornost’ is the spirit of freedom…. [the] outer, mechanical stratum of social life is possible only on the basis of the living, inner, organic unity of sobornost’. The primary and fundamental form of sobornost’ is the unity of marriage and family,” co-existing with “religiousness and the commonality of the life and fate of people.” The union of Christ and His Church, symbolized as marriage, likewise is typed by the overlap of sobornost and obshchestvennost in Frank’s philosophical writing. Jakim summarizes this thus:
Sobornost’ is an expression of that inner fullness and freedom of life which is the ultimate Divine ground of being and which (in its action on and its realization in the world) is the transfiguration and deification of the world, the incarnation of Divine truth in the world…. All human rights are ultimately grounded in one ‘innate’ right: the right of man to demand that he be given the opportunity to fulfill his obligation, i.e., the opportunity to serve…. The principle of solidarity and the principle of individual freedom, the unity of ‘we’ and the unity of ‘I,’ can be reconciled and harmonized only through their common subordination to the principle of service. The legitimate demand for equality is really the legitimate demand for the equality of service.
Sobornost carries meanings of spiritual unity or wholeness, “conciliarity, ecumenicity, harmonious togetherness, catholicity,” related to its root sobor or assembly, associated with the assembly of a dioecese at the Bishop’s Cathedral in Russia. But the Latin Church in the West began using “catholic” and “ecumenical” as synonymous, conflating the meanings of “spiritual unity” with “universality” in universalis, later paralleling the rise of the term university, which interestingly became in the secular West often a focus of a universalist spatiality of neocolonial globalism, of the type assailed by critical race theory. “[T]he Slavonic translators conveyed to us the understanding that catholicity is not just ubiquity, nor is it only association, but that it is unification around one center, or the unity of all in Christ,” notes the émigré Russian theological writer Fr. Michael Pomazansky. Pomazansky observed that the term sobor in Orthodox Liturgy also is identified with the assembly of particles of eucharistic bread behind the iconostasis, symbolizing in real terms for believers Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, and Church members. Thus, a part of the Church is one with the whole of the Church. This is not so much spatial unity as an internal characteristic, which Pomazansky wrote addresses the “how” rather than the “where” of hidden yet expressed unity, communion.
S.L. Frank articulated three entwined and continuing forms of this idea of spiritual unity: 1. The unity of marriage and family, in the physiological inner union of complementary male and female (a central image in Christian ecopoetics, also translatable to monasticism in the marriage of community to Christ, and echoed by statements about the relation between marriage and the republic by American founding fathers); 2. The spiritual life of faith, as in ecclesiology of conciliarity; and 3. “the common fate and life of every united group of people.” Frank in exile distilled a summary list of four features of what distinguishes sobornost from obshchestvennost (the “outer, empirically given nature of the social connection”). In sobornost,
1. “The whole not only inseparably unites the parts but is present in each of its parts…. In contrast to the external social unity, in which the power of the whole normalizes and limits the freedom of the separate members, and in which unity is realized in the form of external order and the distribution of competences, rights, and obligations among the separate members—the unity of sobornost is free life, the spiritual ‘capital’ that nourishes and enriches the life of its members.”
2. Its unity “constitutes the life-content of the individual,” “a kind of spiritual nourishment, by which the individual lives inwardly; it is the riches, the personal property of the individual.” This aspect Frank summarizes as love, and is distinctively related to the Christian “gift economy” view of Creation (and property) as relational rather than objectified. “Love is precisely the name of that relation in which the object of the relation is in our possession though it is outside of us; love is the relation in which the one who gives himself away enriches himself inwardly.” Property rights in this sense are “metaphysical” and basic, not in a materialistic context, but rather identified with divine grace–not objectifiable by individual, corporation, or state, but needing to be shared. Scriptural strictures on usury, debt, and objectification of the land, point toward a decentralized agrarian-style household economy, based on a sense of the natural world as a gift from God in love, which is shared through alms-giving philanthropy, not controlled and enslaved by the power drive of atheistic technocratic masters.
3. This love must be for an individual whole, some organism, such as “a given family, a given nation, a given church,” although the highest spiritual attainment tends toward love for the one organism of Godmanhood in Christ.
4. The “supratemporal unity of sobornost.” Frank writes, “Human life is possible in general only on the basis of memory and foresight—it is life with the aid of the past and for the future, the use of the past in the interests of the future.” So “according to church doctrine, the visible church as the union of living believers is only the empirical incarnation in the present of the invisible church,” so it is with “every visible communion” of human beings, trans-generationally.
The fictional philosopher Pavel Ivanovich Varsonofiev in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914, in dialogue with the Tolstoyan-peasant-student Isaac (Sanya) Lozhenitsyn, a fictional version of Solzhenitsyn’s father, suggests sobornost as the basis for justice in an Orthodox Christian sense:
[Sanya:] “What about justice?” That was something he hadn’t mentioned. “Surely justice is an adequate principle for the construction of a good society.”
“Yes indeed!” Varsonofiev said turned the two brilliantly lit caverns [of his eyes] toward him. “But not the justice we devise for ourselves, to create a comfortable earthly paradise. Another kind of justice, which existed before us, without us, and for its own sake.”
Orthodox Christian ideas of sobornost offer a relational view of identity like Critical Race Theory, but it is a relational identity based in God, not athetistical, and not the basis for atheistic revolution which ultimately is aimed against God. Frantz Fanon in his essay The Face of Blackness, a foundational text for Critical Race Theory, writes of the character Digger Thomas in Richard Wright’s famous novel Native Son, and how he is driven to accidental murder and scandal. Fanon writes, “To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” It is as if an ethical approbation for murder, one that resonates with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s observation (in The Gulag Archipelago‘s section on “The Soul and Barbed Wire”) that the governing ethical principles of Marxist totalitarianism were “survive at any price” and “only material results matter.” As put in discussions in The Brothers Karamazov, this involves a sense that “everything is permitted” without God, seen in the ideas of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov as lived out by his putative half-brother Smerdyakov, exemplified also by the political nihilist Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s Demons, and by the whole social trajectory of Russia in Solzehnitsyn’s cycle of historical novels, The Red Wheel, careening toward the egotocracy of that ultimate practitioner of nihilistic totalitarianism, the mass murderer Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin. This, too, is where the ethics of Critical Race Theory and its allied forms of Cultural Marxism lead, via “soft” or “cultural” totalitarianism. Sobornost shares a critique of Western individualism with Critical Race Theory and its allied ideologies, but without merely extending the problems of individualism even further, as does CRT’s assertion of relational identity without God. Cultural Marxist ideologies, rooted in aspects of the Eurocentric Enlightenment thinking they criticize, by pursuing that atheistic relationality of identity ironically become synchronized with the customized and commodified identities of neoliberal capitalism, which set up the kinds of alliances we see between CRT, Pansexualism, Anthropocenism, and Antifa with secular consumer and surveillance capitalism today. As Hannah Arendt noted of classical forms of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, a new alliance of elites and “mob” emerges today in digitalized forms. Faithful traditional Christians in a new Catacomb Church will face intensified spiritual warfare and persecution in this Cultural Revolution 2.0 of the advancing “latter days,” while remembering that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against our Lord’s Church, which is His Body. Glory to God for all things!
 Nicolas Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937), 21.
 Richard Pevear, citing Frank, in Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 2003), vii, f.n.
 S.L. Frank, Spiritual Foundations of Society, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986), 60-61.
 Ibid., 63-64.
 Ibid., 65-67.
Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Mission, Sunday 25 January 7529 (Feb. 7, 2021 civil calendar)
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, today we commemorate the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia under the Bolshevik yoke, whose icon is before us.
As the Troparion of the Feast today beseeches:
“Entreat Him, as the One that planted you, that He deliver His people from godless and evil men, and that the Church of Russia be made steadfast through your blood and suffering, unto the salvation of our souls.”
For the Church of Russia today, in a spiritual sense, faces a new impending persecution of the latter days, around the world, as the largest of the Orthodox Church churches, and the one whose persecutions have given many recent saints to intercede for us in our coming challenges in the diaspora and among converts worldwide, including here in America.
The New Martyrs and Confessors remind us that freedom lies in service to truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, not in atheistic self-assertion of will and rights, but in self-emptying in Christ as the source of our identity.
Copies of the Icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia (left) and of the Kursk Root Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God (right) at a home in northern Appalachia, from Holy Trinity Monastery.
This is not an identity of White Supremacy, Hegemonic Blackness, Transhumanist Commodification, Transgenderist-Queer Exclusivism, or any stumbling blocks of our times. It is an identity of self-emptying in service to truth, the Person, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel readings for today give us important wisdom in terms of how we should handle this new era of coming atheist persecution, the signs of which we can already discern.
The blind man beseeches our Lord and God and Savior, saying, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me!” In calling Him Son of David, he is recognizing Him as the Messiah, as the spiritual fulfillment of the royal line of Israel, as the Church of the New Testament. This is the equivalent of the Jesus Prayer the Church gives us as a precious legacy, which is also based on the Gospel’s prayer of the Publican, in short form: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
The Gospel reading today also tells us that our Lord will give us “a mouth and wisdom to bear testimony.” It may start also with the Jesus Prayer in our heart, that simple prayer.
A wise priest once told me in difficult meetings in a hyper-secular job situation, with people who hated my being an Orthodox Christian, to pray in my heart, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” silently, and then to pray the name of each of them, alternating with my own. Keep praying for yourself, the priest said, because you need to remember you are the biggest sinner. I unworthily did this through the meetings, and through God’s grace it helped greatly establish some harmony and most of all a spiritual rootedness from our Lord for my participation.
But our encounters may end in martyrdom of various degrees in future, martyrdoms of livelihood, of social and economic status, for us and for our families, even unto actual death, as was met by tens of millions under Communism. We trust in our Lord’s words that He will give us “a mouth and wisdom, which all our adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.” And we can ask daily for the new martyrs and confessors of Russia to intercede for us, because they are part of our Church family too. As the Kontakion of the feast today says of them: “Ye are a model for us who venerate your struggle; for neither tribulation, prison, nor death could separate you from the love of God.”
Our country today goes through a time of humbling that requires repentance. The so-called Anti-Racism and Antifa ideologies on the Left are rooted in atheistic materialism as much as consumerist materialism on the Center or Right. Without God, all becomes based in raw power apart from God.
In these times, we should stay close to our spiritual fathers in confession and in guidance for practice of the Jesus Prayer. We should not fall into the trap of essentializing race and sex as cultural Marxist identity politics today seeks to do, or identifying ourselves with careerism and consumerism (and the two are often now integrally related).
It is all a trap of corruption based in advancing status and power, ending in dust.
We should be humble and repentant but we should be so in Christ, and be strong through Him in our spiritual warfare, prayint for wisdom in how best to protect those must vulnerable, including especially young and old people, from the wreckage of our culture in atheistic power.
Objectifying ourselves and others ends only in lonely meaninglessness, in an idolatry of self and of certain categories of self-pleasure and self-will and advancement such as race and sex, and a demonization of other categories, that all end in demonic passion and self-destruction.
The new martyrs and confessors have been there before us, they are part of our Church family. We ask their help. And we know, as the Apostle Paul wrote in the Epistle reading today, “that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose…. If God be for us, who can be against us?.. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
The Apostle Paul tells us from his own experience, that “neither tributlation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or weapons can separate us from the love of Christ.”
“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He is always as close as our heart in the Jesus Prayer, and as the Communion prayers beseech, we are no longer alone when in communion with His Body the Church.
As St Nikolai Velimirovich, who suffered from persecution of Orthodox Christians, held at Dachau by the Nazis and facing Communist persection, wrote
“Concern yourself only that you have God for a friend and do not be afraid of anything. Behold, He is your only friend Who loves you without change.”
A shining example to us is that of St. Luke the Surgeon of Crimea, whose life was a martyrdom of service while enduring persecution from the Communists.
He gave every day to God in keeping His commandments, and their core in whole-hearted love for God and neighbor, as a surgeon, and as a Christian shepherd of the flock, and wonderworker, in the most difficult times.
Always insisting on wearing his riassa while having an icon of the Most Holy Mother of God on display while conducting surgery, he was persecuted by the Secular Supremacists of Marxist-Leninism, who in their Secular Fragility and Secular Nationalism and Atheism sought to eliminate him through imprisonment and torture.
They failed. He survived, strongly in faith, and through grace standing up to them, at one point testifying truly that while he as a surgeon cut to heal, they cut off heads merely for the pleasure of killing.
As Alexander Solzhenitsy wrote, “survive at any price” and “only material results matter” became the touchstone principles of modern totalitarianism. They are scarily taking over in America today on all sides of the political spectrum and throughout our intelligentsia and corporate elites.
When St. Luke died, the government tried to suppress popular demonstrations from the people who loved his holiness and loving heart.
But the stones cried out, the masses of people turned out for the funeral procession, and all the Soviet power could not prevent the sound of chanting in the streets during the long procession, over and over again: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal Have Mercy on Us!”
Truly we live in hope, and the source of that hope is our faith in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, a faith grounded in His love and expressed in keeping His commandments, the core of which are whole-hearted love for God and for our neighbor. Totalitarian movements, soft or hard, cultural or Marxist-Leninist, Right or Left, East or West, like the Gates of Hell, shall not prevail against His Church.
Let us remember finally as our standard in spiritual warfare the wonder-working icon identified with the history of our mission, which leads us into spiritual battle. In our mission’s Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God, Our Lady of the Sign, was regarded as a palladion or protecting symbol of the Russian Imperial Army. Originally found at the root of a tree during dark days of the Tatar conquest of what would become Russia in the thirteenth century, during the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1920 the icon was brought by General Pyotr Wrangel’s White Army into exile, in the evacuation that marked the birth of ROCOR, following Saint-Patriarch Tikhon’s blessing. Today the icon resides in the Cathedral of the Sign in New York City, the ROCOR Synodal Cathedral at its headquarters, and visited our mission here in central Pennsylvania in our early days.
The icon includes 12 figures, of the Theotokos, the infant Christ, the Ancient of Days above them and nine Old Testament prophets. This was the icon before which St. Seraphim of Sarov was healed and prayed, and our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco reposed. The prophets on the icon, who prophesied of Jesus Christ –clockwise from upper right, King Solomon, Prophets Daniel, Elijah, Jeremiah, Hezekia, Judge Gideon, Prophets Isaiah, Moses, and King David — remind us of the ancient holy fathers who also form part of our Church family at prayer, together with the new martyrs and confessors of Russia, of whom St. John like St. Luke of Crimea was a contemporary and living witness through persecution as he fled first Communist Russia and then Communist China, bringing his refugee orphan charges across the Pacific with him to San Francisco.
Through all their intercessions, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us, and make us ready also to be martyrs and confessors if it be Thy will. Amen.
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.