Zacchaeus: The Fruit of the Fig Tree

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.

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Russian Sobornost and American Critical Race Theory

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.

McWhorter writes in satirical vein of the paradoxical para-religious practice of what he calls “neo-racism” as politics today :

  1. 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 through 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 their pre-determined support for revolution, even with also the paradox of what CRT alleges to have been an alliance between working-class whites and elites in systemic racism, which also presents a 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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3]  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.”[4] 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.[5]

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!


[1] Nicolas Zernov, Moscow the Third Rome (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937), 21.

[2] Richard Pevear, citing Frank, in Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 2003), vii, f.n.

[3] S.L. Frank, Spiritual Foundations of Society, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986), 60-61.

[4] Ibid., 63-64.

[5] Ibid., 65-67.

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And the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against His Church

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.

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The Law of God

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.

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Season of Miracle and Martyrdom

Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Dec. 28, 7529 (Jan. 10, 2021 on the civil calendar)

Christ is Born!

Today’s Gospel reading includes the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. The corrupt and murderous Herod tried to kill the Christ child but his evil plan failed. According to one pious tradition, the Wise Thief while the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt helped protect them from other thieves. Years later on the Cross he asked our Lord to remember Him when he came into His Kingdom. As the Church tells us in a hymn, the Wise Thief “stole” Paradise while being crucified next to Jesus Christ, and in fact he is remembered in Slavonic tradition as St. Rakh, a name that seems derived from “Paradise.”

Our Church history is full of martyrs who find Paradise beyond suffering, through their faith in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, from ancient times to the new martyrs and confessors of the Bolshevik yoke, through today. Holy Martyrs pray to God for us! Martyr means witness in Greek. As our Lord Jesus Christ’s victory over the temptations made by Satan to Him in the wilderness shows, we should not tempt God and man in defying death without God’s grace, to keep ourselves whole for repentance and for service until it is our time. But we should be ready even so for our time to witness, with God’s Providence to stand for the truth when called by Him. Like Herod, evil powers still seek to erase the good news of the Gospel of our Lord God. Like the Wise Thief we can pray for the opportunity to repent and stand for Him, even if at the end of our life.

St. Rakh, the Wise Thief who “stole Paradise”

Herod sought to erase the Incarnation even as atheistic cultural-totalitarian movements try to do so today through their own destructive delusions. The Apostle John warned that the very spirit of anti-Christ is the denial of our Lord’s Incarnation in the flesh. To counteract that spirit of anti-Christ is why, according to tradition, the Emperor Saint Justinian required that the moving hymn “Only Begotten Son” be included in the Divine Liturgy in the Second Antiphon, as we sang it already today here far away and centuries later: “Only-Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and was crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!” In relation to this, it is good for us to remember that the cave where our Lord Jesus Christ was born prefigured also the tomb where He would be placed, and his swaddling clothes the graveclothes, of His Crucifixion followed by His glorious Resurrection.

Long before I became Orthodox, I was moved by a reflection “One Solitary Life” by a Protestant preacher in early 20th century California, which still evokes, in frontier-American-style familiar to us too in this season of Old Christmas in northern Appalachia, the spirit of the first Christmas in Bethlehem, needing for completion only the fullness of theology and ecclesiology of the ancient living faith of Orthodoxy (the “one holy apostolic and catholic Church” of the Nicene Creed), which our mission work can give to our country today with God’s grace. The preacher, James Allan Francis, wrote:

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village as the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of his divine manhood. While still a young man the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. Another betrayed him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon the cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat. When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today he is the center of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon the earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”

As Orthodox Christians, we celebrate the joy of the Star of Bethlehem and the songs of the angels to the shepherds, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a humble cave, the coming of the Wise Men following the star to worship Him. Yet we see in the past week’s news in America more signs that we live in latter days of which the Gospels warn us to be watchful, which some Orthodox hierarchs felt began in earnest with the fall of the last great Orthodox empire only a little more than a century ago. Many Americans across the political spectrum this week commented on how the Battle of the Capitol, on our Christmas Eve, was an abomination of desolation in the civic temple of America, the seat of Congress. One memorable image featured a half-naked man wearing a shaman animal headdress at the podium of the U.S. Senate chamber. It seemed that the barbarians had come. Lord have mercy on all killed and afflicted.

But the outrage felt at the so-called desecration of the Capitol as a building is misplaced. It is not a temple of God, such as those destroyed and/or desecrated by the Bolsheviks and by atheistic radicals in our own time. Even as a secular monument, the U.S. Capitol, constructed partly by slaves in pagan imperial Roman style, sadly had been desecrated across generations by many documented immoralities and corruptions within its hidden corridors and rooms of power. Our Congress itself in that building will seek this year further to desecrate what Christian Scripture calls the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” man’s body, by setting up an official atheistic anthropology and cosmology of sex as the coercive law of the land, enacting the so-called Equality Act, which will further threaten the religious freedom and livelihoods of traditional Christians whose cosmological culture is based in anthropology of the Orthodox Church, and also likely by forcing taxpayers nationwide to fund abortions, which continue to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents annually in America today, disproportionately minority children. Our administrative state, increasingly entwined with state corporate capitalism, in its monumental complexes in Washington like the Capitol has accelerated in its embrace of secular materialism in recent eras, drawing up new laws at odds with the law of God, based in an ever-deepening nihilistic consumer culture, including: Re-defining marriage by official fiat, mandating total secularization of public school curricula, and establishing national compulsory rights to abortion and transgenderism, requiring support from religious groups and people contrary to their own beliefs and practices. The tragic events and shocking images on our old Christmas Eve (Jan. 6) at the U.S. Capitol symbolize to the discerning faithful a coming reckoning for our nation, similar to how disaster came to the children of Israel of old, the handwriting on the wall for Babylon, and how, as with Herod, mass chaos and violence follow efforts to erase the Incarnation of Christ from history. It is, to use Thomas Jefferson’s prophetic words with regard to the coming of the Civil War, a spiritual “fire bell in the night.”

For the so-called “Battle of the Capitol” also symbolized tragically the loss of our country’s Union “under God” that our forefathers died for in the Civil War and other conflicts, the underlying spiritual unity that Russian Orthodox philosophers call sobornost. With all their flaws, most of the American founders, from the signers of the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, to Washington, the Adamses, and Lincoln, emphasized how faith and virtue and morality in the Christian sense were all foundational to the American republic. This was still largely if often sadly only nominally accepted across generations. But in the past year of plague, this union has been breached, most visibly first by what has been called the “Floyd Rebellion” and now the “Battle of the Capitol.” Large parts of the public across the political spectrum now openly reject Lincoln’s Union for the first time since the Civil War, on the one hand alleging it to have been corruptly systemically racist from the start, and on the other hand as so corrupt as to only work today for the elites. The old civic religion, based in generic Protestantism, lacking the fullness of Orthodoxy and undermined by cultural Marxism‘s strange wedding with consumer capitalism in an age of virtual reality, has crumbled.

It should be that much clearer to us here today as Americans, as has always been the case, that only the Orthodox Gospel will save us, our families, our communities, and spiritually our country. The fulness of Orthodoxy provides our Ark, not the Constitution nor any supposedly sacred spaces in Washington, D.C.. Locally, we must re-double our efforts on behalf of our mission this year to start building a Church home on our land in the country, to engage our friends and neighbors through evangelism in our rural region, and with God’s grace and with participation in worship to rededicate our spiritual lives in the Church. The hour grows late, brothers and sisters, but the good news is that the star of Bethlehem shines brighter in the darkness. Where people only find truth in self-willed feeling, material comfort, and subjective truths of their passions or socially constructed identities — racial and sexual affinities and historically limited ideologies, all ending in lonely nihilisms –there is no objective truth to serve, only what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the “permanent lie” of raw power, which ultimately is demonic in nature. We are blessed by God to know that our freedom lies not in material tribes or comforts, or political parties, but in service to the truth of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is the truth that makes us free, and who loves mankind. We live in the Israel of His Church, which is apostolic and catholic, in sobornost, the spiritual union and community, the freedom and meaningfulness, which He offers to all mankind. Truly, wise men still seek Him.

To close, joyfully in our bright sorrow, we remember that the Christmas season is a time for new birth. It comes at the time of the civil new year, which on the old calendar will arrive this week. We also have the new Church year in September, and sooner another time of renewal at Great Lent, and with the Annunciation and glorious Pascha. Each day of our life God offers us another day for redemption, for a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day, and this is the day the Lord hath made. Let us as Christian witnesses in America today, praying for wisdom, live each day in community as if it is our last, because it may be, making the most of the opportunity God graciously gives us each moment for faith and repentance and living in His grace. As St. Herman of Alaska put it, “from this day forth, from this very hour and this very minute, let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.”

Through our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom be all glory, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Christ is Born!

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The Entry into the Temple, St. Alexander Nevsky, and St. Columbanus of Bobbio

A homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Christian Mission Church, Nov. 23, 7529 (Dec. 6, 2020 on the civil calendar)

Three commemorations on the Church calendar today perhaps could not seem more different in character, but are all part of our Lord’s Church with a combined message to us as His followers. The first, involving one of the 12 major feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar, is the After-Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the temple as a young girl of 3. The second is the feast of the Grand Prince Saint Alexander Nevsky, known for his defense of the Orthodox faithful in Russia against both Catholic Crusaders and the Tatars. The third is the feast of an Irish missionary who set the stage for the Christianization of the Franks, St. Columbanus of Bobbio. Jewish, Russian, Irish; mother, warrior, missionary. They are all part of the Orthodox Christian heritage, our ancestors in the faith, our spiritual family, starting with the greatest of saints, our most Holy Theotokos.

The Entry into the Temple

(Byzantium 15th century)

On the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Synaxarion, or collection of our traditions of the saints, compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetras Monastery and based on an earlier compilation by St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite originally from Byzantine sources, draws on the accounts of the Proevangelium of James in apocryphal tradition, and also on St. Gregory Palamas’ 53rd Homily. When the young Virgin Mary was 3 her parents took her to be raised in the Temple, according to a vow they had made to dedicate their child to the Lord. Older maidens accompanied the young Theotokos.The High Priest Zacharias blessed her, prophesying her role in the coming of the Messiah, and bringing her into the Holy of Holies, onto the third step before the altar, where she danced before the Lord. She dwelt in the temple until age 12, when she was given to the chaste elderly Joseph as guardian of her virginity in the outside world. Tradition says that during her time in the Temple she fed on spiritual food brought by an angel of God. “She lived for God alone,” we are told, “her intellect fixed at every moment on the contemplation of His beauty,” purifying her heart to make it a pure mirror to reflect the glory of God, adorning herself as a bride in the raiment of the virtues. “When she had become like unto God by virtue, she drew God to make Himself like unto man by His Incarnation.”

Listening to Scripture and the teaching of God’s law in the Temple, and of the history of His chosen people, “She understood that all of that time was necessary in order that God might prepare for Himself a mother from out of rebellious humanity, and that she, pure child chosen by God, must become the true living Temple of the Godhead.” “…the Sanctuary, the Tabernacle of the Word of God, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Vase containing the heavenly manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, the Table of the Law of Grace,” all these holy things in the temple were signs to be revealed in her. “She is the Ladder joining heaven and earth which the Patriarch Jacob saw in a dream; she is the Pillar of cloud that reveals the glory of God; the cloud of dew of the Prophet Isaiah; the uncut Mountain of Daniel; the shut Gate that Ezekiel spoke of by which God has come to visit mankind; the living Fountain sealed, from which the waters of everlasting Life pour forth upon us.” Her entry marked the end of the time of preparation and testing of the Old Covenant. It is commemorated as the feast of the betrothal of God to human nature. Following her example, and strengthened by her prayers to her Son our God, let us enter the temples of our hearts, “there to make ready for the coming of the Lord by silence and prayer, withdrawing from the pleasures and cares of this world.” (The Synaxarion)

St. Prince Alexander Nevsky

(icon from the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg)

St. Alexander Nevsky also is commemorated today. The Synaxarion says of the saint-prince that he was a courageous and virtuous Christian prince, a shining light during the most critical period in all the momentous history of the Russian people. Full of energy, a defender of the faith of all that is fair and equitable, he was called by God to spend his life serving his people; who were beset on all sides. A pious and diligent church member and brave warrior, he was the beau ideal of Orthodox knighthood. When he became prince of Novgorod as a boy, he became soon “a patron of the clergy, the monks and the poor, he devoted all his strength to the protection of his threatened city,” in a time of dire plague and then invasion and oppression. Alexander came to the throne in 1236 facing Mongol-Tatar oppression and also the Crusading Teutonic Knights and their Swedish and Lithuanian allies from the West. On July 16, 1240, he led a small army against the Catholic Crusaders. The Synaxarion tells us

“That night on the eve of battle, Saints Boris and Gleb appeared in a mysterious boat on the River Neva, pressing the celestial oarsmen to hasten to the aid of ‘Alexander their kinsman.’ Encouraged by this vision and with the help of the Mother of God, Alexander and his men inflicted a crushing defeat on their enemies.” Despite political turmoil at home, he won a second such victory at Lake Peipus in 1242. Summoned before the Tatar Khan with the other Russian princes in 1246, he refused to participate in pagan rites. He said, “My Liege, I do homage in that God has granted you sovereignty, but I am unable to worship idols because I am a Christian and adore the one and only God in three Persons, the Maker of heaven and earth!”

Usually such refusal met with death. But the Khan admiring his courage received him as an honored guest. Four times Alexander would go to Tatar headquarters to intercede for his people against heavy taxes and forced conscription of them into the Mongol army, to ransom hostages and help release captives. A protector of the Orthodox faith against Catholic missionaries sent by the Pope to Russia and against heresy within his land, he continued to fight back the Western Crusaders, and in a victory in 1256 came to occupy Finland. Many miracles and apparitions happened at his tomb, especially on the eves of the great future Russian victors over the Tatars in 1380, 1552, and 1572. From St. Alexander we see how we all in the Church, our Lord’s Body, also must in sobnornost or spiritual unity in the Church be in service to one another, in service to truth in Christ, of Whose body we are all a part. As our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The Venerable Columbanus of Bobbio

(icon by Christopher Klitou)

Finally, the third commemoration highlighted today is our Holy Godbearing Father Columbanus of Bobbio. The Synaxarion also tells us of how in the sixth century, as Ireland became Christian, “holiness flowered there abundantly. Monks gathered by the thousand in great monastic settlements like those of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, in order to give themselves up to the voluntary martyrdom of ascesis. Ardent love of God linked to characteristic forcefulness led them to go to extraordinary lengths in mortification but, by the same token, they drew upon themselves the grace of God and the power of working miracles. The depth and outreach of Christianity all over the West in those days owed much to these intrepid monks, who were the very heart of the Church of Ireland. Among them all there is undoubtedly none more attractive than Saint Columban, ever zealous for the commandments of God.”

Born about 540, Columbanus put himself under the spiritual direction of the holy elder Sinell, a disciple of St. Finian, and then entered the Monastery of Bangor in Ireland, there under the direction of Saint Comgal. Then he felt a call to accept voluntary exile to preach the Gospel to people in foreign lands. He left for Gaul with 12 disciples holding all in common in a pilgrim community. By example he converted many. The King of Burgundy gave him land in the Vosges mountains where he founded a monastery that grew. He founded a second monastery at Luxeuil, and a third Fontaines. In these he led several hundred monks. The communities under his spiritual eldership were places of fierce spiritual warfare, including severe fasts, scourgings, and time spent in freezing water to subdue the vigorous temperament of the monks. But they also foreshadowed heaven in chanting unceasing praise to God in services that cycled throughout all the hours of day and night. After 20 years he was exiled due to his condemnation of immorality in the royal family of the Franks, and continued to preach and earn converts in what is now the boundary of France, Germany, and Switzerland, and started a new monastery at Bobbio in Italy in 612, falling asleep on this date in 615. It seemed that he had failed to convert the Franks, but not so. By 730 there were about a hundred monasteries owing their foundation to his disciplines, spreading the Irish monastic tradition and introducing the practice of private asceticism and penance among the people. The land of the Franks would become after Byzantium the oldest longest Christian realm, although falling into the Catholic schism and later a hotbed of secularism. Today, the Orthodox resurgence in the diaspora includes France as an important field of evangelism, we ask her saints from her Orthodox past for intercession, including in modern times our patron St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who for a time was often in France as a bishop of Western Europe and renewed the veneration of pre-Schism saints there such as St. Columbanus.

St. Columbanus was a spiritual warrior for the faith in spreading the Gospel. St. Alexander was a protector of the Orthodox Christian people. Our Lady the Most Holy Theotokos is the greatest of all saints by the grace of God and her pious embodied attentiveness to the faith. She became the Mother of God and the mother of us all, identified with the Church, as the mother who carried in her womb the Creator of the Lord, in Whose body we live in the Church, her temple where His body is contained in the Eucharist and given to us. A pure heart self-emptying in service to God, the courage of a warrior of Christ, the zeal to spread the gospel following our Lord Jesus Christ’s great commission: These are all the qualities to which we must aspire as Orthodox Christians in our mission work in this year 7529 on the Church calendar. For those virtues as grace we ask the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Great Prince-Saint Alexander, and St. Columban, and all the saints on the icons around us, our spiritual family portrait gallery, that we we fervent re-dedication to our baptism may in their family tree bear good fruit, grafted into the branches of the Tree of Life that is the Cross of Victory of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is King of Kings.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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Gigantomachia and the Good Samaritan

Homily on Nov. 16, 7529 (Nov. 29, 2020, civil calendar), at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg PA

Today we commemorate the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, whom our Lord and Savior and God Jesus Christ called from his work as a publican tax-collector to become one of His Apostles and ultimately one of the writers of the four Holy Gospels.

For this calling to proclaim the good tidings of salvation, the Evangelist had to leave his lucrative and secure if unpopular work as a collector of taxes for a system that ultimately supported what today we might call religious and colonial oppression, the rule of pagan imperial Rome, which existed precariously alongside and over the self-righteous religious elite of the Jews at the time, as seen in the way that our Lord was sentenced to death by a combination of those powers.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN PARABLE AS A CALL TO SPIRITUAL WARFARE

In happy parallel, the commemoration of St. Matthew today also coincides with the Gospel reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which indicates to us today how we should carry ourselves in relation to our neighbors who may be caught up in oppressive systems of thought and life apart from the Church in America today, which has become a veritable “land of giants” in biblical imagery.

The Church teaches us that the Good Samaritan of the story is a type or in effect icon of our Lord, and in icons is often depicted as Him. For our Lord picks us up and binds our wounds, physical and spiritual, as he in effect did with St. Matthew also. Our Lord releases us from captivity to the worldly flesh and gives us true freedom in service to truth, in His person as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Late-18th-century Russian icon of The Good Samaritan

An interesting feature of this story is how it expresses what St. James in his Letter called the royal law, to love our neighbor as our self, which is predicated on the other Great Commandment, to love the Lord with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind.

For our Lord asks his disciples, who was neighbor to the man in trouble? They reply the Good Samaritan. He says, do likewise. Literally, if the Good Samaritan is our neighbor to love as ourself, and if He is seen as our Lord, then we love our Lord with all our heart and soul and mind as our self, and so our neighbor in Him. This indicates that in our neighbor as in ourselves we should see an icon of our Lord, as each of us is made according to the image of Him, with the potential to be fulfilled through His grace to be in His likeness also. As Matthew’s Gospel records the words of our Lord, inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me, meaning that our service to our neighbor is also service to Him.

GIGANTOMACHIA

I was reminded of this Parable of our Lord’s message and its call to us to do likewise in considering a recent podcast on Ancient Faith Radio entitled “The Land of Giants,” an interesting discussion about the topic of the giants in the Old Testament, a now-perennial favorite topic of online discussion.

The core of the lengthy podcast involved how, symbolically and actually, accounts of wars with giant clans in the Old Testament (gigantomachia in Greek) involve God-inspired battle against demonized communities who (to combine comments by the podcast co-hosts Fathers Andrew Stephen Damick and Stephen DeYoung) “are in communion with demons, and who are engaging in demonic fornication rituals, in order to produce demonized human beings, who have supernatural abilities.” This involved battle “against communities engaged in mass enslaving of people, murdering those people, sacrificing them to these demons, in cannibalism and drinking their blood.”

Although the laws in Deuteronomy established certain rules of warfare, requiring the opportunity for communities in the promised land to surrender to the children of Israel, presumably to become joined ritually to Israel by acceptance of her rituals, in a type of the Church to come, at the same time it makes exceptions for communities identified with the type of demonic dominance mentioned above. In those cases, we see God-inspired warfare that wiped out those communities in the Book of Joshua.

Our Lord’s Church is not Israel in the sense of a territory, but the fulfillment of Israel as a people dedicated to God, His Body, the spiritual Israel today that is also an historical presence, as in our mission worship space this morning. We war, the Apostle Paul tells us, against principalities and powers, names for ranks of angels and presumably fallen angels or demons, indicating the spiritual nature of our warfare today. The giant clans arguably were types of what we face today in such spiritual warfare. We face in our own country today the most egregious combinations of idolatry (in the sense of objectification of people and things and ultimately the self, in what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the “permanent lie” of an alternative virtual reality), sexual immorality, demonic uses of technology, mass abortion and abuse of children, and spiritual murder and enslavement. Nihilistic identitarian networks based in all these gross sins form around a devilish assertion of autonomous individualism–rather than the self-emptying in our Lord Jesus Christ in which the Church protects us.

The recommended English translation of Dostoevsky’s Demons

Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian Orthodox Christian writer, wrote about the demonic tendencies of modern nihilism, especially in his book Demons, about how demonic ideas possess people and whole communities in modern times, much like the ancient giant clans of old. We see for example the effort to encourage polysexualism, new forms of supposedly progressive racism driven by atheistic revolutionary ideology, transhuman super-abilities claimed through technology, and a hyper-consumer mentality toward children and the earth, all coming together in an atheistic revolutionary cultural movement called cultural Marxism by some advocates and critics both. This is a new Western version of the demonic madness that overtook Russia a hundred years ago amid great persecution of the Church, and which still enslaves today the most populous country in the world, from which came our current global medical plague. Arrayed against our Lord and His Church today are the forces of transnational capitalism, transhuman technology, atheistic and anti-Christian systems of education, media, finance, commerce, and social conformity in historically Christian lands, coupled with new forms of loneliness and terror, all leading toward a new kind of totalitarianism. Truly the spirit of anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Christ and seeking to erase His Church, is abroad in our own land and is at our very doorstep.

But our Lord assures us that the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church. The Blood of the Lamb is on our door frames in this Passover, the Pascha that we commemorate and participate in through our worship as the Body of Christ.

We are called today in America to a spiritual warfare, a New Testament version of gigantomachia, or the battle against the giant clans, in our lives as Orthodox Christians today. This spiritual warfare begins with our own lives, with our home prayers, our participation in worship in the Church, with our study of Scripture. As our Lord says in the Gospel of Matthew, ye do err not knowing the Scriptures and the power of God.

Jan Saenredam, David with the Head of Goliath, Dutch 1600

In terms of being well armed spiritually for today’s battle with the giant clans, let me also put in a plug here for our weekly Bible Study at 2 p.m. each Sunday, in the New Testament under the guidance of Archbishop Averky’s commentary based in the Church Fathers. The author of the text we currently are studying, the Apostle James the Just, according to Church tradition first translated from Aramaic into Greek, the Gospel of the Evangelist Matthew whom we commemorate today. So the Church works together across the ages.

And so the Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that we should “do likewise” in service to our Lord, for our neighbors in Christian love. If our society is hostage to giant clans, we should then for the sake of our neighbors take up spiritual arms daily as warriors for Christ, to give them the opportunity to be free, and to do God’s will and be witnesses for it with his grace, on earth as it is in heaven. The Judge Samson was unworthy in many ways. But God gave to him the power to witness to the freedom of Israel and be a type of Christ among the Holy Forerunners recognized by the Church. How much more can we, however unworthy, I speak for myself, witness as those baptized and washed clean in the Lamb, witness to the freedom of the true Israel, the people to whom we belong in the Body and Blood of our Savior, even in the land of the giants today.

In our inspiration let us look to the tradition of the martyr’s death of St. Matthew and how it bore fruit. At the end in a strange pagan land of cannibals he was put to death by the tyrant king. But that king afterward was converted to Christianity through the relics of the saint.  The king took the name of Matthew in baptism, and by written instructions prophetically left by the evangelist later himself became bishop of the very land that once had killed the apostle in defiance of Christ under the former king’s own hand. That former tyrant himself on his repose entered into the rolls of the saints of the Church. May the Lord similarly bless our unworthy land and bless the evangelism work of our mission and our spiritual warfare against the giants, through the intercessions of our patron St. John, and the Holy Protection of our Lady the most Holy Theotokos, under whose patronage our mission was founded.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Emperor of Emperors

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Giving Thanks 2020: Centennial of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Quadricentennial of Pilgrims’ Arrival in America

From a homily given after the Thanksgiving Akathist at a service at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission in Lewisburg, PA, on Thanksgiving Day, the Feast of St. John Chrysostom, Thurs. Feb. 26, 2020.

The Thanksgiving Akathist of twentieth-century Orthodox Christian tradition, also known as the “Glory to God for All Things” Akathist, was found in the effects of a Russian Orthodox priest killed in a concentration camp in 1940, one of millions of often unknown new martyrs and confessors of the Orthodox faith in the twentieth century.

Glory to God for all things! We thank Him for all the gifts He gives to us, even in times of severe trial.

The story of the American Thanksgiving is linked to the story of the Akathist of Thanksgiving through that Christian experience of joyful sorrow as exemplified in the Orthodox Church. Joyful sorrow or bright sorrow comes from our training as athletes for Christ, and our embrace of self-emptying in Christ, rather than self-assertion, as the source of identity, the realization that freedom and justice lie in the love found in sobornost, or spiritual unity with Christ in His Church. There we find our true identity in relation with Him.

There we find the union fulfilled in God’s reality that is typed by the union of the American republic, as defined by Abraham Lincoln as one nation under God, associated with Thanksgiving Day, and the earlier story of the American Pilgrims going back to their landing 400 years ago this year, and the later American Declaration of Independence stating that our rights come from God, and George Washington’s first American Thanksgiving proclamations.

The 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims in America this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, by those faithful fleeing Bolshevik Totalitarianism, giving thanks for their deliverance and holding up the standard of the Church for pious Christians everywhere to rally around in the latter days afflected by the spirit of Anti-Christ. Of course, our Lord’s Orthodox Church goes back across millennia, even in prototype rooted in the Old Testament days of yore, even to the Creation, when the first man Adam must have exclaimed in gratitude and wonder, “Glory to God for all things!”

The fleet bearing White Army and civilian exiles, and the free Synod of Bishops, from Crimea to Constantinople, in 1920, fleeing the Red Terror.

President Lincoln wrote in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1863, founding the modern American holiday:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

1914 Painting of the First Thanksgiving by Jennie A. Brownscombe

In the 1600s, John Winthrop wrote in his diary of his experience among the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America that:

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considers ye same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture] as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sum̅er being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world. … What could now sustaine them but the spirite of God & his grace?

May not & ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: 

Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great [97]ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, & his mercies endure for ever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of ye Lord, shew how he hath delivered them from ye hand of ye oppressour. When they wandered in ye deserte willdernes out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie, & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindnes, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.

The story of America is writ large in the story of the Bible carried by her founders into a wilderness. However imperfect their practice of Christianity in that day, amid the heterodoxy of Puritanism, and in alternating hostilities and friendships with Native Americans, the story of American Thanksgiving is one of gratitude and piety, extended across a republic by Washington’s proclamation and across a nation by Lincoln’s. It echoes through God’s word of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in which we worship today at our Russian Orthodox Mission in rural Pennsylvania, welcoming all of all backgrounds. A few generations after the Pilgrims, missionaries would be establishing the first Orthodox worship communities among Natives in Alaska, and among immigrants in the American South and on the East Coast.

Truly, Thanksgiving is a holiday that remains properly more a verb than a noun, and carries with it greater meaning than conventions of family dinners alone. We can remember the history of faith extolled by the Apostle Paul from the Old Testament to his day. We remember those sufferings of the ancient martyrs and trials of Church Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom, whose memory we also celebrate today. And in modern times severe trials like those of Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov in the prison camp in 1940, and the song of praise amid terrible suffering he left behind.

This is the day the Lord hath made, let us be glad and rejoice therein.

Glory to God for all things.

Amen!

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