Royal Martyrs, a barefoot American Saint, and the Fourth of July

This Fourth of July in America 2020 is a time of severe civil division and unrest, economic depression, and epic uncertainty due to global pestilence. Troubles of “biblical proportions” indeed, they seem to call the question of the “latter days,” at least for a nation that until recently boasted of being the last best hope on earth.

Gathered with friends at a small informal Fourth of July Parade in our rural college town, after the official parade had been shut down due to health concerns, I genuinely wondered if that modest replacement effort would be the last such parade in a town where massive annual Fourth parades and fireworks had been a tradition, but which now seems in the grip of the new secular “Great Awokening,” in which patriotism has swerved into being a dissident act.

As our controversial President flew over Mount Rushmore last evening on his way to a rally there, I also wondered if this would be the last presidential visit to Mount Rushmore, the last time Air Force One would fly by those iconic American presidents in stone, and whether indeed the days of that proud monument to the American republic itself now may be numbered, along with that very form of government as it has existed historically.

Video below: Fourth of July fly-by of Air Force One over Mount Rushmore

 

By meaningful historical coincidence, the Fourth is also the date on the Julian calendar of the martyrdom of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, led by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, recognized on our civil Gregorian calendar on July 17. At our small Russian Orthodox mission parish in Union Township, Pennsylvania, this is also the weekend of our feast day, when we commemorate our patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. The coincidence prompts this reflection on the enduring Christian meaning of freedom and unity, and the need for deeper spiritual discernment, amid the angst of commemorating the Fourth of July in a fragmenting America today.

The execution of the Russian royal family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, by order of the totalitarian leader Vladimir Lenin as historians since established, marked the end of the last major Christian empire on earth, cultural heir to the ancient Christian Roman empire of Byzantium, at a time when remaining Protestant and Catholic Christian constitutional monarchies in the West already were slipping into secular irrelevancy.

The Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia

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The rise in Russia of the world’s first full-fledged totalitarian regime involved the start of a state-sponsored death toll subsequently tallied at up to 100 million by the Communist movements that spread from it around the world, most notably to China, where Communist totalitarianism continues to this day in the rising preeminent global superpower, and point of origin of the Covid-19 plague now haunting the world.

The end of the Christian Russian Empire marked the precariousness of traditional Christian culture in the face of ruthless totalitarian secularism in the twentieth century. Its demise also serves as a reminder of how no regime, however old and established, can be assumed to last forever, especially in the fast-changing advance of global technocracy.

Standing beside the Royal Martyrs in the spiritual panoply of Orthodox Christian saints are the many New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, those whose deaths and targeted persecution by atheistic Communism lit the way for the revival of Christianity in Russia, and the coming of Russian Orthodoxy to our small Pennsylvania town five years ago, in a new mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). One hundred years ago, ROCOR was founded as its Synod evacuated from Crimea to Constantinople with scores of thousands of refugees in a flotilla including remnants of the White Army, civilian families, and even Russian Boy Scout units.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn would help chronicle the suffering of those faithful left behind in his The Gulag Archipelago, which in its section “The Soul and Barbed Wire” outlines three principles of totalitarianism: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and professing “the permanent lie” that “perception is reality.” But how many times are we asked to bow to these very same totalitarian principles in America 2020 by our elites from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum?

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

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America’s founding on July 4, 1776, was completed in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863, in south central Pennsylvania, less than a two-hour drive south of where I write. Gettysburg still nestles in rolling farmland of the watershed of the same Susquehanna River that flows by our home, and whose source, according to hydrologists, bubbles up from marshland on the grounds of Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, a spiritual stronghold of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Abraham Lincoln’s words at the Gettysburg battlefield completed America’s founding documents, linking the Declaration of Independence’s axiomatic Christian-inspired principle that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with rights, to the U.S. Constitution, as a republic “under God.” In doing so, Lincoln drew not only on his developing mystical faith from the trauma of the Civil War, but also on his reliance during the earlier Lincoln-Douglas debates on absolute moral principle rather than variations of decision by mob rule. He echoed George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and others, who underscored the indispensability of faith and morality in preserving the republic. The historian Anthony Kaldellis noted how the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium was really a republic, its rulers under a higher law. So too was Lincoln’s vision of the Christian-inspired American constitutional republic, which Adams and others saw combining the best elements of Classical types of government, to reflect the higher law of what the Declaration referred to as “nature’s God,” “divine Providence,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Creator.” The Presidency reflected Monarchy, the Senate Aristocracy, the House of Representatives Democracy, all designed to check and balance one another, as was the case with other elements such as the Electoral College, the Bill of Rights (especially the First and Second Amendments), limited government and the federal system (enshrined in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments balanced by the “Civil War Amendments,” the Thirteenth through Fifteenth), and the Supreme Court. But this basic architecture of the Constitution is under open and foundational attack today. The linked documents of the Declaration, the Constitution (signed in “the year of our Lord”), and the Gettysburg Address are the textual version of the king to be executed now by the cultural (not classical) Marxism of our elites, woke nihilists of all political stripes, little more than a century after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

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America helped win the war against Nazism, and the Cold War against Soviet Communism. But her civil religion, originally based in continually fragmenting Protestantism, subsequently weakened. Now “nones”–those associated with no religion–equal either of the two largest religious populations of the country, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, as a segment of the population.

Behind this change lies the “long march” of “cultural Marxism” through the institutions of American culture. Involving intellectuals, the loose-leafed movement leaped over the class struggle ideas of old Marxism to focus on changing culture to enable revolution. In this it was aided by the enervation of American life through the material excess of comfortable and aggressive consumerism and unaddressed sins, which birthed the  “woke capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism” that now oddly ally with totalitarian movements of the Left.

Today’s ultimately anti-Christian efforts to weaponize intellectual nihilism for revolutionary purposes, exploiting real and alleged sins of America, draw on the work of past intellectuals and strategists like Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, the Frankfurt School and spinoffs (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm), Judith Butler, Audre Lord, Saul Alinsky, Howard Zinn. But such cultural Marxism has run its course from the sexual revolution and radical counter-culture of the 1960s into American corporate board rooms, popular arts, norm-keeping cyberspace mobs, major newsrooms, intellectual communities of dominant religious establishments, elite K-12 schools, and halls of academe. The rituals of its new civil religion, the “secular privilege” and “secular fragility” of its “secularness,” dominate popular culture in current mass ceremonies that seek to exorcise history, confess social sin, and repeat mantra-like slogans and jargon, all without God and with hostility toward traditional Christian faith.

So Antifa today finds increasing elite American “Marxisant” acceptance for the philosophy of “pre-emptive violence” of its anarchist and communist supporters, the Black Lives Matter organization goes establishment with a platform targeting the traditional family for destruction as oppressive, and the Sunrise Movement/Green New Deal mainstreams its own brand of cultural Marxism under cover of caring for the earth.

Dostoevsky’s novel of revolutionary ideas as Demons

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In the half-month before July 4, 2020, conservative appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court helped to re-define sex to include transgenderism, striking a blow against religious freedom and incarnationalist Christian anthropology, by in effect legislating the Equality Act previously deadlocked in Congress. This laid the groundwork for defining traditional faith communities as bigoted outlaws, and came alongside another decision overturning state restrictions on abortion. Neoliberal consumerism and cultural Marxism thus appeared again as two sides of the same coin, championing atheistic and materialistic individual autonomy that engenders nihilism and anarchy. This is the recipe for the social isolation and terror that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt warned laid the foundation of the two classic forms of 20th-century totalitarianism, Nazism and Communism. All this is reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prophetic fiction in his novel Demons, in which secular liberalism led to anarchism and then to nihilism and terror. As the Russian Christian Elder Ignatius of Harbin, China, prophesied, “What started in Russia will end in America.”

But today in Russia, through the prayers we believe of the many martyrs and new confessors under the Bolshevik yoke, Russian Orthodox Christianity is experiencing a revival. In the week before our Fourth of July this year, Russian voters overwhelmingly adopted constitutional amendments affirming faith in God and also traditional marriage as defined in the Christian Gospel in the Russian Federation’s Constitution. The latter effort, a constitutional amendment upholding traditional marriage, promoted but never pushed for by former U.S. President George W. Bush, failed in an early 2000s America that today seems to have existed in another century.

Rebuilding the destroyed Christ the Savior Cathedral

 

America, too, has her own saints praying for her. They include St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose death in Seattle in 1966 is also commemorated this week. St. John, born in Imperial Russia, was marked by devotion to the faith as a young man and known for his caring work as educator, priest, and then bishop. This included his leading a large community of orphans in China to safety from the Communism of Mao, a more brutal mass-murdering totalitarian leader than even Hitler or Stalin, bringing them ultimately to San Francisco. Known for walking barefoot in Paris as a Bishop, as well as in San Francisco, St. John carried the marks of a “fool for Christ,” beloved and miraculous in his prayers before and after his death, named “the wonderworker,” and sometimes infuriating to those mired in a bureaucratic sense of religion. Our mission parish in central Pennsylvania is named for him because of his influence in linking the earlier tradition of Russian monastic spirituality in Alaska to postwar Russian emigres and to the growth of American converts to Orthodoxy in the 1960s and later, as exemplified by his spiritual child the Blessed Father Seraphim Rose, who went from a dissolute life as a nihilistic beatnik in 1950s San Francisco to being one of America’s great spiritual lights.

Thus, as in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the light of spiritual activism, honest repentance, and “active love” shines from one heart to another, more contagious and powerful than even the plague. Elder Zosima caught it from his dying brother, then transmitted it to Alexei Karamazov, and Alexei spread it to the children of his town, as well as to his brother Ivan and others. In this shared experience of the tender heart through faith, in the sobornost of spiritual unity, there is hope for America in her saints now and yet to come. It is why our mission holds a worship service on July Fourth this year in memory of St. John of San Francisco (the closest Saturday to his July 2 feast), including prayer for America, while struggling to keep spiritual watch against the pandemic of atheistic nihilism, which ultimately is a spiritual and not a political plague.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco:

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So we pray in our little Russian Orthodox mission in northern Appalachia, currently in rented space in an historic club on our main street, and sometimes outside on our rural land awaiting a temple, by our cemetery. And our family, considered both a “little church” and a “little kingdom” in our tradition (married couples being crowned in covenant with Christ in Orthodox weddings, rather than linked in any mini-version of a social contract), worships in our home chapel mornings and evenings. Our home chapel is dedicated to the memory of St. Jonah of Hankou, another Russian exile saint. Tortured by the Bolsheviks, rescued by the White Army, he participated in an epic march across the Gobi desert that included climbing cliffs with his bare hands in bitter cold. Then, arriving in China proper, he immediately became renowned for his active charity in tending to the needy and renewing the faith. While caring for a victim of typhoid fever, he contracted the disease, said his final prayers, and died. That same night, a young crippled boy saw a vision of a man coming to him and saying, “here, take my legs, I have no need of them.” The boy arose healed. Later, seeing a picture of St. Jonah, he saw the man from his vision.

St. Jonah in his life and death exemplified what the Russian Orthodox exile S.L. Frank in the 1920s and 1930s wrote of as freedom in the mystical Christian sense: Unforced service to universal truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ, not self-willed assertion of rights. In such freedom, identity is relational, not essentialized or objectified. Justice for Frank lay in working to ensure that every human being has that opportunity for a meaningful life of freedom. Frank was dedicated to this Christian freedom and justice: He and his family had been exiled from Russia on the “philosophers’ ships” by order of Lenin, then because of his Jewish ethnicity fled the Nazis first from Germany then from Paris to southern France, where they hid from the Gestapo until the end of World War II. Labeled by some the greatest Russian philosopher, he labored in near anonymity as an indigent exile without a university home, bearing around his neck a Cross and a pouch with soil from his mother’s grave in a homeland he would never see again, and which no longer existed as he had known it.

As for St. Jonah, he was the bishop of Hankou, modern Wuhan City, today the epicenter of the Covid-19 global pestilence that haunts the world this Fourth of July weekend. His icon in our home chapel bears a saying by him that offers a formula for Christian freedom to remember on this Fourth of July in America:  “Podvig [Russian for ascetic spiritual struggle] is to live for others”

St. Jonah of Hankou

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Into the Woods for Pentecost

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Homily for Pentecost 7528 (civil year 2020), at Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission, Union Township/Winfield, PA. Photos from Pentecost services courtesy of Rev. Ricky Phillips, above; and Luke/Austin Soboleski, the three below. Please consider donating to our mission’s building program @ stjohnthewonderworker.com Thank you!
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In Old Holy Rus’, the desert of the Near East was translated into a forest, just as in Ireland the ocean was termed a desertum for monks.

In Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania, much of the American old-growth forest is now farmland or developments, but our small Russian Orthodox mission, transplanted here with a group of mainly converts from Protestantism, finds its “desert” (пустынь) on a few acres of field, cemetery, and some cool tree cover. Here we pray and work toward, God willing, a temple some day, worshipping outdoors when weather permits, away from our regular rental space downtown in the nearby university town of Lewisburg.

We are here in the great natural riches of the Susquehanna River valley, which enfolds much of the anthracite region where many Slavic immigrants brought their Orthodox Christian heritage with them, and which finds its source as a river according to some hydrologists in marshes on the grounds of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary, in Jordanville, New York, near Cooperstown.

This day of blooming green, the green of Pentecost, we are here under the trees in rural central Pennsylvania. Traditionally, trees are brought into Church temples on Pentecost in the Russian tradition, and vestments change to green, to remind us of the life engendered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from Genesis in the Old Testament to the founding of the New Testament Church on Pentecost, to right here in worship.

When the Comforter arrived, the inspired Church suddenly could speak and hear in different tongues understandable to one another. It was the undoing of the Tower of Babel, just as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were the undoing of Adam’s Fall. Pentecost shows us the underlying spiritual unity of life, the sobornost as the Russians call it, or reality of unity that links us in an unseen dimension all around.  Today, for Pentecost, we renew our baptismal ties or move toward the Church, and in any case renew our spiritual lives. We recommit our missionary work, to link ourselves and our neighbors to the invisible dimension of the spiritual universe in Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and ascetic struggle.

It is easy for mortals through the influence of the evil one to downplay the power of this dimension of spiritual inner unity that joins us together through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel reading for today, the agents of the chief priests and Pharisees greet with scorn the news of the Messiah coming from Galilee. Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet, they say. Well, in a sense they were true, He was no mere prophet, but the Son of God. Today, here, in rural central Pennsylvania, many might say also that no truth can emerge. Our great cities are stricken with pandemic and economic shutdowns, with civil unrest and violence, and no prophet ariseth out of the rural fields of central Pennslvania, seemingly far from that drama of our civilizational centers.

Yet the Holy Spirit calls us, as He does all Christians in the Church, to renew our land from within, and to see His power in the spiritual dimension of connectivity energized by God, in the truth of Jesus Christ. God’s power shapes a space-time warp of faith, so to speak, in which the margins are the center, for He is with us. When Russia was so gravely troubled by Revolution and the sin of regicide, Holy Icons appeared showing the crown given to our Lord’s Mother, the Theotokos, to intercede for us in these Latter Days, as in the Icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos to which we said an Akathist for intercession last evening.

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In His realm, physical distance does not matter, and proximity to material power and riches can even be imprisoning. Galilee was only about 80 miles from Jerusalem. That is less than half the distance from Lewisburg to Washington, DC.

Here on these fields the seed of faith is sheltered, God willing, to come forth like the mustard tree. Through our Lord we are not on the margin but in His Church, His Body, are linked to the center of the spiritual universe, as the grace of the Holy Spirit shows us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those humble and humbled to enter into that dimension of faith, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Holy Spirit takes us to that kingdom and lets us live and move and have our being in that realm, even to breathe in it, with Christ every day, if we open ourselves to Him in prayer and in our lives.

Jesus Christ said in the Gospel reading,

If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

And we are told that in this He spake of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive, once Jesus was glorified and the Holy Spirit given.

The Holy Spirit moved through the Church as a great gust of wind. In Greek, pneuma carries meanings of spirit, breath, and wind, all together, a reminder through the breath of our prayer of how Scripture tells us that our very bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. We stand out here under the trees, open to the whole of Creation, with the universe indeed all God’s Church, still. Let us remember here how some of the brightest lights of the first millennium of the Church in terms of holy saints and missions came from some of the remotest margins of Europe, including the islands around the Irish Sea.

The Western Roman Empire had collapsed and barbarians advanced, and the great missionary work of the Celtic saints took place, often in worship services outdoors, with standing Crosses like the one near us, the Tree of the Cross as it was called, under the trees. The Tree of Life in Genesis and Revelation, according to St. John of Damascus, is a biblical type of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, through Whom and in Whom we find our identity through the Holy Spirit. The roots and branches of that tree nourish and protect and house all in His spiritual realm, however unseen it may appear to be to only materialistic sight.

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So here, under the sky that He created and sustains, we pray to feel that wind of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost breathe through us and our words of prayer, establishing our place in His Church, His Body, both more deeply rooted and higher than earthly winds can blow. Many worldly winds, some demonic in force, buffet our country and its great material centers today. Archbishop Peter of Chicago of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia wrote this week of these storms:

Since the day of Her foundation, the Holy Church always defended and cared for the oppressed, widows, orphans, and homeless. Besides, all charity was of free will and non-compulsory. And so it was throughout the ages. State social services appeared rather recently.

The Holy Church was always against any kind of revolutions or forceful overturning of power. Instead, She supported civil evolution. For example, being persecuted, She peacefully, without any riots, changed the course of the pagan Roman Empire, having completely regenerated it. The same was done by Orthodox Christian missionaries, who spread the Holy Gospel among different nations.

Look at the history of Holy Russia and compare by what means the Bolsheviks planted ‘equality.’ Now we are experiencing great turmoil in our United States. Attempts are made to destroy all foundations of law and order. In the name of ‘justice’ we see looting, destruction, and mayhem. The Holy Church was always against such actions, and Orthodox Christians cannot participate or support them. The Apostle Paul writes that we should pray for the land we live in and its authorities. If there is peace in the land, so will the Church and Her children live in peace and prosperity. Therefore we should enforce our prayers for our American land and its peace and tranquility.

“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, do Thou calm the agitation and discord in our American land, banish from us slander and conflict, murder and drunkenness, bitter disputes and scandals, and burn out of our hearts every impurity, conflict and evil, that again we may all love one another and abide, as one, in Thee, our God, as Thou has commanded and directed us. Grant peace to Thy Church and to her children, that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify Thee, our Lord and Savior, unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

Returning to our Gospel reading today, we find in it a message worth remembering about true freedom:

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Pentecost reminds us that true freedom is found in voluntary service to universal truth in the Person of Jesus Christ, not in fighting with each other for survival or advancement or any tribes or markers of identity apart from Him. Jesus Christ is the source of our identity, not our passions, our race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, wealth, job, etc. Through the Holy Spirit, we call Him Lord. The Holy Spirit lifts us in the Church into His arms in that Tree of Life that is both deeper and higher and more safe than any worldly movements, just as we may remember as children climbing a tree both for a higher view and a place of refuge.

The troubled but brilliant Austrian Poet Rainer Rilke developed a great love for the Russian Orthodox Church during his time as a writer in the early 20th century, and wrote verses about the shaded summer cool of the sobor or Russian cathedral, with reference to a tree:

There is little sun in the sobor
Everything is watched with soaring kindness
by a goodness ready to fly–
every stone and flower
and every little child at night.
Only we, in our impatience,
fly in search of freedom
in the emptiness of space
instead of yielding to wise powers
that sweep us up like a tree.

This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit renew our baptisms, and gather us into the Church like birds on the branches of the Tree of Life, which is the Body of Christ, into true freedom.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us, Amen.

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On the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council by Vladyka Philaret, and American Mission Work

 

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This introduces a homily by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Metropolitan Philaret, of blessed memory, with some thoughts on American mission today, as given at an outdoor Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in central Pennsylvania on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council today.

We are in that mystical time between the Ascension and Pentecost, when the Church Calendar seems especially timeless. We say Christ is Ascended to the heavens, or from heaven to earth, and await the descent of the Holy Spirit, founding the Church in tongues of fire, in a spiritual language uniting all brothers and sisters once divided at the Tower of Babel. It is the blossoming of the new life in Christ along with the spring, awaiting the full blooming. And for the moment in this very troubled world all the Orthodox Churches everywhere are still united in the same sacred cycle of sacred days at least on the trajectory from Pascha to Pentecost, though soon some will slip back fully onto the civil calendar. We are all still worshipping together on the Ascension-Pentecost bridge just now.

In the middle is this Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, who gave us the core of what we say every Sunday and often in daily prayers, the Nicaean Creed or Symbol of our Faith. This is a meaningful coincidence, as is our Church calendar generally, because the Ascension reminds us of the Incarnation, upheld by the Ecumenical Council, even as Pentecost established the Church fully as the Body of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Both Christologically and ecclesiologically, the Ascension revealed the mystical hierarchy of our faith, as Christ went bodily into the heavens, bringing with Him our human nature, fully God and fully man. We as part of the Body of Christ, His Church, are under his headship of the Church as part of His Body, in which we participate as emphasized in the Eucharist. Pentecost soon will also remind us of the mystical conciliarity of the Church, how all gathered together and were filled with the Holy Spirit. The combination of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity marks Orthodox ecclesiology with a completeness of which Protestantism and Catholicism have only one piece each.

Orthodoxy shows us how that intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity saves us, makes us complete in Christ. The Cross is a symbol of this, with one beam pointed toward heaven and its cross-beam embracing the oikumene or inhabited world of men. In our Russian Orthodox Cross before us today, an additional cross-beam, at a tilt, reminds us of our own place with the Wise and the Wicked Thieves, the former St. Rakh asking Christ to remember him, and “stealing Paradise,” symbolized by the part of the diagonal beam pointing up to the right from the vantage point of the Cross. The wicked thief, by contrast, continued to revile Christ, and is represented in the part pointing down and to its left. So, this stands as a question to us, too: Which will we follow? Christ upward to the Heavens, in anticipation of His return, or the wicked thief toward Hell? And will we take up our Cross?

This Cross right here on our land, where we hope to build a temple, is from a small old coal-town Church in Sheppton, Pennsylvania, where the Patriarch-Martyr Tikhon served when he was the lead Bishop of American Orthodoxy, before the 1917 Revolution. Back in Russia by the time of the Revolution, he became the first Patriarch of Moscow to hold that title since the 18th century.

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Cruelly, St. Tikhon’s assumption of the title of Patriarch occurred just as the Bolsheviks began their effort to eradicate Orthodox Christianity from Russia, in a great holocaust of suffering. The Patriarch was driven to his death, some say poisoned. However, before that, he gave the blessing that enabled the start of our Church Synod, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, known as ROCOR. Today our ROCOR parishes including our mission still have a distinctive witness, but to the increasingly atheistic and materialistic West, based on that witness to the horrors of nihilistic totalitarianism.

Today, as we worship outdoors in this Reader Service, I would like to read a short homily for this Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, by one of our early ROCOR Metropolitans, Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory. He had endured great suffering, too, at the hands of the Chinese Communists, who at one time even tried to burn him alive in his monastic cell, leaving him badly injured. He was one of the last Orthodox hierarchs to remain in China after it turned Communist in the late 1940s, for a decade afterward caring for the remnant Russian Orthodox exile community there, finally forced into exile in Australia, and then elected First Hierarch of ROCOR. Our mission’s patron Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, then a senior bishop in ROCOR, agreed with other hierarchs to elect Philaret to that leadership role, because he was the youngest bishop, who could preserve that witness of the joyful sorrow of persecution from those times for younger generations of the Church Abroad.

Here is Metropolitan Philaret’s sermon for this day.

“The Orthodox Church today prayerfully remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which once met in the city of Nicaea in order to investigate and judge the heresy of Arius. We know that in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church endured severe persecution, first from the Jews and then from the pagan Roman imperial power. But despite the fact that the persecution was bloody, despite the fact that thousands of “Christians died under torture for their confession of faith, nonetheless, it was not dangerous for the Church.

“The Christian of the first centuries remembered well that the Lord Jesus Christ said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the sou: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). And in the Apocalypse, He said: “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2:10). In these bloody persecutions Christians were faithful to death, went to martyric death, and received from the Lord Savior the crown of eternal life earned by them.

“When the era of persecution ended, another began. This was much more dangerous for the Church. Then inside the Church appeared heresy, delusion, and distortion of the truth. They appeared immediately, but the first were not much noticed, and did not attract many followers. The heresy of Arius, which appeared when the persecution had ended, agitated the entire Church. Arius was a scholar and an eloquent presbyter, that is, a priest – a pastor in the city of Alexandria. The bishop of Alexandria died. At that time the flock choose its own pastors. The eloquent, educated Arius, who held a prominent position, was certain that he would be chosen, and that he would be the bishop. But the majority of the clergy and people chose another bishop, the presbyter Alexander, who was also well read, educated, and knowledgeable. He was not as outstanding and talented as Arius, but he was marked by his piety, and was truly of righteous and holy life. For this reason, the clergy and flock honored him and elected him.

“This piqued Arius’ wounded self-love. Unfortunately, this is always the story in the history of heresies. In the beginning there lies an evil motive, an evil impulse of a personal character, which is wrapped in a robe as a kind of fidelity to truth.

“Thus Arius, in his self-love, decided to speak out against his own bishop – he could not accept the fact that he was not a bishop. Once Bishop Alexander spoke with his clergy about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, about the equality of its Persons, that the Holy Trinity is a Trinity of Unity, inasmuch as in three Persons there is One Divine Essence, One Divine Nature. Arius boldly stood up and began to contradict him and began to assert that the Son of God is not equal to God the Father, as Bishop Alexander had said, or not born of Him, but created by Him, as a creature, as creation. True, higher, more perfect, but still creation, a creature. Alexander tried to reason with gentle admonitions to reason with Arius, but he persevered. And since he was eloquent, this heresy arose, and because of him it spread and eventually roused the entire Church.

“Alexander, as a bishop, excommunicated him from the Church. He left, but began to spread his doctrine further and further. In the end, the Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine himself commissioned the Elder Hosius of Cordova, well known for his piety and deep wisdom to make out what this was, what this was for a heresy. The elderly Bishop Hosius, pious and wise, arrived in Alexandria. Without any prejudice, absolutely impartial, he investigated this question, and returned and told the Emperor that Arius was preaching a horrible heresy, which subverts all of Christianity. For if the Son of God is not equal to God the Father and is not born of Him, then He is not God, but creation, which means that he was not incarnate as the true God-Man. That means that the deed of our salvation was not accomplished as our Christian faith teaches us.

“In the end, an Ecumenical Council assembled. Arius had only a few bishops on his side. The overwhelming majority of bishops (and more than 300 assembled for the Council) stood firmly for the Orthodox faith, condemned the heresy of Arius, and excommunicated him himself from the Church, as a persistent and uncorrected heretic.

“This heretic died a horrible death, but his heresy agitated the Church for a long time. Only gradually did it begin to subside. It had to be fought by Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, who lived after Arius. But, in the end, truth triumphed, but there was a moment when in the East, of all Orthodox bishops, only St Athanasius the Great remained, and in the West only St Hilary of Poitiers; all the other episcopal cathedras, hundreds of cathedras, were taken by bishops who were themselves Arian heretics.

“The Church, however, was not lost. It was difficult for St Athanasius to fight with the heretics in the East. Many times he was exiled, but he remained unmoved. When he learned in his solitude that at last he had an ally, a successor, in St Basil the Great, did this great defender of Orthodoxy breathed a sigh of relief. Thus did the Church experience this heresy, that is how it was disturbed by it.

“After Arius there were other heretics. They were also condemned by Ecumenical Councils. But today we remember the First Ecumenical Council, which condemned Arius and his heresy. Amen.”

That is the end of the saintly Metropolitan Philaret’s homily. The defeat of the Arian heresy was a defeat of the spirit of the Anti-Christ, which the Apostle and Evangelist John said denies that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh as God become man.

That is our hope of salvation, which the Apostle Paul called our faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Today the spirit of Anti-Christ would, like the atheist Bolsheviks, although often in subtler and more attractive and thus even more deadening ways, deny the Incarnation of Christ. But here between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, we are filled with the joy of the Risen Lord Who is ascended bringing our human nature to heaven.

Our hierarchs, clergy, and faithful, who exactly a hundred years ago fled from the Bolsheviks in a flotilla of scores of ships from Crimea to Constantinople with the remnants of the White Russian Army to start the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, believed they were experiencing a sign of the latter days, in the end of the last major Christian empire and what seemed to be the destruction of Orthodox Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Today in America, we face many other signs that can be interpreted as of the latter days, whether of pandemic or of deep divisions suggesting the possibility of yet another civil war to come in America, and principalities and powers seeking to eradicate traditional Christianity.

Yet we remember that Communism in Russia had its day and passed, and the Church there is going through a renewal, even as America has become a post-Christian nation in many ways. So, our small Russian Ortodox group gathers at this Cross in rural Pennsylvania today, dedicated humbly to spreading the Gospel and reconnecting the people of the West with the one Holy and Apostolic Church of the Creed, both hierarchical and conciliar. Suspended timelessly for a moment between the Ascension and Pentecost, we may like the earlier Apostles be both overjoyed to witness to our Risen Lord and also fearful of what may come. But our Lord will not leave us comfortless. Like the early Russian missionaries to Alaska paddling their kayaks in the Aleutians or the early Celtic saints navigating in their currachs through the Western Isles and setting up their own standing crosses like ours, let us hold fast navigating in the darkness by our Bright and Morning Star, Christ, knowing that as he ascended, so shall he come again.

There is an Appalachian folk rendition of the Pascha troparion that here in Northern Appalachia perhaps we may sing one more time on this last Sunday before Pentecost, in Appalachian style, “Christ is Risen from the Dead…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmJ8PJH2-6U&feature=youtu.be

(Thanks to my godson Luke (Austin) Soboleski for the photo of this talk being delivered before our mission Cross.)

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It’s Pansemiotic: “Tolkien’s Cosmic-Christian Ecology”

Here is a copy of the old uncorrected proofs for my essay in the book Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, which I co-edited with Jane Chance in the New Middle Ages series from Palgrave. Originally published in hardback in 2005, the book is still in print, available in a less-expensive paperback edition. Tolkien’s work generally remains a fine example of what Winfried Nöth described as medieval pansemiotism: Considering Creation as all-meaningful embodied symbolism.

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Christmas on the Orthodox Calendar, and Appalachian “Old Christmas”

Note: Please join in commemorating Christmas on the Orthodox calendar, if you’re in the central Pennsylvania region Jan. 6-7, at Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Christian Mission Church, in the Lewisburg Club, 131 Market St., Lewisburg PA. Holy Supper followed by Compline and Litya will be at 5 p.m. Sunday Jan. 6, and Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be at 10 a.m. Monday Jan. 7. All are welcome! (Services are in English with some Slavonic.)
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     ”Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” is still celebrated in America in early January by a few religious communities such as some Amish and Mennonite congregations, and remembered in rural areas.
     It was in 1752 that the British Empire switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thus bringing with it the English colonies of North America, and subsequently the United States, into the “new calendar,” following much of the European world. Christmas was then celebrated earlier, as Dec. 25 shifted backward.
     However, much of the Orthodox Christian world in Eurasia and Africa and other continents remains on the Julian calendar today (and most Orthodox Christians worldwide), on which December 25 falls on Jan. 7 this year on the church year. In Byzantine reckoning still used on Mount Athos and traditional Orthodox Christians, by the way, that church year is 7527.The new year for the Orthodox Church calendar falls on Sept. 1.
    There are parallels here with the Jewish calendar, which has its new year in the fall, its own overlapping calendar, and its own system of calculating years from creation (the Orthodox Christian year system however is based on the Greek Septuagint Bible).
     The deeper parallel lies in a sacred sense of time on the old calendar, along with either cognitive dissonance or welcome distance from the secular calendar, depending on your point of view.
     The commercialism and hectic rush of “new Christmas” dies down and allows for the ending of the Nativity Fast practiced by Orthodox Christians to sink in, along with some quiet and distinctions for children about the meaning of the day, echoing the message of the famous American Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
     Waiting for presents, and having to navigate earlier holiday non-fasting banquets and other family and friends celebrating Christmas early, are among the challenges.
     But the rewards come in the warmth, light, iconography, and smells of worship and food that come forth on Old Christmas to greet the birth of Christ in a cave. Traditional Orthodox iconography depicts His manger as a coffin, reminding us in simultaneous moment of sacred time of both the joy of the Incarnation and the sorrow of the Crucifixion, with the Resurrection joy following that. As St. Athanasius put it in the fourth century, “God became man so that man might become a god,” one in grace but not in essence with God. There too on the icon of course is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, whose womb is described in Orthodoxy hymnody as wider than the heavens, because it contained the Creator God, Christ, fully God and because of her likewise fully man.
     Most Orthodox Christians worldwide celebrate on Jan. 7, which due to calendar creep now differs from the Jan. 6 Old Christmas of some Anabaptist communities. In the United States, many Orthodox Christian parishes are on the new calendar,because of controversial decisions in Constantinople (as they still call Istanbul) in the 1920s, following the Russian Revolution, when the communists changed the civil calendar from the Julian to Gregorian model, with the latter thus becoming identified in Slavic Orthodox cultures with brutal secularization. For them, Theophany (Epiphany in the West) falls on Jan. 6 currently, which is Dec. 24 or Nativity Eve on the Orthodox Julian calendar.
     Still, even in North America many of us celebrate on Jan. 7, and many others will remember it as Old Christmas, in churches large and small. Our small mission in central Pennsylvania gathers the night of Jan. 6 for a holy supper in the tradition of the coal region, a prayer service, and then again for the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity on Monday morning.
     The Gregorian calendar was instituted by the Catholic Church and much of the West in an effort to account better for astronomical slippage of the seasons due to the universe not following human calculations exactly.
     However, for those still on the Julian clock for Christmas, there arguably is a reflection of the overlapping sacred sense of time that the Church Fathers described in four dimensions: Human, now “cell phone” time; natural, related to the seasons and stars; eternal, as in the angels, demons, and human soul; and everlasting, the beyond-time of the divine.
     They all come together at the Nativity under the star followed by the Magi and the watchful eyes of the shepherds.
     We’re in the calendar but not of it, so to speak.
     Blessed Nativity, Merry Christmas, and pass the pierogis.
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Dostoevsky and the Susquehanna Valley

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This morning I was reading up on Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism,” celebrated in Mikhail Bakhtin’s view of the author’s art as a polyphonic or many-voiced “dialogical materialism,” an embodied dialogue or textual iconography.

Dostoevsky’s theory of art indeed involves an iconographic epistemology-. It emphasizes storytelling as personal relationship, and exposes the destructive effects of indulging an objectifying idolatry of self and others instead.

He wrote in an 1868 letter of a “genuine, existing realism,” which in the words of his biographer Joseph Frank “delves beneath the quotidian surface into the moral-spiritual depths of the human personality, while at the same time striving to incarnate a more-than-pedestrian or commonplace moral ideal.”

Dostoevsky compared such “fantastic realism” to the experience of relationship with an icon, as distinguished from the objectifying idolatry of a merely materialistic approach to nature

Ideas that distort and impersonalize an authentic sense of life as intercommunion were demonic in his view, and a kind of false realism.

By contrast, “fantastic realism” reflected partly Dostoevsky’s  earlier “vision on the Neva,” in which urban St. Petersburg  became “like a fantastic vision of fairyland,” including all classes of people as magical, and angelic and demonic dimensions, rather than just a monumentalized imperial matrix. It also reflected his deep personal experience of spirituality and community, emerging partly from his time in a prison camp.

I immediately found myself connecting this “fantastic realism” to a more modest project on the Susquehanna Valley in which I’ve been involved for several years now with fellow Bucknell Prof. Katie Faull and many other colleagues and students, including collaborators at other universities in the region.

Digital scholars Dr. Diane Jakacki, and Dr. Andy Famiglietti, together with Katie and me, have put together a new (but still under construction) website for the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, which highlights different aspects of this multimedia collaborative effort in environmental humanities, community studies, and natural history.

The whole SSV project highlights for me how stories (human and non-human) can engage us in region, and reciprocally help us to shape a meaningful sense of a region as the context for our lives. It is a tribute to the connectivity inherent in emerging fields of environmental humanities that Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism” can engage such work, highlighting the often ignored or objectified landscapes around us as  instead “magical,” in the sense of meaningful.

Dostoevsky noted while working later on “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov that the modern Western elevation of man over the earth in dangerous hubris involves denial of meaning in nature. A lack of meaningfulness is perhaps the ultimate mark of the lack of sustainability in our current mainstream culture. As Walker Percy put it in his Jefferson Address to the National Endowment for the Humanities, novels, poetry, the arts, and humanities, all can be evidence in exploring what often is called “environmental science.” They help illuminate the relationships that shape meaningful environments and regions like the Susquehanna Valley.

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