New Bible Study series on Genesis and Job

FROM THE BEGINNING:
GENESIS, JOB, AND THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH TODAY

Starting Sunday Aug. 28 join us for a yearlong explanation of the origins of the Biblical tradition in the Christian Church.

Sunday afternoons 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe
No homework needed and no Bible, just come with an open and interested mind. We’re following the Orthodox Study Bible, which is available also as an ebook.

We’ll explore the Book of Genesis in light of the perspective of Church writers of the first millennium and its continued relevance today.

Then we’ll also read together the Book of Job, about a man from the era chronicled in the Book of Genesis, who suffered much and pondered much on Creation, and received wisdom from God.

Co-sponsored by the Bucknell Orthodox Christian community and Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg-Winfield. And join us for worship Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. at the Lewisburg Club, 131 Market St., alley entrance, and on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on campus (check here, and on message center, and the Church website for campus locations). http://www.stjohnthewonderworker.com

The Bible Study will be facilitated by Father Deacon Paul Siewers of St. John’s Church, who is adviser to the Bucknell Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell, where he teaches the Bible as Literature course. In addition to holding a Ph.D. in English, he holds a diploma in Pastoral Theology, and specializes in pre-modern literature in his academic work.

Standard

The Cross of Witness and Summer Lent

Today we begin our journey to “Summer Pascha,” the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary and Mother of our God, and our Mother in Christ in His Church. This is a bittersweet time, a time traditionally for blessing honey at the Feast today of the Procession of the Wood of the Cross, which also marks the Feast of our Savior and His Mother together at the start of the Fast, and of the Maccabean Martyrs whose witness comes at the end of the Orthodox Old Testament Scriptures. During the Dormition Fast, fruits traditionally are blessed on the Feast of Transfiguration, and flowers at the Dormition, two of the major feasts of the Church year at this season.

Hieromartyr Benjamin on trial before the atheist Bolsheviks, 1922
Soviet arrest photos of Hieromartyr Benjamin, 1922

At this time of witness of the Cross, on the eve of the fast yesterday, we also commemorated the New Hieromartyr Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, and his companions. They stood for the Truth that is Jesus Christ in the face of modern mass persecutions of atheism seeking to deny our Lord’s Incarnation in the spirit of anti-Christ. In 1922, Metropolitan Benjamin, before being condemned to death because of his stand for Truth, ended a defense of the others tried with him by telling those assembled in the large Soviet courtroom: “I do not know what sentence you will pass upon me—life or death—yet whatever your pronouncement, I will raise my eyes upward with the same reverence, make the sign of the Cross (here he crossed himself broadly) and say: Glory to Thee, O Lord God, for all things!” Thus Holy Hieromartyr Benjamin bore his Cross. May he pray to Christ our God for us that we may do so also, through the intercessions of the Most Holy Mother of God!

It was through our Lord’s Mother that Jesus Christ is related bodily to the Old Testament Prophets and Martyrs and the history of Israel, like that of the Maccabees, the Israel which became after His Incarnation the Church, of which we are part, the Body of Christ, with which we partake in the Holy Eucharist. And through Her in the Church He is related to Metropolitan Benjamin and the New Martyrs and all the saints, and unworthily to us even in our humble mission, and this sinful Deacon. In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes referred to as the Bride of Christ. In the New Testament the Church is referred to as the Bride with Christ as the Bridegroom. However, also, the Ever-Virgin Mary is referred to as the Bride of God as well as the Mother of God, in a mystery that references the Persons of the Trinity Who are Three in One God, of one Essence yet Unconfused.

The Theotokos after Jesus Christ’s bodily Ascension to be with the Father remained to help intercede for and guide the development of the early Church, and at her Dormition or falling-asleep the Apostles and leaders of the Church gathered with God’s help to be with her. In Orthodox tradition this is usually called the Dormition and not the Assumption as in Roman Catholicism, because Orthodox teaching does not include the Immaculate Conception, but holds that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in regular human fashion, albeit miraculously to the aged Saints Joachim and Anna, and died as a regular human being in falling asleep, although her soul at her death according to Orthodox tradition was taken up into heaven by her Son our God, and her body then likewise was taken into heaven. So both her humanity and her holiness are emphasized in Orthodoxy, which considers her to be the greatest of saints, our intecessor, and the Mother of us all, who held in her womb the Creator of all, and who intercedes for us today as our Mother.

The time of the Dormition Fast includes fasting and ascetic struggle but also the joy of knowing the nature of her passing to be with her Son and our God as our intercessor and Mother in the Church. This is a time when often especially in the Greek tradition the Paraklesis service of intercession is sung to her, and we plan to adopt this practice for our Church and our building project, on Wednesdays during the Fast, at 7 p.m. on Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 on the Bucknell campus, more details to come soon.

We also commemorate today at the start of the Dormition the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, This tradition goes back to Byzantine times in Constantinople, when the procession was instituted at this time of the Church calendar year, the start of the fast, to help ask protection for the city and people from epidemics and pandemics. In the hymn of the Cross in ancient times it was sung: “O Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, grant victory to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy Commonwealth.” Likewise just before the Trisagion chant during the Divine Liturgy, when the Deacon asks the Lord to save the pious and hearken unto us, originally that was a prayer to save the emperor. Clearly still today our prayers include our society, our commonwealth so to speak, the oikumene that the Church embraces and seeks to leaven with the faith in Jesus Christ and His Holy Gospel, which our mission seeks to help spread humbly and unworthily yet with the strength God gives us, here in the region of the Confluence of the Susquehanna Valley today. So we cross ourselves bodily often to seek His blessing and ward off demons and to protect ourselves and others in prayer. It is an expression of spiritual community, like today’s feast and the start of the fast.

Not far from us, at Holy Protection Monastery, for which our parish originally was named, there is a fresco on the ceiling of the entry hall of the Church’s tradition about the Wood of the Cross, which is included in our commemorations today. According to one traditional account, the Archangel Michael gave to Seth three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge to be placed beneath the tongue of his father Adam when he was buried. The Archangel told Seth that from these seeds would grow a tree that would bear fruit whereby Adam should be saved and live again. From them sprang a trinity of trees, cedar, cypress, and pine, united in one trunk. One old account said the woods symbolized the palm of victory, the cedar of incorruption, and the olive for royal and priestly unction. From this Moses cut his rod, an old account says, which was transplanted by David to a pool near Jerusalem, where under its branches he composed his Psalms. Later the virtue of the wood was communicated to the waters of the pool of Bethesda and was taken for the main beam of the Cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery of the Holy Cross just west of Jerusalem is on the site where the wood of the Cross grew according to tradition.

In all this the tree of the Cross in a living way symbolizes our connections to God and one another and the Church in Old Testament as well as New Testament times. The Cross, at which the Theotokos mourned and stood vigil for her Son, reminds us in ita form of how our Church and our lives are based vertically in our relation to God Who is also horizontally with us here on Earth, the Cross of the transcendent and the incarnational so to speak. The Orthodox Cross with its diagonal crossbar, the upward side indicating the Wise Thief, reminds us of our freedom to take up the Cross, and through God’s grace and with our ascetic struggle to follow Him. With us at the base of the Cross is His Mother. We honor her during this Fast, both bitter and sweet, the Summer Pascha, bittersweet like the Russian word at wedding feasts, “gorka,” meaning “bitter,” the bright sorrow we especially commemorate in this summer time of Orthodoxy. But then His Mother turns to Him and asks Him to turn the water into wine, and He cannot say no.

Standard

St. Olga and the Stars in their Courses

(Above) Nikolai Bruni’s 1901 Grand Duchess Olga

Homily from the Feast of St. Olga, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission, Lewisburg PA, 7/11/7530 (7/24/2022 on the civil calendar).

During Vespers last night for today’s Feast of Saint Olga we heard readings about two courageous women of the Bible, the Judge Deborah in the Book of Judges, and Judith in the book bearing her name. Judith cut off the head of the Assyrian General Holofernes, with whom she had ingratiated herself as essentially a secret agent for Old Testament Israel. Holofernes was leading forces of the idolatrous Assyrians against the people of God. The Judge Deborah, with Barak, led the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali to victory against the likewise idolatrous Canaanite forces commanded by General Sisera. He then was killed in his tent by a female former ally, Jael. Of his defeat, the memorable translation in the King James Bible says, “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”

That phrase “Stars in their Courses” was used by author Shelby Foote for the title of his famous account of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Foote said he used the biblical phrase to refer to how everything seemed unexpectedly to go wrong for the Confederate Army as it invaded our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as if a higher mysterious plan was at work.

General Robert E. Lee’s own secret plans accidentally had fallen into the hands of Union Generals in advance. The opposing armies blundered into each other in Gettysburg mistakenly, ultimately to the South’s strategic disadvantage. Unexpectedly J.E.B. Stuart and Lee’s Cavalry essentially went on a joy ride for days and went missing when he needed them crucially before the battle for intelligence. The failure of the Confederates on the first day to consolidate control over the high ground was an unusual blunder as larger Union forces traveled toward the battleground. On the third day, Lee’s order initiating Pickett’s Charge was an uncharacteristically huge miscalculation, given Union firepower. In short, even though General Lee to many seemed the superior commander of all involved in the battle, Foote noted that it seemed that in various dimensions the Southern army was pushing heedlessly against a higher Providence in the turning tide of the war. Holofernes must have felt the same way when at home in a drunken stupor he felt the blade wielded by Judith, from whom he had not expected such an attack, ending in an instant of surprise the Assyrian military advantage over the Israelites, by an “unknown” factor.

The Late Antique and most likely Christian philosopher Boethius had a metaphor for the way in which a higher Providence and human effort work in synergy. He called it the Wheel of Fortune, which is the origin of the name of the TV gameshow, but really unrelated.

Boethius, a philosopher operating in what is called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis of the sub-Roman world, argued that all of life’s circumstances throw us around like a wheel here on fallen Earth. But the struggle for virtue in conjunction with God’s grace brings us closer to the center of the wheel, which symbolizes God’s Providence and Theosis or union with God’s uncreated energies. The closer you get to the hub, the less you are thrown around by the circumstances of life. The old American saying God helps those who help themselves is a bit stripped down from Orthodox theology but conveys an aspect of this, although in the case of St. Olga and others whose influence stretches across generations, it would be truer from an Orthodox standpoint to say that God helps those who help others.

I bring this up because of our commemoration today of Saint Olga of Kiev. Her name is derived from the Viking name Helga, and indeed she was of Varangian or Scandinavian background in the realms of Kievan Rus, of which the name Rus itself, the core for the name Russia, is also Viking-derived. She lived in tough times. Widowed when Slavic forces murdered her husband, she assumed leadership of the realm and ruthlessly revenged him, earning the respect of all. Then she chose to adopt Christianity, according to tradition while on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople. In any case, she built close relations between what we today call Byzantium, the Christian Roman Empire based in the East, and her realm. In the process, her life and faith formed a crucial link in the Christianization of Russia. Who would have expected from the violence of the times in Kievan Rus that, through the seeds she helped to plant, it would become Christian successor to Byzantium, and ancestor realm to one of the great Christian powers in world history, the most influential Orthodox Christian country in the modern world?

St. Olga was tough, but touched by the beauty and power of our Lord Jesus Christ she bowed before Him. She was disappointed though in her failure to convert her family. But like many a grandmother in Orthodoxy, babas and yiayias alike, she left a legacy and planted a seed that would bloom with the conversion of her grandson Prince-Saint Vladimir the Great, who initiated the actual large-scale conversion of what became Russia. Patience must have her perfect work, as our Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospels. The design of God, like the stars in their courses or Boethius’ wheel, often comes totally unexpectedly. The harsh avenger Princess Olga became the Equal to the Apostles in the history of the Christian Church. The harsh realm of Kievan Rus became nurturer of the Christian faith that later bloomed in Muscovy, which on the edge of wilderness, and (like Byzantium before it) on the edge of both Europe and Asia, became known as a result as an Orthodox “Third Rome” following the fall of Constantinople. The monastic influence of hesychasm from Byzantine Mount Athos and the Holy Land would flourish in the forests and steppes and even the caves of Russian realms. From there in fact ultimately would come the resistance of Russian Christians to atheistic Communism and its persecution of Christians, the greatest such persecution of history. This in turn, ultimately if indirectly, led to the founding of our humble little mission in America’s Northern Appalachia. Thanks be to God, with also appreciation to Saint Olga, Equal to the Apostles; please pray to God for us!

(Above: St. Olga by Nesterov)

She was a tough leader, and God works in a mysterious way, as the old English hymn put it. So His Providence did for Deborah and Judith and for so many in the Bible history of which we unworthil through our Lord’s Church have become a part ourselves, just as St. Olga did too through her conversion and the effect across generations.

The Anglican writer Madeline L’Engle in the mid-twentieth-century suggested a figure for how God’s Providence works in another dimension from ours beyond regular space-time, in her book A Wrinkle in Time.

Another way would be to think of two points on a piece of paper. What’s the most direct way between them? Some would draw a straight line. But try folding the paper so the two points are on top of one another. This illustrates the extra-dimension of God’s Providence beyond our ken.

Let us like Saint Olga not be afraid of being tough in our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians, in our effort to live in synergy with God’s grace, for in this way we find ourselves increasingly living and moving in God’s Providence, in which we can expect the unexpected for good. We all need to do this, for our salvation, and for that of our children and the generations beyond, just as Saint Olga did for a nation and more importantly a Church, in becoming even one of the ancestral founders of our humble mission here. That was not just tough but loving and faithful. Let us make sure that we know the stories of spiritual ancestors like her, Deborah, and Judith, and that our children know the stories of our family tree in the Church as well. Verily, the Bible and the Lives of the Saints are “ancestry.com for Orthodox Christians.” So may we all be aware of and experience the mysterious pattern of the workings of God’s grace. It is like a wave that we as Christians in effect surf, a wave carrying us forward to our God from the beginning of time.

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

Standard

Bible Study on the Feast of the Holy Royal Martyrs

Our small but growing mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Northern Appalachia has a weekly community Bible Study on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at a downtown cafe of the university bookstore in our college town.

Above: One of our Bible Study discussions from fall 2021.

Today on the feast of the Holy Royal Martyrs (July 4 on the Julian Calendar) we were studying the Holy Apostle Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, with its reference to the “son of perdition,” following the commentary of Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of blessed memory, synthesizing teachings on the chapter from Holy Orthodox Tradition.

This led to discussion of the Antichrist (the “son of perdition”) in Orthodox teaching, and its relevance to concerns today about developing technology that expands surveillance and manipulation of people by Artificial Intelligence and other forms of digital “reality,” seeking in effect to disembody humanity (and with it to try to erase the manhood assumed by our Lord Jesus Christ as “fully God and fully man”).

II Thessalonians 2 is one of the main biblical sources on the Antichrist (the others being the book of the Holy Prophet Daniel, and the Revelation and Epistles of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian). It is important to note that Orthodox tradition about this passage is far richer spiritually than any simple effort to identify the Antichrist with a particular time period or conspiracy, as is sometimes seen today in heterodox Christian faiths.

That epistle to early Christians in Thessalonica (still a stronghold of Orthodox Christian faith) by the Holy Apostle Paul references in verses 6 and 7 to the “withholder” or “restrainer” holding off the Antichrist, as interpreted by many Orthodox commentators over time. Archbishop Averky noted in his commentary that Orthodox commentators have associated this withholder or restrainer with the grace of the Holy Spirit restraining the Antichrist in synergy with both a faithful remnant of believers and Orthodox Christian rulers.

This is where the connection came with the Holy Royal Martyrs. Their martyric deaths at the hands of the atheist Bolsheviks marked the end of the major Orthodox Christian monarchy and heir to Byzantium. The overthrow of that monarchy was quickly followed by the fall of remaining major heterodox Christian monarchies as well (those not already in effect turned into secular regimes).

Killed among the Royal Martyrs and their loyal retainers was Dr. Eugene Botkin, pictured below with Tsar-Martyr Nicholas. In addition to the professional relationship of the doctor to the family, they were friends and went together to exiled imprisonment and their deaths along with other royal family members.

In his last surviving note, not long before the execution, which best historical accounts today agree was ordered by the Bolshevik tyrant Lenin himself, St. Eugene wrote:

“ … In essence I am dead but not yet buried, or I am buried alive…

“My children might still have hope of seeing me someday in this life, but I’m looking in the face of the unadorned reality…

“If faith without works is dead, then deeds can live without faith and if some of us have deeds and faith together, that is only by the special grace of God. I became one of these lucky ones through a heavy burden – the loss of my first born, six-month old Sergei. Since then I have remembered God in everything I do.

“This vindicates my last decision when I unhesitatingly orphaned my own children in order to carry out my physician’s duty to the end, as Abraham did not hesitate at God’s demand to sacrifice his only son.

And I firmly believe that just as God saved Isaac then, He will now save my children and He Himself will be their Father. But I do not know where He will put their salvation, and my egoistic sufferings do not lose their painful acuteness. However, Job endured more… No, apparently, I can endure everything that the Lord God will please me to send down…”

Archbishop Averky in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2 quotes from pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox sources such as St. Theophan the Recluse and St. John of Kronstadt, who noted that the end of the Russian Orthodox monarchy as “withholder” or “restrainer” would open the door for movements of atheism and anarchism, and demonic forces behind them. Arguably we have seen this since the execution of the Holy Royal Martyrs in both Communist and Western countries and in today’s developing global cyberspace. The past century saw an estimated 100 million victims of Communism, together with many other victims of Nazism and world wars and the Cold War, as well as those whose souls have been damaged or lost amid Western apostasy reaching around the world, which would erase Christian tradition and life.

Scriptural traditions about the Antichrist suggest many “antichrists” throughout Christian history from the start. The Holy Evangelist and Apostle John the Theologian described the “spirit of Antichrist” as the denial that our Lord Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This also involves denial of the Church as His Body, and of the Eucharist, and of teachings and practices of Orthodox Christianity that uphold Christian family life and community.

Such a spirit of Antichrist unfolds in the history of the Gnostic heresy, with its emphasis on disembodiment in denial of the Incarnation. This involves a separation of the mind from the heart, objectifying and using the body and by extension the world in modern times through technology for purposes of will and power, overseen by supposed experts rather than God. Thus we see today the “post-human” and “trans-human” movements affiliated with Artificial Intelligence and developments such as bioengineering and the idea of an online “Metaverse.” C.S. Lewis in his twin 1940s books The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength called such developments “technocracy,” or the growth of a culture of technology that permeates corporate, educational, media, and government bureaucracies. The political scientist Eric Voegelin and others have described this as technocratic gnosticism in modern management or administrative regimes. More recently, the Orthodox writer Paul Kingsnorth calls this “the Machine,” which he sees as including the digital world of cyberspace in which many people today spend a great part of their day. Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff has detailed how disembodied digital surveillance and behavior modification today seek to reshape human identity for the profit and power and secular views of elites (needless to say not motivated by Orthodox Christian faith).

Amid all this, we can return to II Thessalonians 2:6-7 and its individualized reference to that which restrains (New King James translation) or withholds (King James Version), often interpreted in Orthodox commentary as a particular figure. Will this be some equivalent of a new Orthodox Christian ruler helping to hold off for a time movements that could hasten the coming of the Antichrist, until God’s plan beyond time is fulfilled? Or will it be the work of the grace of the Holy Spirit upholding a core of the faithful, like the 10 people in Sodom for whom Lot prayed the Lord to spare the city, upheld by God’s grace working through the Church? Or both? The Scripture text as understood in Orthodox Tradition suggests ultimately some particular figure who will be in that role prior to the particular figure of the Antichrist assuming world power. Presumably, as with the lower-case “antichrists” of history, there can be until that time many restrainers/withholders upholding the order of Christ’s Church, a spirit of Restrainer/Withholder, as well as the nefarious spirit of Antichrist, with its paradoxical promotion of chaos to heighten demonic control. In all that, the point of the withholding or restraining is to provide more opportunity for others to be saved in our Lord’s Church. God, beyond time, knows the time, we do not, although we are called to discern the “signs of the times.” As Church members and communities, we can pray to help in this restraining/withholding today, with God’s grace and if it be His will, by redoubling our efforts at evangelization of ourselves and especially also young people in our aggressively secularizing society and expanding technocracy today.

We often have non-Orthodox inquirers present at our Bible Study, but those around our table this time included converts to Orthodox Christianity from atheism and with past individual religious histories in the Assembly of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science and Unitarianism–among us also a Deacon, a catechumen, and a parish warden, ranging from 20 years in Orthodoxy to a few years and to the catechumenate–quite a varied crew of American backgrounds worshipping now in the Russian Orthodox tradition in central Pennsylvania. Indeed our Holy Synod, currently based in New York City, first formed in 1920 in Constantinople in response to the overthrow of Christian monarchy in Russia by the atheist Communists and their effort to take over and destroy traditional Christianity globally. Our humble discussion today in northern Appalachia indicated at a small level the continued relevance of that history and tradition to us still today as Orthodox Christians in America. We all in common have found an ark of safety in the Orthodox Church as the body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ continuously present since Apostolic times, originating in the Holy Land in biblical times, and our mother on the earth.

In these latter days, we pray that the Lord may give us good strength and wisdom for devoting our whole heart to Him and to teaching transgressors His ways, as Psalm 50/51 puts it. May the Holy Royal Martyrs intercede for efforts to support the restraining and withholding of the spirit of Antichrist today, that more of our neighbors may be saved, and that we ourselves have more time to pray and repent, improving the time, God willing.

As Elder Anatoly of Optina wrote amid revolution and civil war in Russia:

“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, deliver us from the seductions of the coming Antichrist, abhorred by God and crafty in evil, and from all his snares. Protect us, and all of our Christian neighbors, from his devious nets—keeping us in the hidden refuge of Thy salvation. Grant, Lord, that our fear of the devil may not be greater than the fear of Thee, and that we not fall away from Thee and Thy Holy Church. But instead, grant us, O Lord, to suffer and die for Thy holy Name and for the Orthodox Faith, and never to deny Thee, nor to receive the marks of the cursed Antichrist, nor to worship him. Grant us, O Lord, day and night, tears and lamentation for our sins. And on the day of Thy dread Judgment, O Lord, grant us pardon. Amen.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

For more information on our weekly community Bible Study, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com. We are finishing up study of the Epistles of the New Testament in the next few weeks, after having studied Revelation. Starting Sunday Aug. 21 (2:30 p.m.), we plan to launch a year’s study of “From the Beginning: The Biblical Books of Genesis and Job in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.” Please join us, all are welcome! (We meet at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe at Fourth and Market Streets in downtown Lewisburg, although after July 24 and until August 21 due to summer breaks we will meet on Zoom to finish our discussion of Hebrews before beginning Genesis. Details about joining the Zoom meetings will be on the above web link.)

Standard

The Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia

This weekend marks the commemoration in the Orthodox Church of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia. It is 104 years this Sunday since the Russian Tsar and his family and loyal retainers will killed by the godless Bolsheviks, ushering in the Red Terror and an era of totalitarian mass murder and cultural genocide. Memory eternal! And may the Lord Jesus Christ our God and Savior give us wisdom and strength today and ever-vigilance to remain faithful to His Church in these latter days.

Their deaths led to their glorification and their recognition around the world as Saints in an era that would see the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Four years ago our mission parish in central Pennsylvania commemorated the centennial of their martyrdom with an Akathist service at Rooke Chapel at Bucknell University. Here are words from our mission’s patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, from 1957 of special relevance today.

***

Forty Years Ago, a single day saw the collapse of the greatness and glory of the Russian State, a bulwark of peace throughout the whole world. The signature of the Sovereign, the Emperor Nicholas II, on the act of abdication from the Throne, is a historical boundary separating Russia’s great and glorious past from her present dark and cruel circumstances.

The entire weight of the present regime’s evil and its reordering of life is aimed at honest, well-intentioned and devout people, and the whole nation lies in oppression and constant fear. People are afraid of their own thoughts, thoughts they have not expressed aloud; they are afraid that what they are thinking might be reflected in their facial expressions.

What happened that day, forty years ago?

Apostasy from God’s Anointed, apostasy from an authority submissive to God, apostasy from the oath of fidelity to the Anointed Sovereign, given before God, and the giving over of him to death.

He who had devoted all his strength in God’s name to the service of Russia was deprived of authority, and then also of freedom.

For decades the dark forces of evil carried on a struggle against God’s Anointed, against the ruling authority faithful to God. These same forces also killed the Emperor Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator.

This crime sobered the people, it shook the entire country, and that moral upsurge gave Emperor Alexander III, the Peacemaker, the opportunity to rule Russia with a strong arm.

Russia enjoyed two decades of peaceful life and development. Then a new conspiracy arose for the overthrow of the Royal Throne.

It was a conspiracy of Russia’s enemies.

Within Russia itself there was a struggle against her very essence, and, having destroyed the Throne, Russia’s enemies even obliterated her name.

Now the whole world can see the close connection between the Royal authority, faithful to God, and Russia. When the Tsar ceased to be — Russia ceased to be.

The struggle against the Tsar and Russia was carried out by concealed godlessness, which later revealed itself openly.

Such was the essence of the struggle against the Tsar and Russia, against the foundation of her life and historical development.

Such are the meaning and aim of that struggle, which perhaps not everyone realized — those who were its accomplices.

Everything filthy and paltry and sinful which could be found in the human soul was summoned against the Tsar and Russia. All of this, with all its might, rose up in struggle against the Royal Crown, which was crowned by a cross, for Royal service is a bearing of the Cross.

People always rise up against the Cross by means of slander and falsehood, doing the devil’s work, for, according to the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, When he speaketh a He, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44).

Everything was roused up against the most meek, pure and abundantly-loving Tsar, so that at the terrible hour of the struggle against him he would remain alone. Filthy slanders were spread beforehand against the Tsar and his family, so that the people would grow cool towards him.

Faithless allies took part in the conspiracy. When the Sovereign was in need of moral support, his closest associates did not provide it and violated their oath. Some took part in the conspiracy; others, out of weakness, counseled abdication. The Tsar remained completely alone, surrounded by “treachery, baseness and cowardice.”

From the day of the abdication, everything began to collapse. It could not have been otherwise. The one who united everything, who stood guard for the Truth, was overthrown. A sin was committed, and now sin had easy access. In vain do some wish to separate February from October; the one was a direct consequence of the other.

In those March days, Pskov became the Tsar’s Gethsemane, and Ekaterinburg — his Golgotha.

Tsar Nicholas died as a martyr, with unshakable faith and patience, having drunk the cup of suffering to the dregs.

The sin against him and against Russia was perpetrated by all who in one way or another acted against him, who did not oppose, or who merely by sympathizing participated in those events which took place forty years ago. That sin lies upon everyone until it is washed away by sincere repentance.

In raising up prayers for the repose of his soul, we pray also for Tsars Paul I and Alexander II, who were likewise slain in March. And we pray for the forgiveness of the Russian people of the grave sin of betrayal and regicide. Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. Before us, before the Russian people, lies the path of resurgence — which is the path of consciousness of sin and repentance.

For the rebirth of Russia, all political and other programs of unification are in vain: what Russia needs is the moral renewal of the Russian people.

We must pray for the forgiveness of our sins and for mercy on our homeland, just as the Lord God freed Israel from the Babylonian captivity and restored the ruined city of Jerusalem.

Standard

Elder Ambrose of Optina and the Legacy of the Optina Elders in America

A few unworthy thoughts on the commemoration this Sunday (the Fourth after Pentecost, 6/28/7530 [7/10/2022 civil calendar]) of the Finding of the Relics of the Venerable Elder Ambrose of Optina in 1998.

There are many commemorations of blessed and holy saints each day on the Orthodox Church calendar. Today’s includes the relics of Elder Ambrose of Optina. He lived on this earth from 1812 to 1894, and became perhaps the best known of the hesychastic Elders of Optina (seen in the icon above, including Elder Ambrose), a monastery in western Russia in the region of Kaluga. The name Optina comes from a term meaning “living together” and reminds us of the Russian spiritual term sobornost or mystical unity and solidarity. Perhaps dating to the 15th century, the monastery played an important role in the spiritual history of the Russian Orthodox tradition and on Orthodoxy in America, even for our small mission in central Pennsylvania.

A Pravmir website article (source for much of the below along with some additional accounts) tells us that holy Fathers made the Optina Hermitage a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and even into the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky helped bring the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century with the Slavonic Philokalia, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which the practice spread throughout the Russian land. The Optina Elders were spiritual masters who became renowned throughout the Orthodox world for their holiness and spiritual gifts.

Of them Elder Ambrose later became as mentioned perhaps the best known historically. The sixth of eight children, the future Elder had a lively personable character which conflicted with his spiritual yearnings. A serious illness helped him to resolve his inner struggle. He arrived at Optina in 1839 when the monastery was spiritually in full bloom. Guided at first by Elder Leonid and then by Elder Makary who chose him as his cell-attendant, he made rapid spiritual progress. After only three years he was tonsured and in another three years he was ordained hieromonk. Illness forced him into semi-reclusion for several years, enabling him with great profit to concentrate on the Jesus Prayer and to experience the meaning of hesychia, the silence of the soul before God. Plagued by a weak constitution for the rest of his life, he continued nevertheless to expend every effort at first in assisting Elder Makary with the translation of the Holy Fathers, with his correspondence, and in conveying his counsel to pilgrims, and later as an elder in his own right.

For 30 years alter Elder Makary’s death, Elder Ambrose was Optina’s principal starets. Countless pilgrims streamed to his cell, and even when he was thoroughly exhausted and had to receive them lying in bed, he never turned away anyone in need of soul-profiting counsel. Men’s souls held no secrets from him; abundant testimony exists of his clairvoyance. He always adapted his advice to the individual and no one’s problem was considered too insignificant.

Dostoevsky found in Elder Ambrose a living example of the Christian ideal, while his younger colleague Elder Nektary called him “an earthly angel and a heavenly man.” Indeed, he was seen more than once surrounded by uncreated light, a sign of transfiguration and citizenship in paradise.his

Elder Ambrose was a model for Elder Zosimas in The Brothers Karamazov, a book that has helped bring many Americans to Orthodoxy, including in our mission. Here is an example of one of Elder Zosimas’ teachings from the novel:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.

The real-life Elder Ambrose gave many wise teachings, a number of which recorded in his Life in the Elders of Optina book series of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery Press in California. That Press and Monastery, co-founded by Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory, were significantly inspired by the legacy of the Optina elders, which also had touched some spiritual supporters of the American mission. The work of Father Seraphim, originally blessed by our mission’s patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, also has helped bring many Americans into Orthodoxy, including again some in our mission.

In Elder Ambrose’s Life are collected some of his words, includging:

Where it is simple, angels number a hundred and one; but where it is complicated there are none…. Where there is no simplicity, there is only emptiness.

To those who said they couldn’t do something, he told a story about a merchant who would always say can’t do it, can’t do it, I’m weak. Once the merchant had to travel in Siberia. The merchant rode wrapped in two fur coats in a sledge. He dozed off one night and opened his eyes and saw something glowing like twinkling stars. It was the eyes of wolves. He bounded from the sledge and up into a tree, forgetting the weight of his fur coats, an incredible feat.

“A requested cross is hard to carry,” Elder Ambrose said. “It is better to give yourself over to God’s will in simplicity.” He added, quoting the Apostle Paul: “Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (p. 247, Elder Ambrose of Optina, St. Herman of Alaska Press).

On this date in 1998 the relics of Elder Ambrose were recovered in the re-founded Monastery at Optina, which had been closed by the Communists who sought to erase its history and memory across generations. The finding of the relics remind us of the ever-resilient life of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the continuing spiritual power and impact of the Prayer of the Heart practiced by Elder Ambrose and others in the Optina tradition.

In ending, let us say in our hearts the Prayer of the Elders of Optina:

O Lord, give me strength to face with serenity everything that this day will bring. Grant me to entrust myself fully to Your holy will. Every hour of this day teach me and support me. Whatever news I may receive during the day, teach me to accept it with peace of mind and with firm conviction that everything is according to Your holy will.

In all my words and actions guide my thoughts and feelings. In all unexpected events, do not let me forget that everything is sent by You.

Teach me to deal sincerely and wisely with every member of my family, bringing confusion or sorrow to none.

O Lord, give me strength to bear the weariness of the coming day and all the events of this day. Guide my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to endure, to forgive and to love. Amen.

Standard

Memory Eternal, Metropolitan Hilarion, on the 40th day of his repose. And meaningful coincidences with the overturning of Roe v. Wade

We chanted “Memory eternal” for our beloved Arch-Pastor Metropolitan Hilarion on the 40th day of his repose, the end of the formal period of prayers for the dead in the Orthodox Church, on Friday June 11 on the Church calendar (June 24 on the civil calendar). Vladyka Hilarion had blessed the start of our little mission in rural central Pennsylvania seven years before, and guided her growth. He was a true shepherd of our flock and of many others around the world, in his work as First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR). From the first, as newcomers to ROCOR from another Orthodox jurisdiction, which had balked at setting up a mission in our small town, we felt his kindness and prayerful care.

This same day for a “final farewell” for him, in terms of a Church service, was also the summer feast of the famous Kursk Root icon, a palladion of the Russian White Army in the civil war against the atheist Bolshevik oppressors of the Church, and chief icon of the Holy Synod that Metropolitan Hilarion headed, now based at the Manhattan home of the Synod where Vladyka lived in his last years and reposed. Throughout her history, the icon has symbolized the triumph of faith over worldly oppression, showing forth fulfillment of the long-prophesied “Sign” of the Lord that a Virgin would give birth to our Lord and Savior and God. Her summer feast on the ninth Friday after Pascha (the Orthodox Easter), coinciding this year with the 40-day prayers for Vladyka Hilarion, also fell on the date of the epic announcement of the historic overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade‘s enshrinement in 1973 of an asserted “human right” to abortion in the Constitution of the modern world’s wealthiest nation encouraged a culture of disposable life, inimical to the ancient Christian message of respect for life embodied in the icon and Metropolitan Hilarion’s life in that tradition. Under the materialistic legal regime established by Roe v. Wade, millions of children were sacrificed in officially sanctioned slaughter, larger in scale than the sacrifices of children by the Molochites in the Old Testament. Great has been the suffering for many children, mothers, fathers, and families, with spiritual wounds and sins too often un-repented-of by society at large, Lord have mercy on all! Great remains the need now for caring for those in need and their children. May we as Orthodox Christians turn toward Our Lady the Most Holy Mother of God, asking her prayer and intercession with her Son for all in need, beginning with ourselves, and for our right response.

The three events on the same day were linked spiritually and in remembrance. The type of depiction of the Theotokos in the Kursk Root Icon is called “the Mother of the Sign” because it highlights fulfillment of the prophecy of the Holy Prophet Isaiah, of that Sign from the Lord that a Virgin would conceive the Christ, the Logos, in her womb. The embodied Sign, Logos, the child Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, came forth from her bodily, in a fathomless and wonderful mystery of redemption and care.

The Kursk Root icon depicts the Theotokos with Him before her, the Lord of Hosts above, and around her nine prophets who wrote about the birth of Christ centuries before, namely (clockwise starting on the top right) King Solomon, Prophets Daniel, Jeremiah, Elijah, Habakkuk, Judge Gidon, Prophets Isaiah, Moses, and King David. How great a cloud of witnesses across many generations! They foresaw the coming of the Messiah even in distant and dark times. In that foundational reality of the Christian faith lay the ultimate underscoring of the holiness of birth and babies, both a divine guarantee and historical reminder of the dignity of each human being, despite human tragedies and sins.

The dark and troubled times of the Old Testament trajectory toward the birth of Christ, illustrated in the icon, finds its echo in the history of the icon as well. As the ROCOR Synod website’s history of the icon notes, the Tatars had ravaged Russian lands, reducing the region of Kursk to an overgrown area sought out by hunters of wild beasts. On 8 September, 1295, on the day of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God, a small force of hunters from Rylsk came to hunt at the Tuskora river, 27 versts from Kursk. One of the hunters, an honorable and pious man, seeking prey in the woods, found a small icon lying face down on the root of a tree. He had barely lifted it to inspect it when the spot upon which the icon lay burst out with a strong spring of pure water. The icon turned out to be of the type referred to as the “Sign” of the Mother of God. The hunter who found the icon knew that this was no ordinary occurrence. He called his companions and together they built a small wooden chapel, into which they placed this icon. The residents of Rylsk, hearing of the newly-appeared icon of the Mother of God, began to visit it for veneration, and many miracles began to appear from it.

in 1385 the Kursk region was swept again by the Tatars. They tried to burn down the chapel and its Icon, but the wooden structure would not burn. The priest who lived by the chapel, Fr. Bogolep, explained to them that the reason for this miracle was the Icon itself. The incensed Tatars hacked the Icon in half and tossed the pieces in different directions, then burned the chapel.

They took the priest prisoner and was forced to tend to Tatar flocks. Some time later he was ransomed by emissaries of the Muscovite Grand Duke who were on their way to the Golden Horde, and he returned to the place where the chapel had stood. After a long search, while praying and fasting, he found both halves of the holy Icon, placed them side by side, and they grew together seamlessly, exhibiting only something “like dew”.

The Kursk Root icon, and the help granted by the Mother of God, is linked with important events in Russian history, such as the war of liberation of the Russian nation during the Polish-Lithuanian incursion in 1612, and the 1812 Fatherland war. Several copies of the icon were made, which have also been associated with miracles.

In 1676 the holy Icon traveled to the Don River for blessing the Don Cossack troops. In 1684 Tsars Ivan and Petr Alekseevich sent a copy of this Icon with the order that it accompany Orthodox troops into battle. In 1687 the holy Icon was sent to the “Great Army.” In 1689 copies of the holy Icon were given to the armies in the Crimean campaign. In 1812 a copy of the holy Icon was sent to Prince Kutuzov and the battling troops. Before his icon St. Seraphim of Sarov prayed and was healed.

On the night of 7-8 March, 1898, conspirator revolutionaries-atheists tried to blow up the Miracle-working Icon with a hellish bomb, but the Lord Jesus Christ glorified His Most-Pure Mother yet more, for despite the terrifying destruction in the cathedral surrounding the Icon, it remained untouched.

On 12 April 1918, the holy Icon was stolen from the cathedral of the Monastery of the Sign of the Mother of God and stripped of its ornamentation, but on 2 May it was found and returned to its place.

Finally, in 1919, while accompanying Bishop Feofan of Kursk and Oboyan’ and some monks of the Monastery of the Sign, the holy Icon crossed the border to the neighborly Serbia. In 1920 it again, at the behest of General Wrangel, visited Russia at the Crimea and remained there until the final evacuation of the Russian Army in the first days of November, 1920. The holy Icon returned to Serbia, where it remained until 1944, when, together with the Synod of Bishops, it went abroad, to Munich (Bavaria) with Metropolitan Anastassy. In 1951 Metropolitan Anastassy moved from Munich to America. Since 1957 the Icon had resided in the main cathedral dedicated to it in the Synod of Bishops in New York. The holy Icon regularly travels to all the dioceses of the Russian diaspora

In early times when the icon was discovered, and after an old chapel nearby had been rebuilt to house it, it was moved to Rylsk to a new Church there. But the icon mysteriously disappeared and returned to the place of its appearance, and kept returning there, to the country place of what is now the Kursk Root Hermitage. The summer feast honors the time each year when the icon subsequently would be returned for the summer in a procession to that country site, on the ninth Friday after Pascha. It offers a gentle and usually unheralded reminder of the icon’s miraculous origins and history in the bosom of the Russian countryside, despite all manner of tragedy and upheaval.

Indeed, the icon has witnessed the renewal of the Orthodox faith worldwide in the global Russian diaspora during the time of the Bolshevik yoke, which had prompted the greatest loss of life and persecution of the Christian Church in history worldwide, and in travels since has witnessed the renewal of the faith in Russia after the fall of communism as well. Today, remembering the 40th day of the repose of our beloved Metropolitan Hilarion, whose life spanned that era, and also the Holy Kursk Root icon, we welcome in the United States the end of the nationally sanctioned oppression of millions of unborn babies, sacrifices to the materialistic yoke of Western consumerism and technocracy.

Heading into the future, a visible reminder of the spiritual wound of Roe v. Wade and its culture of officially promoted abortion will remain in the public art of the university campus where I work, in a sculpture of the Native American concept of the Seventh Generation. The sculpture represents the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee ethos that people should live and make choices that take into consideration our influence for good or bad on the seventh generation to come after us. The viewer of the sculpture can look through figures representing those coming generations. But, in the 1990s, pro-abortionist faculty twice vandalized the sculpture by removing a fetus featured as the “seventh generation” on it. Finally it was not replaced. Thus only six generations of the seven remain featured in the sculpture today. Yet the strange status of the seventh figure, like the biblical “fourth man” in the fire, may remind an Orthodox Christian considering the sculpture’s symbolism of the hidden presence of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whose rule the world ultimately rests. He remains the Sign fulfilled, in the Logos made flesh, a little baby born in a cave in Bethlehem Who, as the Creed teaches us, shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.

The Orthodox Christian cry of “memory eternal!” in prayers for the dead, heard on behalf of Metropolitan Hilarion at the gathering to mark the 40th day of his repose, echoes in the ending of a book often recognized as one of the world’s greatest works of literature, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. There the exclamation is a call for the resistance to modernity’s self-assertion (illustrated in the idea of a Constitutional “natural right” to abortion enforced nationally) by the Orthodox Christian ethos of self-emptying, identified in the book with care of children and the influence of love across generations.

Even so today, as Holy Scripture instructs us, we must not put our trust in princes and the sons of men, or take pride in the vagaries of legal and political change in the secular world, but in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Church, our mother. The Kursk Root icon exemplifies the intercessory care for His Church by His Mother, the Most Holy Theotokos, and her example of love. Metropolitan Hilarion laid down his life for us to show us this. May his example and prayers help sustain us through uncertainties ahead, and may his memory be eternal!

Most Holy Theotokos save us! Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us!

Standard

The Leave-Taking of Pascha and the Feast of St. Dimitri Donskoi

The Apodosis of Pascha today comes between the end of Divine Liturgy and the start of the Ninth Hour when the Paschal Tropar and official “Christ is Risen!” greeting ends. Some saints, notably St. Seraphim of Sarov, reportedly used the Paschal greeting throughout the year. But liturgically we are left with a transition or time-between Pascha and tomorrow’s Feast of the Ascension, and from there ten days to Pentecost. It is partly an edgy time and partly a continuum. In the Church we are left to marvel and rejoice with the Apostles seeing our Lord and God and Savior ascend in bodily form into heaven to be on the right hand of the Father in human incarnation, wholly God and wholly man, two natures unconfused and undivided, of one essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

What a wondrous mystery! Yet also there is a joyful sorrow again of the passing of the Pascha season. We await the return of the Lord promised by the angels at the Ascension, His return from the clouds, when we pray to meet Him amid them, the clouds that embody the mystery of God, He Who Is, which is the Orthodox translation in English of the Tetragrammeton generally rended Kyrios in the Greek Septuagint and in Orthodox iconography by the Greek letters Ὁ ὬΝ. The Apostle Paul wrote famously that five heartfelt words in prayer were better than a multitude, and so too may the Jesus Prayer (five words in effect in Greek and Slavonic in the form “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”) remain the constant meditation in our hearts between the Ascension Pentecost and beyond, so that we may keep Him in our hearts.

This transition highlights how the grace of the uncreated energies of God permeates all Creation in the Body of Christ, the Church, throughout and beyond time. Time and non-time in Orthodoxy include the pre-eternal or beyond-eternal of the divine and God’s uncreated energies, and the eternal of angels and demons and the human soul, and the human-social time now framing us in the digital world, and the natural time of the cycle of seasons, of animals and plants. God sees and knows all beyond time, and His Providence guides, directs, supports, and fashions all within time, although in a synergy of free service to Him with that grace.

Today is also this year (May 18, 7530, on the Church calendar, and June 1, 2022, on the civil calendar) the Feast of St. Dimitri Donskoi )”Dimitri of the Don.”  Born in 1350 to the Grand Prince of Vladimir and Moscow, the Synaxarion tells of how he grew up in great piety. The Holy Metropolitan Alexis became regent when Dimitri’s father died I n1359, and “he learned to carry out the duties of his state in conformity with evangelical principles, and to seek in all things the glory of God.” As ruler he would take up the task of rebuilding Russia after the long Tatar/Mongol domination, while “Saint Sergius of Radonezh and his disciplines presented the monastic life to the people as a model of Christian perfection.” Under the direction of Sts. Alexis, Sergius, and Archbishop Theodore of Rostov, and with the blessed influence of his wife St. Eudocia, the Grand Prince understood the unification of the various Russian principalities and assured the Church’s independence. He faced enemies among the Tatars and Lithuanians and jealous princes. But “the goal of his policy was to create a unified State through the principalities’ free submission to the Grand Prince of Moscow, following the model of the mutual love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity,” memorably symbolized in the icon of the Trinity by St. Alexander Rublev, a younger contemporary of St. Sergius. The Prince often visited St. Sergius’ monastery and founded many monasteries headed by the Saint’s disciples. In 1380, Khan Mamai entered Russia with almost 400,000 men to overwhelm the Prince’s successes against the Tatars. Following the Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarius (vol. 5, p. 211):

“Realizing that the decisive moment which Providence had been preparing since his childhood had arrived, the Grand Prince, harvesting the fruits of his patient policy of the reuniting of the Russian principalities, assembled a powerful army near Moscow under the slogan ‘God is our refuge and our strength!’ After the Feast of the Dormition, he went to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, and Saint Sergius gave him his blessing to engage in battle against the ‘godless,’ foretelling victor for him.

“On the eve of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the troops at the end of which the Prince, like a second Constantine, had placed the life-giving Cross, crossed the Don and arrived on the plain of Kulikovo. The time for battle having come, Saint Dimitri addressed his men, saying:

“‘My dear brothers, let us fight for God, for the holy Churches and for the Christian faith. If we must die, this death is not death but life eternal. Do not think of any earthly thing, my brothers. Let us not abandon the battle, and we shall then be victoriously crowned by Christ our God and the Saviour of our souls.”

A novice from St. Sergius’ monastery first launched himself into battle and was the first victim, in the greatest battle Russia had seen. St. Sergius was able to see in spirit the battle and commemorate those killed. “The Battle of Kulikovo became the symbol of the spiritual and national awakening of the Russian people and the victory of the light of Christ over the darkness of paganism.”

St. Dimitri’s ideal of Christian country relates to the troparion “by the virtue of Thy Cross preserve Thy commonwealth.” May that spirit and prayer inform an end to the tragic current fratricidal struggle in the Ukraine, which involves an aspect of confrontation between the mechanistic spirit of the age and ancient spiritual realms of Orthodoxy in the extended Byzantine civilizational zone.

The weapons in that battle ultimately must be spiritual and not carnal, for the pulling down of strongholds of the spirit of Anti-Christ, which sets the faithful against one another in a world that seeks to deny through materialistic technocracy the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a sign of victory He sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fully found the Church that is His Body and is still us still on earth.

Tomorrow we will exclaim, “Christ is ascended! From earth to Heaven!” as we look forward to the assurance of Pentecost.

Standard

Memory Eternal, Vladyka Hilarion

From a homily on the eve of Mid-Pentecost, Tuesday May 4/17, 7530/2022, at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church

We gather this evening of the Mid-Pentecost Feast for Vespers and for memorial prayers for the blessed repose of our ever-memorable Arch-Pastor, Metropolitan Hilarion. The Feast of Mid-Pentecost is in one sense a commemoration of joyful sorrow, because it reminds us of the movement toward the end of the Paschal season, being the halfway mark between the Resurrection and Pentecost. But it is likewise joy-filled because of that passage. The Church at this feast reminds us of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ as Teacher. The Church’s Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost refers to our Lord teaching in the middle of the Old Testament Feast of the Tabernacles, teaching about Himself being sent from God, and also about the living waters of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The feast thus also prefigures Pentecost, including the tradition of the blessing of water on Mid-Pentecost, while pointing to the upcoming Sunday of the Samaritan Woman’s encounter with our Lord at Jacob’s Well and His telling her there of the living water that He gave. This spring-time festival further pointed to the full establishment of the Church at Pentecost by marking the altar feast of the great Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople. Another icon for this feast reminds us of the account of an incident from our Lord’s youth, when He taught amazed elders in the Temple. The emphasis on teaching in both icon types for Mid-Pentecost parallels His own wondrous teaching between the Resurrection and Ascension to His followers, in their encounter with Him resurrected, as well as in His precious words and farewell. Mid-Pentecost thus is a reminder of the transition from His grounding of the Church in His Resurrection, through His ultimate teaching, toward Pentecost. Then, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the Resurrection’s universal promise by overcoming the divisions of mankind and fully founding the Orthodox Church, against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail. For the same Holy Spirit reaches out to each of us in community in the Body of Christ at Baptism, Chrismation, and each Eucharistic Communion.

Icons of Mid-Pentecost (above) of Jesus Christ teaching the elders as a youth, and (below) of Him later teaching mid-feast (the Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost).

Tonight as we begin Mid-Pentecost we bittersweetly commemorate the start of the third day of the repose of our beloved Arch-Pastor Metropolitan Hilarion. His holy life and his falling asleep in the Paschal season looks toward Paradise with our Lord Jesus Christ. Coming from a rural Ukrainian immigrant farming community in western Canada, he became first seminarian and then monk at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville (where he was cell attendant for Archbishop Averky), and then beloved for his pastoral gifts as a hierarch in eastern America and Australia, overseeing the growth of parishes within the Russian Church Abroad. From the time he was a young seminarian and novice and bookstore worker at Jordanville he was remarkable for his kindness and calm discernment. He went on through God’s grace to become First Hierarch of the worldwide Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Some here remember so well in 2015 traveling to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Mayfield to receive his blessing to start our mission, in a region of central Pennsylvania where there was no Orthodox parish, and across a wider area no Russian Orthodox parish. He was such a kind and grace-filled pastor and teacher. He joins a line of unforgettable reposed arch-pastors of the Russian Church Abroad, including Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory, who led our Synod out of the Bolshevik Holocaust into the West, where he also taught the importance for our redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord’s human nature vowing “not my will but Thine be done.” His ever-memorable predecessors also included the holy Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory, who suffered torture as a prisoner of the Chinese communists, among other holy teachers and arch-pastors. Metropolitan Hilarion became the first leader of ROCOR born in North America, for his predecessors had originally come from what Americans called “the old world.” He is universally mourned for his loving compassion, and is taken from us at a time of great challenge for the Russian Orthodox Church and the world at large in these latter days. But the Paschal season reminds us of our Lord’s words, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

When at the end of his last book The Brothers Karamazov the Orthodox writer Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a funeral, he focuses on the same familiar prayer we sang tonight for Metropolitan Hilarion’s blessed repose: “Memory eternal!” This is a plea to God to remember the reposed, as well as for us to remember the reposed, and in effect also for all of us to remember God. It bespeaks the synergy of ascetic prayer with God’s grace emphasized in Orthodoxy. That discussion of death and after-life in the book’s ending features the words of the young man Alyosha, drawn to monasticism and mourning also the recent death of his spiritual father, Elder Zosima. (Some even speculate that Alyosha was based on a young Metropolitan Anthony who met Dostoevsky as a youth when named Alexei or Alyosha, as his elder was based in part on St. Ambrose of Optina Monastery.) IAlyosha tells a group of mourning children at the funeral about the importance of good memories:

“…there is nothing higher or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation. Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today, “I want to suffer for all people”—perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be—and God preserve us from it—as soon as we remember how we buried [him], how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together … the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment! Moreover, perhaps just this memory alone will keep him from great evil, and he will think better of it and say: “Yes, I was kind, brave, and honest then.” Let him laugh to himself, it’s no matter, a man often laughs at what is kind and good, it just comes from thoughtlessness; but I assure you, gentlemen, that as soon as he laughs, he will say at once in his heart: “No, it’s a bad thing for me to laugh, because one should not laugh at that!”

            “’I am speaking about the worst case, if we become bad,’” Alyosha went on, ‘but why should we become bad, gentlemen, isn’t that true? Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then—let us never forget one another….

            “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who if not [him whom we remember today]. Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”….

            “’Memory eternal!’” the boys again joined in.

            “Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and him [who has passed]?’”

            “’Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,’” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

(Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

The novel is in many ways, as the Orthodox professor Donald Sheehan noted, about self-emptying in faith versus modern emphasis on self-assertion. In that, the love from the Elder Zosima is transmitted to Alyosha, and from him to the boys he addresses after the funeral.

Elder Zosima’s repose; an illustration by Alice Neel from The Brothers Karamazov

Such a life-changing memory of the funeral gathering is personal as Dostoevsky portrays it, ultimately leading to the real source of our personhood in the God-man Jesus Christ. Persons of holiness implant such memories in us, to the glory of God, as icons of Christ for us in our lives. So, from our childhoods in Orthodoxy, and the childhood of our mission, we honor the memory of our Church’s father Metropolitan Hilarion. He helped guide the birth of this mission and of our lives in the Body of Christ here. We take a memory together today from his kindness in offering us a nurturing shelter as exiles from the world and from turmoil even within the larger Orthodox Church. We take that memory to apply now in our lives and pass forward to others, too, as we grow in Orthodoxy and as we unworthily become, God willing, influencers for good to others also young in Orthodoxy. Dear brothers and sisters, our best remembering of Vladyka is to live those qualities of Jesus Christ we venerate in his life, that his memory may be eternal and shine brightly between God and us, from this time in the joyous Resurrection season, on now to the path toward Pentecost, and unto the Ages of Ages, Amen. For Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Standard