Faith and Freedom

The article appended below appeared recently on the Princetonians for Free Speech website. It is an account of a situation at a secular (formerly Baptist) American university that reflects trends and situations around American education currently. While freedom of speech is not an article of Christian faith per se, it is a reflection of Christian cultural backgrounds of the United States, in the link between the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and the U.S. Constitution and original Bill of Rights. Eric Nelson has cited cultural underpinnings of foundational American constitutionalism in neo-Stuart Jacobitism (as opposed to revolutionary Jacobinism), rooted in Christian ideas of monarchy and spiritual unity, and each person as made according to the image of God, “under God.” For Orthodox Christians in America, an element of concern with current negativity about freedom of speech on campuses is that it often links with hostility toward traditional Christianity and bias against Orthodox Christians, including especially Russian Orthodox tradition.

From an Orthodox theological perspective, as the late poet and Dartmouth professor Donald Sheehan noted, rights (including free speech) are not about self-assertion but self-emptying. Symphonia between Church and State in historical Orthodox tradition (symbolized by the double-headed eagle) is typed in part by the U.S. First Amendment’s synergy of freedom of religious expression with not establishing religion (not identifying it as the State in effect)–in a Constitution that nonetheless cites “the year of our Lord” with its signatures. The synergy between sobornost (conciliarity) and govenie (ascetic discipline and obedience to hierarchy) in the Orthodox Church illumines her approach to freedom. It should be freedom not to destroy others through objectifying pornography and hate, for example, but freedom for humility in a “nation under God,” as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address put it by linking statements about God in the Declaration to the Constitution. The Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher S.L. Frank (who himself experienced persecution both under Communism and under Nazism as a dissident of Jewish background) in exile defined freedom as “voluntary service to universal truth,” in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, who tells us “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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[From Princetonians for Free Speech]

Bucknell University’s faculty recently voted down a free-speech motion. It was a ritual slaying.

By anonymous vote, professors opted 191 to 31 to prevent any discussion of the motion, and to require a super-majority to resurrect it in future, by postponing it indefinitely.

In doing so, faculty at the highly ranked liberal-arts university in central Pennsylvania sought to put a stake in the heart of what are known as the University of Chicago Principles, which call for universities to allow free speech of all kinds except such “unprotected speech” as threats, harassment, and libel.

Despite 80-plus other institutions having adopted the Chicago Principles and leading Bucknell alumni supporting the measure, Bucknell faculty members made themselves outliers from their own university’s values, given that its mission statement calls for support of “different cultures and diverse perspectives.”

But the Bucknell professors also provided an extreme caricature of what faculty culture in America has become today in the eyes of many: Narrowly ideological, intellectually xenophobic, and passively-aggressively policing others’ views.

More and more Americans view such privileged U.S. educators as willing to destroy the liberal-arts tradition and American civil culture for the sake of ideological dogmas and their own status.

The Bucknell proposal was brought up to the faculty once before, in 2017, by faculty sponsors of varied political views. At that time it was tabled indefinitely, purportedly to avoid “negative publicity” from a direct “No” vote, after the university counsel had intervened to call it unnecessary. But a parliamentary flaw in that tabling allowed it to be brought back in 2022 after a delay during the Covid era.

Just how needed the motion remains was seen last fall, when University of Toronto psychologist and bestselling writer Jordan Peterson visited Bucknell, his first public appearance anywhere in more than two years. A newsworthy if controversial event, Peterson’s talk was preceded by custodians prying the Bucknell seal off the podium, and an information blackout from university public relations staff.

On the night of Peterson’s talk, many students were reportedly prevented from getting seats in the auditorium by activist faculty who urged their own students to reserve tickets online and then not show up, leaving empty seats. An estimated 250 of 600 available reserved seats were kept empty while a long line of students and community members waited outside.

University police responded by opening balconies closed due to campus Covid restrictions, to allow entry to those who were waiting. But some had already gone to a remote overflow location or returned to their dorms.

While this was reported at the opening of the program, and circulated later on a video of the event, there were no challenges or denials to the report, and no statement or inquiry apparently by the institution.

In this new kind of higher-ed “social credit” system, the faculty are would-be enforcers of politicized morals, and students are the main losers.

The Chicago Principles vote last month was preceded by broadcast and circulation of a 90-minute webinar explaining the need to highlight free speech on campus. It included educational and developmental reasons for allowing college-age students to engage with different views, and how that fits Bucknell’s mission statement to make students and faculty of different backgrounds and viewpoints feel welcome. The last half of the webinar featured appearances by free-speech advocates Profs. Robert George of Princeton and Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary, addressing the integral relation of free speech and the liberal arts, and to a spiritual culture of humility needed at universities.  Cultural humility is not the virtue that comes to mind to describe privileged American academics, however.

At Bucknell, the last two known surveys of faculty politics tell part of the story. In 2014, a university survey of Bucknell faculty indicated that 70 percent identified as liberal or far left politically, and only 9% as conservative and far right. In 2015, a student journalism-class investigation of county records showed that 74% of Bucknell faculty in Bucknell’s county were registered as Democrats, 6% as Republicans.

Those percentages have undoubtedly grown more lopsided since. While the data are political indicators, they suggest inhospitableness toward those whose religious and ethnic cultures don’t share progressive American political values.

Examples abound. When Prof. Shelby Steele of Stanford’s Hoover Institution debated Prof. John Fountain of Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2020 in a webinar for the Bucknell campus, as two African-American scholars debating the utility and truth of the concept of systemic racism, faculty critics commandeered the university’s online announcement center to denounce the event and me personally as racist. To even apply critical thinking to the model of systemic racism was racist, they argued. The university apparently took no action against them, beyond instituting a stronger screening system for announcements.

In 2019, conservative scholar Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute had appeared on campus. Some faculty and administrators helped organize meetings, a protest, and a counter-event, apparently so that students wouldn’t be tempted to hear her. Students with encouragement of administrative staff spoke of the need to ostracize peers involved in the event, and publicly called for firing the faculty involved. The administrator in charge of diversity policy (which is supposed to include counteracting religious bias) reportedly told the counter-event protesters that “Christian values” are “originators” of white supremacy.

Because the administrator was speaking with the title of diversity administrator charged with adjudicating issues of religious bias, a Catholic student at the historically liberal Anglo-Protestant and now secular campus filed a bias complaint as part of a university reporting system. He reports that he has not even received an acknowledgement.

I was approached by a distressed first-year student this fall, a conservative Catholic, who since dropped out due to the ideology of the faculty and its shadow over campus. A Black student from Africa told me he withdrew from Bucknell for similar reasons while fighting related depression. A second African student told me of how uncomfortable and alien he was made to feel by efforts to assimilate international students of color into the Bucknell faculty-staff ideology, regardless of different individual views and cultural traditions.

This is not to mention how professors have felt ostracized and even pushed out of the university because of faculty-staff group-think. The latter intrudes into the business of the university by ostracizing those with different views and gifts to offer in serving students.

Bucknell’s majority white-American faculty seem uninterested in any real response to such different voices. The cynical might say many are “virtue signaling.” The blocking of debate on the Chicago Principles was led by a white professor whose department recently had protested losing a position to diversity hires and was trying hard to show its commitment to diversity. But arguments that the Chicago Principles are racist were belied by the presence of prominent African-American activist and scholar Cornel West on the video webinar produced by supporters, extolling free-speech efforts at Bucknell, and by the text of the motion itself.

Other arguments that the motion was unnecessary are belied by the Peterson incident and others like it, the experience of non-conforming students and faculty, and the fact that existing language in the university’s Faculty Handbook is not as embracing of community free speech as the Chicago Principles, despite claims to the contrary by some faculty in trying to justify their opposition to the motion.

While many new texts produced by the university continually re-state and expand on older texts supporting diversity, the adding of one additional text highlighting free speech was labeled in effect pathologically obsessive and unnecessary by opponents in preventing debate.

Leading university donors, at a time when Bucknell is entering a major fundraising cycle, formed a non-profit entity, the Open Discourse Coalition (ODC), as a way to support the faculty free-speech movement organized as the Bucknell Program for American Leadership. But these efforts have met with opposition.

Last summer, activists posted a sign on the new ODC building near campus that read “Center for White Victimhood” and sent an anonymous hate letter to a faculty mailbox with the logo of the banner attached. Such acts are labeled humorous satire. That was also the “explanation” for labeling me (a Russian Orthodox clergyman) “Rasputin”—something done on social media with the support of three of my Bucknell faculty colleagues. The malicious context implied that like Rasputin I deserved to be erased, due to my cultural difference from faculty ideology, at a time of US-Russian hostility.  It was a little like calling a Muslim faculty member Osama bin Laden after 9-11.

In the past few years I also have had my personal office belongings “accidentally” removed from Bucknell’s campus and put on the street, with a threat that they would be trashed by a colleague who earlier had said he blamed his divorce on his ex-wife’s interest in Orthodox Christianity. I was forced out of a department affiliation on campus after being singled out for unfair investigation of my free-speech activities as allegedly racist. Other unusual “coincidences” have included being removed from a planning committee by a last-minute rule change, and being the apparent subject of unusual curricular review and of attempted cancellation of a campus project I was coordinating.

Maybe that’s not surprising given that I’m often a visibly different person among our faculty (even pointed out as being such in a joke by a dean at a faculty meeting): The Russian Orthodox cleric with the long beard and hair wearing riassa and skufia, in a blended Russian-American family with children identifying as Russian. But my ostracism started when writing about religious freedom with regard to sexual and family anthropology in my Russian Orthodox tradition, out of line with Bucknell’s dominant secular progressive ideology. Yet attempted cancellation for my allegedly unethical Eastern Christian “gender expression” came from colleagues who seemed to tolerate other faculty who apparently without serious stigma engaged in activities such as sex with a student and unwanted personal attention to a colleague leading to distress.

Meanwhile children of faculty, including my own, have been cyber-bullied and physically bullied for being out of step with Bucknell-dominated community ideology in our small town.

Bucknell is a great university. It is an honor to work there and serve wonderful students. But the potential negative impact of out-of-control toxic faculty culture on students, their character and education, is corrosive. Princeton’s Robert George, on a visit to campus with Cornel West, hearing a complaint from a leftist student about the lack of “diverse perspectives” on campus, diagnosed the problem as “academic malpractice.”

The Bucknell student newspaper has covered these free-speech efforts negatively for the most part. A columnist wrote three articles critical of the Peterson event, in which she went from calling him “Jordan Peter-Sucks,” to bemoaning how Peterson as a powerful media figure allegedly had bullied her by re-tweeting her article with its epithet about him (garnering her much negative feedback). She attended the campus event, when attempted censorship of Peterson’s event was announced, but did not report on that. Instead she went on in a new column to blast the Chicago Principles in caricatured form. After the recent vote, a faculty critic of free-speech efforts (and open admirer of Lenin) boasted of his contacts among students at the paper. Coincidentally, the aforementioned writer is a major in his small program.

On all this the faculty motto seems to be: “Nothing to see here, move along.”


Fish and Faith

Adapted from a paper entitled “The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek,” given at the Keystone Coldwater Conference, Feb. 13, 7530 (civil calendar Feb. 26, 2022), in State College, PA.

Penns Creek: A northern Appalachian fly-fishing stream in central Pennsylvania

I wanted to share a bit today about ideas for linking a university community to nature through story, and the relation of a meaningful life in nature to spirituality. I’ll tell the story of a class visit to Penns Creek while reading The Compleat Angler and its connections to related efforts in environmental humanities. Then I’ll talk a little more about models for linking story to conservation though a field known as environmental semiotics.

I teach a class called “the hidden God of nature,” which is about nature and spirituality in literatures of Christian cultures from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. I also have been involved for years in a project called Stories of the Susquehanna Valley. At the heart of these efforts is the simple idea that landscape is a dialogue, which involves multiple actors and voices so to speak, in a complex story or dance that nonetheless involves an objective reality, which is perceived through what metaphorically we might call a variety of visual spectrums. That variety of spectrums involves species, the animate and inanimate, and even what can be called the spiritual, which I’ll seek also to explain briefly in relation to literature.

In my course, we read The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton as an example of 17th century literature. We discuss in a Bucknell classroom (or this past fall mainly under a large tent due to Covid restrictions) the ideas of Walton regarding human interactions with nature as a type of spirituality. He does this through the medium of fly fishing, somewhat in the way that a 1960s writer did it through accounts of cross-country motorcycle travel in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yet Walton does this of course with much greater attention to fauna and flora and especially the details of a specific interaction with life on earth and landscape through fishing.

In the case of our class we then go on a field trip to the Union County Sportsmens Club near Weikart, along Penns Creek. This past fall we were joined by a number of members of the Union County Trout Unlimited Chapter who kindly helped demonstrate fly fishing and talk about Penns Creek. In the past we have also had also appreciated guidance there from staff of Bucknell’s Watershed studies program at its Sustainability Center.

Izaac Walton as many of you I’m sure know was a draper turned writer, who sought refuge from the English Revolution on the banks of the River Dove in England, among other spots, at the Fishing House with his friend Charles Cotton. On our field trips, the Sportsmens Club in effect became our class’ fishing house on the banks of Penns Creek, a refuge and a different dimension offering reflection on life through the discipline and mindfulness of fly-fishing, and the peaceful rushing of the water beneath the trees, another world from our current online and onpavement lives at a university campus whose students come mainly from well-developed suburban metropolitan regions.

The main part of the Walton’s book ends with the character Venator, who is the hunter converted to a love of fishing by his new friend Piscator, saying

So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him. This is my purpose: and so, Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. And let the blessing of St. Peters Master be with mine.”

To which Piscator concludes: “And upon all that are lovers of Vertue; and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a Angling.[1] Angling for Walton involved a kind of spiritual pun, for he referenced its connection to biblical accounts of fishermen as central figures in finding faith, and on the Anglicanism that he saw as a faith associated with country apart from extremes in his view of historical English religious and political strife. It involved the recognition of how in the words of an epigraph to the book that “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry,

The conversations between Piscator the fisherman, Venator the hunter, and Auceps the falconer, establish a triadic relational identity for the book’s focus on human beings in the natural world. The fisherman’s opening critique of “money-getting men,” “poor-rich-men” anxious for material gain and cares of the world, rejecting pastimes such as fly-fishing, also forms a Christian critique of modernity the Puritan tendency paradoxically to prove pre-determined election by material success, in spite of scriptural and patristic admonitions on the dangers of material riches. The self-described voice of the “old-fashioned country squire,” Walton, sometime parishioner and biographer of the metaphysical poet John Donne, is neither capitalist nor communist in any seventeenth-century sense, but a type of otherworldly ecologist, to use a modern term. For, as his fisherman Piscator notes early on, simplicity “was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace; men that were so simply-wise as not to sell their Consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation and a fear to die,” in simpler times with “fewer Lawyers.”[2]

The conversation ranges from the comic to the cosmic, as Auceps lectures on the elements and the virtues of his favorite, the air, and its birds; Venator on the earth and wildlife; and Piscator on water and the fish. The seventeenth-century rural English worthies are transfigured for moments, as if philosophers be-draped in Classical robes in the countryside, or somehow cosmic poetic representatives of their art and element on Olympus, and certainly characters of an English Arcadia in the Midlands. In this they are, however, very much rough-and-ready heirs of the Hellenic-Christian synthesis. Piscator ties the discussion together with Genesis as Moses’ retro-revelation of Creation, in which the Spirit moved upon the waters. Venator later references the biblical “meek shall inherit the earth,” when noting the unhappy cares of a rich man with estates in the countryside through which they hike, while stopping at pubs, like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis on their later countryside rambles between the world wars.[3] Piscator quotes the poet George Herbert (whose biography he also wrote) in a pun on his own book’s title–“And none can know thy works, they are so many, / And so compleat, but only he that ows [owns] them [God],” and Psalm 104 for its mentions of the sea, the rivers, and the fish contained therein. This is, as he notes in a later chapter, all under the care of “the God of Nature.”

The outdoorsmen-friends while fishing also meet milkmaids, whose songs of nature they praise in a rural cosmic complementarity of the sexes from a Christian standpoint. Venator notes, “I now see it was not without cause, that our good Queen Elizabeth did so often wish her self a Milkmaid all the month of May, because they are not troubled with fears and cares, but sing sweetly all the day, and sleep securely all the night.”[4] In one of the poems within the book, “The Angler’s Wish,” Piscator tells of his wish to be in flowery meads by crystal streams, rejoicing in their harmonious noise, with his fishing rod, watching the turtle-dove court chastely his mate. In so doing, he addresses Walton’s real-life wife, Kenna, about watching a blackbird feed her young, a laverock at her nest “free from lawsuits, and the noise of princes’ courts, with a book and friend,” wishing to “meditate my time away; and angle on,” begging for “A quiet passage to a welcome grave.” Here Walton through his alter ego juxtaposes images from the natural world with theor own family life.

Walton’s book is a prototype of the modern Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s call for an “eco-patriotism” embracing England’s countryside, rather than globalization and technocracy as merely a new form of technological colonialism. Walton’s reflection shares the spirit of Tolkien’s love of the country, and detestation of a nation made abstract by global colonialism. In a sense, The Compleat Angler is not mainly a fly-fishing manual, although it is that, but a manual for what the philosopher David Bentley Hart has called anarcho-monarchism in the sense of Tolkien’s Shire, where government is an elusive and otherworldly force of nature, and Edmund Burke’s networks of organic tradition abound, evenon Penns Creek  in the sportsmen’s club and local Trout Unlimited chapter. Then there is the symbolism of the hook, which is for a fish, but is a term theologically used for the trapping of the devil in the Crucifixion in the divine economics of the Incarnation, a reminder also of how human beings can become enmeshed in worldly objectification, and of the river as an image of the overlay of spiritual life on earth. For Walton, the king who provides sustenance during a time without a king is God who forms a triad with human being and nature, and prevents nature from being objectified.

Even in the quiet of Penns Creek on a fall evening, there was a sense of the sublime as the class discussed The Compleat Angler, a sublime sense of being on the edge nonetheless, if safe in God. A sense that the whole direction of secular modernity, and all the revolutionary identities formed in it, form an otherworldly terror beyond, contrasting with a glint of Paradise on the creek. The Anglo-Irish writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, a developer of the dark ecology movement, has used the term The Machine to describe the modern world including our digital lives. There on Penns Creek, practicing basic moves of fly fishing at the stream, the students had a sense of the curtain being lifted on a reality beyond The Machine, so to speak.

I have mentioned Walton’s emphasis on relationship with nature through a triad. That idea of relationship and triadic communication is explored by Estonian scientists and academics today in the fields of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics. Of course Christians like Walton long ago understood the importance of triadic relationship, which was woven into the heart of their theology. Professor Timo Maran recently told a group of Bucknell professors in a Zoom call from Estonia’s Tartu University that in ecosemiotics, landscape is a dialogue. It is not a binary of self and other. It is a relationship. For Walton, this was based in God as the third element, but even more ultimately in the mystery of God as Trinity. There are other triadic relationships of course at any moment involved in reading and discussing The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek. There is the relationship with others, within the class, and with local fly fishers, and of course with the creek ecosystem and all the species there with ourselves. Eastern Christian philosophy has a name for this, sobornost, or mystical hidden unity of all beings with God.

The late Wendy Wheeler, a writer on biosemiotics and ecosemiotics in England, discussed how understanding an ecosystem as a web of communication, of meaning, shaped an otherworldly dimension to landscape. Wheeler explained that this helped highlight two of Aristotle’s Four Causes that often are neglected in The Machine globally today. It focuses on material and efficient causes that are visible. But the two “invisible” causes of form and purpose often get lost. Those can be seen as involving communication between and among species, in what I have called an ecosemiosphere, as imagination, and even as involving the spiritual.

I’ll just close that in addition to this modest class effort we continue to try to practice that sense of unity in an ecological and cultural sense by campus efforts that include development of a sustainability path around Bucknell. We hope to include public art linking the path to past history such as the Civil War and Native American culture, the founding of the university, but also link the path online and in physical ways to neighboring regions such as the John Smith Chesapeake National Heritage Corridor and Penns Creek Wilds, the state-designated area that includes state forest lands to the west of where we visited. The Penns Creek greenway is a great natural treasure that is also a great cultural treasure. In the small Russian Orthodox mission parish where I serve as a clergy member, we are building a modest temple in the countryside in Union Twp. near Penns Creek. We plan to include a garden and beekeeping and an orchard around it, modestly to encourage a community across generations such as that Walton encouraged in his writing on the River Dove — a Fishing House for biblically being “fishers of men” (including ourselves), in the spiritual dimension that Walton loved in his own Anglican way, and to find peace away from the revolutions technological and otherwise that distract us from our hearts and faith.

To return again to The Compleat Angler, “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry.”

[1] Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, The Compleat Angler, ed. John Buxton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 229.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 192.

[4] Ibid., 82.


Homily on the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia by Hieromonk Theodore (Stanway)

This homily was given by Hieromonk Theodore on Sun. Jan. 24, 7530 (Feb. 6, 2022 on the civil calendar) at Holy Trinity Cathedral at Jordanville NY’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary. It is posted here as an appropriate reflection as we approach Great Lent in a world of crisis today.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today we commemorate a paradox. The feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is paradoxical in that it is one of the greatest tragedies in human history, while at the same time being the crowning glory of the Orthodox Church of Rus. On one hand, from a worldly point of view, we see the tragic deaths of millions upon millions of innocent men, women, and children, who were beaten, tortured, shot, starved, stabbed, burned, buried alive, hung, drowned, and violated in manifold unspeakable ways, while on the other hand, from our Orthodox Christian perspective, we see the radiant adornment of the heavenly throne room, millions upon millions of martyrs vested in pure white robes who are glorified, magnified, beseeched, blessed, and prayed to by the faithful, and who in turn help, comfort, save, and intercede for the faithful.

While it is beyond us to know the inscrutable mysteries of God’s judgement, what we do know and what has been revealed to us is that Our Lord brings the greatest blessings out of the darkest times. As from Golgotha of old came our salvation, so too now does the greatness of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia come from what we now know to be the Russian Golgotha, where our Church was nailed to its Cross for seventy five years. In those three Biblical generations, the Church of Rus offered more martyrs for the Orthodox Christian faith than in the previous two millennia combined.

How could this happen? The largest Christian empire in world history becomes the largest concentration camp ever devised by the fallen and perverse human mind. The Third Rome becomes the Third International. The pious Tsar is replaced by a godless dictator. The episcopacy is replaced by the Politburo. The priesthood is replaced by commissars. Monasteries are turned into NKVD prison camps. Holy confession is replaced by brutal interrogation. Fasting is replaced by mass starvation. Asceticism is replaced with torture. Large Christian families are replaced with abortion on demand. The icons are smashed, the churches defiled, the relics desecrated, and the Holy Cross that for almost a thousand years proudly reigned over the lands of Rus is taken down and broken. How could this happen?

Simply put, brothers and sisters, it happened because of our sins: the sins of the faithful, our negligence, our taking the holy things for granted, and our neglect of God’s law. As the prophet says, “this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips glorify me, but their heart is far from me.” The people had fallen far from the lofty heights of God’s calling. What we saw in Russia immediately prior to the revolution and the outburst of violence against the Church was the more or less complete externalisation of Orthodox Christianity in the population. A faith based simply on externals is no faith at all, and, as we see from the Russian experience, can very quickly be replaced by godless materialism.

While many may have made the sign of the Cross properly, came to some of the divine services, maybe even fasted, and “kept the rules,” their hearts were far from the Holy One of Israel. While there were many, many genuinely pious people in Russia, many more had become corrupted by worldliness and attachment to the passions, beginning with the aristocracy – the elites – and the rich and powerful for, after all, the fish rots from the head.

Holy Rus was holy not because all of its people were saints, but because the holiness of Christ was the standard by which the people measured themselves. When this lofty concept had been forgotten and the faith had been reduced to the mere observance of externals, then the drift away from a genuine, living faith in God was inevitable and when faith in God dries up, the people, deluded and misled, will find other doctrines to quench their first. Unfortunate, then, is that nation whose people drink from the bitter and toxic wells of Marx and Engels, of Bakunin and Kropotkin, of Lenin and Trotsky, for instead of “seeking first the Kingdom,” they instead look for a worldly utopia, a utopia built not on humility, repentance, and self-abnegation as paradise is, but on the corpses of those with whom you do not agree, of whom you are jealous, and whom you simply hate.

We are at risk too, brothers and sisters, of this temptation if we do not remember to first of all offer our hearts to the Lord God, and instead fall into mere observation of externals, a disinterested sign of the Cross here, a half-hearted fast there, a perfunctory and shallow confession here, and an unworthy Communion there. Prayers said by rote but with no spiritual feeling, psalms perfectly read and pronounced but with no effect on the heart. Beautiful divine services, glorious singing, but with no intention of striving to be Christlike, to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” It’s easy for us to claim that we know better and that we have learned from Russia’s mistakes, but is it so? Have not the holy elders stated that “what begins in Russia ends in America”? Did not Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory often state in his day that it was “today in Russia, tomorrow in America”? Tomorrow draws ever nearer and, unless we continually strive against complacency in our spiritual lives as individuals and in the life of our Church as a whole, then we will share the unfortunate fate of Russia.

Beyond simply having our own responsibility to struggle to live a virtuous and God-honouring Christian life, those of us who are numbered among the clergy or those of you who are here studying and preparing to be numbered among the clergy, have a special calling to warn, to encourage, and to guide the faithful away from the darkness of life away from Christ, even if we ourselves are completely broken down in the process. As Father George Calciu, a man who martyric witness in the communist prison camps of Romania should serve as an inspiration to all of us, said, to be a priest “means to be an enduring witness of human suffering and to take it upon your own shoulders. To be the one who warms the leper at his own breast and who gives life to the miserable through the breath from his own mouth. To be a strong comfort to every unfortunate one, even when you yourself are overwhelmed with weakness. To be a ray of shining light to unhappy hearts when your own eyes long ago ceased to see any light. To carry mountains of others’ suffering on your shoulders, while your own being screams out with the weight of its own suffering.”

This powerful meditation reflects Saint Paul’s advice to Saint Timothy, which was read today, in which he exhorts him, “we labour and are reviled, because we hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of the faithful […] be an example of the faithful, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in chastity […] Neglect not the grace that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood […] For in doing this you shall both save yourself and them that hear you.” This is our calling, brothers. Are we worthy to take up this Cross? Are we ready?

Of the millions of New Martyrs and Confessors, that the clergy are the most prominent is telling. They were ready to take up this Cross and they set the greatest example to the believers in their lives and especially in their deaths. Despite human frailties, passions, and weaknesses, these bold pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ laid down their lives for the sheep in imitation of the Saviour. This is why the Bolsheviks sought to liquidate the Church and its clergy from the earliest days of the revolution, for they sought to kill the shepherds and scatter the sheep. They sought to remove the head, that the body may die. These men were seized, persecuted, delivered up … imprisoned, and brought before rulers for the sake of Christ’s most holy name, being turned into a testimony by the Lord, as He promised in today’s Gospel reading. Truly, this has been the case in all major persecutions, when the clergy have always been the first and most prominent victims of brutal repressions against the Church of God, and today we invoke the memory of Saint Tikhon of Moscow, Saint Benjamin of Petrograd, Saint Peter of Krutitsa, and all those other hierarchs who said “no!” to compromise, “no!” to submission, and “no!” to apostasy, instead setting an example of resolute faith and trust in the Lord God that, even if they were to die defending the Church of God from its enemies, they would never besmirch the name of ‘Christian,’ never allow our faith to be mocked, and never allow our Most-Holy God to be blasphemed by the godless.

It is not the case, however, brothers and sisters, that it is simply the clergy’s responsibility to maintain fealty to Christ and His truth in a time of persecution. No, it is incumbent on all of us that we must be willing to walk to Golgotha with the Lord, for, “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it.” The persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union was an opportunity, permitted by God, for the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church to truly bear witness to their faith. Our Lord tells us that “many are called, but few are chosen,” and the chosen ones – the holy martyrs of Christ – were, as Saint Paul tells us in today’s epistle reading, predestined, called, justified, and, finally, glorified, becoming “more than conquerors” through Him Who bestows His mercy, grace, and love upon us, especially in times of trial, struggle, persecution, temptation, and trouble.

Looking forward and, some would say, into the abyss, we must cleave to the godly example of the New Martyrs and Confessors of our Church – all those who calmly, humbly, and piously went to their fates knowing that the greatest reward, that of eternal life, awaiting them at the end of the revolver of a Chekist or the bayonet of a Red Guard. We don’t know what the future has in store for us, brothers and sisters, but if the blessed elders who witnessed the death of Holy Rus are correct, then it is not good, at least from a worldly perspective. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, if such persecutions are to befall us as befell Russia, we should “rejoice and be exceedingly glad,” for, if we persevere, “great is our reward in heaven.” Remember, Our Lord counsels us that “in your patience, possess ye your souls,” and this is all He requires from us: perseverance. A resolute, solid patience that, fuelled by a burning love for God and His Truth, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” will undoubtedly persevere to the end and, as the Lord promises us, “he that perseveres to the end will be saved.”

Such a profound calling, yes? Such a lofty demand, yes? How can we, who are weak, attain to this? How can we possibly to manage to survive the madness that is to befall us? Simple, brothers and sisters, very simple: we must cling to the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Church, with all of our strength and submit ourselves to the commands of its Helmsman, Christ the Lord. Only with a burning love for God can we even think about making through the trials to come, and only by keeping God’s commandments can we grow in love for Him.

Brothers and sisters, our good God gives us everything necessary for our salvation, for our strength, for our endurance. Just as no right-thinking general sends his army to the frontlines without all the necessary supplies, our God does not call us to this glorious struggle without the ways and means of receiving His strength to fight, as it is not through our own strength that we succeed. Here, in our beloved Church, Our Lord provides for us the holy sacraments to strengthen us, divine wisdom to illumine and guide us, and the examples of the saints who adorn the walls around us to inspire us. Nothing is absent and everything is available if we indeed answer the call to take up the Cross and follow Christ.

Take a look at yourselves: are you carrying the Cross? Are any of us? If we are honest, many of us are not. Many of us simply fall into the externalisms that led to the destruction of Russia. Let us take heed and catch ourselves before we too fall, let us turn back and fully commit ourselves and one another to Christ our God before it is too late.

One more thing that the holy Church gives us is Great Lent, for our correction, to initiate our repentance, to guide us into having a contrite and humble heart that God will not despise. Today, the final Sunday before our Lenten cycle begins, we also remember Saint Zacchaeus the repentant publican, who turned away from his life of corruption, theft, deceit, and self-serving greed and, answering the call of Christ, received the Saviour into both his home and his heart, that he himself may be granted an abode in the heavenly mansions. Zacchaeus climbed a Sycamore tree to see the Lord because he was short in stature. Let us, who are short in spiritual stature, also ascend a tree to behold the Saviour, but let that tree be the Cross that He gives us, however large or small it may be. Let us take up that Cross, follow the Lord to Golgotha, and, as the Holy Apostle Thomas said, “let us go die with him!”

The Holy New Martyrs and Confessors did not seek death like some insane jihadists, but they simply accepted sufferings, tribulations, and martyrdom as being God’s all-good, all-knowing, and all-benevolent will, for “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” We do not fear death, brothers and sisters, for it has no power over us. To paraphrase Saint Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor Marx, nor Engels, nor Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor Stalin, nor communism, nor capitalism, nor godless materialism, nor globalism … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can face all trials and all enemies of the faith confident in the knowledge that we can overcome all things through Christ, Who has overcome the world.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, knowing what the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors experienced and what may befall us at any time, let us hasten to make our religion not merely one of externals and pious appearances, but one of the heart, with a real, burning faith that drives us on. Let us prepare for this season of renewal, Great Lent, and take it as a God-given opportunity to start the essential work of repentance, purification, and humility, so that, with our bodies weakened, our souls may be strengthened. Let us approach this holy chalice which is before us, receiving the great gifts of remission of sins and life eternal, and once again commit ourselves to the loving mercy of God, so that, like Zacchaeus, salvation may today come to our house, for the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost and today, brothers and sisters, if we turn our hearts unto our loving Saviour, we have been found. Amen.


St. Theophan, Govenie, and the Good Shepherd

Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Jan. 10, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 23, 2022).

The Gospel readings today are exemplified or typed by the life and work of St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th-century Russian monastic elder and writer whom we commemorate today, in this After-feast of Theophany. Appropriate to that feast, a major message of St. Theophan in his writings is repentance and preparation.  This is evident in his work in translating and compiling the Russian Philokalia, focused on the prayer of the heart, and also in translating and editing the book Unseen Warfare, about spiritual battle that extends from the heart to the body and mind. In his book-length commentary on Psalm 118 he reflects on that primer of the law of God, and the equation of God’s law with both contemplation and testimony, in the sense that God’s law as principle is logos, a synonym for principle or law that is also translatable as harmony, and of course is a Greek term also used for the word of God and for the Word Who is God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Law in St. Theophan’s commentary becomes identified with grace, and he presents in effect the law of salvation as grace. That is the love of the good shepherd Who is Christ.

In particular, St. Theophan writes about govenie [говение], the practice of preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox Christianity, which he teaches should extend across the week when laity do Commune. Like the seven days of creation, the week of our lives should focus on this preparation. Even though this winter season we will have had a few weeks without Communion at our rural mission parish, we should not feel sad about this, but grateful, and rejoice all the more to greet our beloved mission pastor when he returns next week, God willing, for the Lord’s Supper. In this winter season of Reader and Deacon services, we should be grateful to devote ourself even more to the deeply joyful sorrow of govenie, for the nourishment of our souls. Govenie involves, St. Theophan wrote in his book The Art of Salvation, ascetic labors in preparation for receiving the Mysteries of Confession and Communion. Such mission services as we have today are worship that is govenie and good for our souls. Such ascetic spirit and practice of preparation is what sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from forms of heterodox Christianity that have split off from Orthodoxy and lost for the most part the central practice of govenie, only to decline into the secularism and apostasy of modern culture. Govenie is what often people remark on in particular as a culture of ascetic preparation for Communion in Russian Orthodox practice especially but not exclusively. It should not be a source of pride at all, brothers and sisters, for we know we are the chief of sinners, as we say in the pre-communion prayers. But we also know that in this preparation, in so completely unworthily following our Lord through His grace into the Garden of Gethsemane, to sweat blood as it were, we come into Communion in which we are no longer alone, but with Him, under His pastoral care and in His flock as our Good Shepherd.

Govenie involves self-reflection that observes what we need to confess, the spiritual battles through God’s grace that we need to practice every moment, fasting, spiritual reading, and how we spend our time and thought, including alms and evangelism we can do to help others, which is really allowing them to help ourselves, and attending Orthodox worship whenever we can, even when it is a humble Reader or Deacon’s service or an Akathist, or also participating in Orthodox Bible Study blessed by the Churche. It also especially involves submission in confession and seeking guidance from our spiritual fathers and the fathers of the Church, and even when this is not always possible due to human circumstances, bowing our head and our knee and prostrating ourselves before Divine Providence in submission and obedience, and seeking spiritual guidance from morning and evening prayer, from reading in the lives and works of the saints, and having those holy ones such as St. Theophan the Recluse as our spiritual fathers too through their writings, and in continuous prayer in our heart. I read in the news that some activists today say that it takes a cycle of 21 days or so to make a habit, good or bad, in the lives of children in schools. We are children before the Lord. Let us take periods of govenie to shape the habit of continuous preparation and accountability through grace to our Good Shepherd.

This is what softens or relates our heart to Him in tenderness, and strengthens our heart for deeds of battle for truth and help to others, this condition of preparation. This is what allows us like attentive sheep to hear the voice of the Shepherd and to go in and out of our inner and outer battles under His safekeeping. The heart in Orthodoxy is understood as the whole person, the body and soul made according to the image of God, Jesus Christ. He modeled this preparation of the heart for us in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said “Not My will but Thine be done,” and sweated blood. Then he went to the Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension that completed the span of our salvation. Through this preparation we gain the strength of the Shepherd protecting us. Metropolitan Antony of blessed memory, the first First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, some have said as a young man with the birth name Alexei was a model for the unforgettable figure of Alexei Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers of Karamazov, since he met Dostoevsky. But in any case Metropolitan Anthony placed great emphasis on the struggle of Jesus in the Garden as a part of our redemption, so much so that some felt he went too far in that teaching, although it was to him a pious belief or theologumenon. Yet in this he arguably was in the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy. Its emphasis on govenie came out of St. Paisius Velichovsky’s contribution with his monastic followers in the late 18th century to renewal of hesychasm in the Russian Church, at a time when the Enlightenment was gripping the West with secular thought and self-centered materialism.

Through the nineteenth-century flowering of hesychasm in Russia, especially among the Elders of Optina Monastery with others like St. Theophan, govenie transmitted both into the so-called catacomb Church of underground faith during Communism and into the worldwide diaspora of ROCOR, and even across our country in America from Jordanville to northern California and the work of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and of his spiritual son Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory. On the flotilla of boats bearing exiles across the Black Sea from Crimea to Constantinople in 1920, in the labor camps of the Soviet gulag, sometimes housed in former monasteries, and in the hearts of all devoted Orthodox believers in the trying times of this era, it empowered through God’s grace the survival of our Orthodox faith and still does today. We unworthily are lifted up into that great story of govenie that issues from the true story of the Gospel of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, and goes all the way back through His theophanies of old to the prophets and people of the Old Testament Church, all the way back to Creation and beyond, and all the way beyond us to the Apocalypse.

The Good Shepherd giveth His life for His sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us this. Thus too He says, there is no greater love than this, that a man lay down His life for His friends. This do in remembrance of me, he added of the Eucharist supper, but also as a reminder  of His gift in the Eucharist of His body and blood, in which we too empty ourselves in partaking. That self-emptying is the center of the practice of govenie. It is how He teaches us to live, through self-emptying and not self-assertion. This is Christian love in truth, or in grace. Orthodox commentary on the Gospel reading today observes that in the Greek, the famous verse “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” really can best be translated into English as “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have something more.” Something more than life, something more than biological safety and contentment. What is that something more? It is meaningfulness, the Word, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd and His care felt in our hearts as grace.

St. Theophan concludes his discussion of govenie or preparation by reminding his readers that in communing we know that, “I am not alone but with Thee,” our Lord Jesus Christ. Behold the Bridegroom cometh!  The Recluse was the saint’s nickname because he lived long in solitude, in govenie, with God, and when he came out through his voluminous writings and letters, and counsel, it was as a mighty spiritual helper to others, a sheep who knew His Master’s voice and ever-care, who could truly pastor through his words and example, which continue to be heard through his writings and intercession. The Synaxarion updated from St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite’s edition states of St. Theophan the Recluse:

“…in his writings on the Jesus Prayer he placed no emphasis on the psychosomatic methods or on the more theoretical aspects that one finds in the Hesychast Fathers, but he laid all the more stress on the need to keep the intellect attentive to the words of the prayer before God in our heart, in such a way that the heart feels what the intellect is thinking on. While thus leaving room fo the feeling of tenderness of heart and of gentle warmth which the presence of God brings about, nevertheless in order to dispel every illusion, he teaches that the chief fruits of the prayer are fear of God and contrition. Thanks to his well-considered adaptation of the teaching of the Fathers, Saint Theophan has succeeded in making accessible the most precious treasure of Orthodox spiritual tradition to a great many God-loving souls even to the present day; he is therefore rightly considered to be one of the principal architects of the spiritual renaissance which the Russian Church experienced before the great trial of the Revolution.”

Let it so be with us humbly as we come forth from our inner spiritual battles and our growth in our Lord God in our heart, into the world from our govenie, stilling feel our Lord Jesus Christ’s care in our hearts warmed with attentive ongoing prayer, preparation, and Communion. Let us ask also St. Theophan the Recluse for his intercession, that in our mission parish’s meadow in rural Union County, ta Church Temple for our flock may arise forth from solitude, to the glory of God.

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


The Forefeast of Theophany, the Prophet Malachi, and the “Angel” Forerunner John

A Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Jan. 3, 7530 (civil calendar Sun. Jan. 16, 2022).

The Feast of the Theophany will be upon us soon this week. Coming not long after Christmas, it in effect bookends the Nativity Season, and rightly so. The Orthodox Church commemorates Theophany as the time when St. John the Forerunner baptized his cousin, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan. In doing so, as the Tropar or hymn for the Feast tells us, the worship of the Holy Trinity was made manifest for all time. God Who had become Flesh, part of Creation, hallowed Creation through his baptism in the river and the revelation of Him as a Person in the One Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, the Way and Truth and Life for us. This was the baptism of all Creation in Christ, to be fulfilled in the baptism that we experience in the Orthodox Church. Let us brothers and sisters renew or foretaste that baptism this week in the Theophany of Christ.

Theophany  iterally means a “revelation of God” in Greek (Θεοφάνεια; the Russian is Богоявление). According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ already had revealed Himself many times through theophanies in the Old Testament, such as to Moses on Mount Sinai, and to Abraham as the lead visitor at the Oak of Mamre. However, this Theophany early in Christ’s public career is in effect known as the Theophany Feast, because it came following and during His Incarnation on earth, and involved such a full revelation and also blessing for all of us creatures and the earth in His baptism in the waters that are source of earthly life and type of the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel reading today from the Book of Mark includes a passage from the Old Testament Prophet Malachi, who is also commemorated today: “Behold I send My Messenger before Thy face, Who will prepare Thy way before Thee.” Malachi is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament-era prophets. His own name means messenger or angel, which the Forerunner is also called, and St. John the Baptist is often depicted as an angel in icons. Yet the Forerunner John, to whom Malachi’s prophecy points, is most properly called the final Old Testament prophet, as well as symbolically angel or messenger.

Holy Forerunner John
Holy Prophet Malachi

Just as the Prophets prepared the way for Christ, as if preparing for the feast of His coming, so too did John the Baptist by his calls for repentance and His ministry of baptism. John’s baptizing work was not that baptism of Christ that we share as members of Christ’s Body in the Orthodox Church toward our salvation. But John’s baptizing was a preparation. John served our Lord and our Lord arose in the waters in the revelation of His divinity and that of the Trinity, blessing all Creation. In some Orthodox icons, little creatures riding fish at the bottom personify the Jordan River and the Sea, fleeing from such a great marvelous presence in the water. The Jordan symbolized the crossing into Israel in Old Testament times, the border of Israel and the world, for the Church as the new Israel would bring the Gospel to the world at large. It also symbolizes the river of Paradise in Genesis at the beginning of Holy Scripture and the river of the New Jerusalem in the final book of the Apocalypse.

The blessed holy water from rivers and lakes around the world and in our region become at this time of year at Theophany services the holy water that blesses our homes and that we can drink throughout the year for the healing of soul and body. The axe depicted by a tree on the side of many icons of Theophany indicates John’s call for repentance and for a change of life in preparation for such blessing, cutting down the tree that bears not fruit, and sin at the root, from the time of Adam and Eve at the old Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that would become the Tree of Life in the Cross.

Another connection between Malachi and John the Baptist is their defense of traditional marriage. Malachi in his prophetic writing condemns divorce and relates it to unfaithfulness to God. The Forerunner lost his life by standing for the biblical standard of marriage. Let us remember that marriage is a living iconography of God’s love for His Church. In a sense we all as a community are married to Him whether we are humanly married, single, or monastic. We are washed clean in the baptism of Christ and other mysteries of His Body the Church, while needing to engage in repentance and ascetic struggle daily by God’s grace.

The Holy prophet Malachi in the ending of his book prophesies, “to you who fear My [the Lord’s] name the Sun of Righeousness shall arise with healing in His wings, and you shall go forth leaping as little calves released from their bonds… Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and glorious day of the Lord. And he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbor, lest I come and strike the earth completely.”

John the Baptist was seen as partly prefigured by the earlier Holy Prophet Elijah who called sinning Israel to repentance. Elijah, who had been taken up into heaven by the Lord, did return at the Transfiguration of Christ later in the Gospel accounts. Also, we are told by Church tradition Elijah will return with Enoch as a witness against Anti-Christ before the Second Coming of Christ. John the Baptist, like Elijah the humble yet courageous dweller in the wilderness, lived a simple life while calling multitudes to repentance and pointing to the divinity of Jesus Christ. He would end up preaching the Gospel to the righteous of the Old Testament in Hades, among whom undoubtedly was Malachi, to prepare the way for Jesus Christ’s coming to Hades.

Let us this week brothers and sisters also “gather at the river,” as the old hymn written by a former resident of Lewisburg famously puts it. This week let us humbly and unworthily with God’s grace be right there with the Forerunner and behold in our hearts He Whom the Prophet Malachi foretold, the Sun of Righteousness arising with healing in His wings. May the message and role of the Forerunner John at Theophany indeed warm our hearts and lighten them with joy as Malachi foretells, filling our hearts with love for our family members and neighbors, as we experience our own baptism in Christ anew this Theophany season.

In anticipation, let us cry: Christ is Baptized! In the Jordan!


Wise Men Still Seek Him

Adapted from a homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg PA on Sunday Dec. 27, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 9, 2022).

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

The Star from Jacob prophesied in the Old Testament (Numbers 24:17–19), misinterpreted by some as pointing toward a Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom, was much more revolutionary in a spiritual sense in its fulfillment. For the Star that came to Bethlehem led the Magi or “Wise Men” to a humble cave where the young Virgin Mother had given birth to the Creator as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, greeted there also by an ox and an ass. As the Evangelist Luke tells us:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

One of the most memorable few moments in the “golden age” of American television (such as it was!) involved the reading of the above passage from Luke on a national prime-time show, a move strongly opposed by some TV executives involved, even as it was successfully championed by the show’s creator.

In the dark night of our own times and land, so many centuries later, the country singer Paul Overstreet with Taylor Dunn also wrote a memorable song inspired by that long-ago event, entitled “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”

For years they must have watched the heavens day and night.
How else could they have known a new star was in sight.
It wasn’t in the papers, wasn’t in the TV Guide.
I’m not really sure how they did, but somehow they got wise.
They rode their camels across the desert’s burning sand.
They couldn’t fly you know there were no planes back then.
Then they met ol’ Herod, who was out to steal their joy.
But they brushed ol’ Herod off and found God’s baby boy.
Wise men, still seek Him.
Those on earth who realize how much they need Him.
Following Jesus wherever He may lead them….
Well today they travel different, but they’re wise men just the same.
Still talking about the Savior and that blessed night He came.
I hear ol’ Herod’s out there still trying to deceive.
But a whole world of Herods can’t stop those who believe….

Bringing gifts to offer Him just like they did before.

“Wise men” doesn’t mean smart or clever or institutionally certified, supposedly better cultured or elite. We know the wisdom of the Lord confounds the sophisticated and is simple in faith and pure in heart, yet infinitely deep in the understanding that our Lord unfolds to those in faith who struggle ascetically to find truth in Him. Signs of nature such as the stars may have stirred the Wise Men, but Church Tradition tells us the Star of Bethlehem was an Angel guiding them through their faith and in their good hearts and willingness to struggle to find the Truth in their journey.

All of this was long glimpsed and revered at least in part in American culture, and if not so much today, the renewed presence in the world of Orthodox Christianity brings the mystery of Christmas to a fuller view each year at this time. The Orthodox Troparion hymn of the Nativity tells us:

Thy birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Thy birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Justice,
and to know Thee, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee.

In iconography the Star of Bethlehem often is a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the uncreated light of God’s energies, a ray pointing to where the Child lay, with sometimes the faint image of an angel drawn inside. As an earlier Protestant American hymn writer put it:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

A similar reflection on the Baby found under the Star is voiced in the famous short essay “One Solitary Life,” based on a sermon in Los Angeles in 1926 by the Protestant Rev. James Allen Francis.

He was born in an obscure village, The child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, Where he worked in a carpenter shop Until he was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles From the place where he was born. He did none of the things One usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three When the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. And went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross Between two thieves. While he was dying, His executioners gambled for his clothing, The only property he had on Earth. When he was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave Through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, And today he is the central figure Of the human race, And the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, All the navies that ever sailed, All the parliament that ever sat, All the kings that ever reigned, Put together have not affected The life of man on Earth As much as that One Solitary Life.

Later “One Solitary Life” was read in a TV broadcast from the White House in 1982, by an American President, in what would be an unimaginable act today.

While many consider American culture today to be “post-Christian,” the core of Rev. Francis’ piece remains true today as it has been from the beginning of the world in God’s plan, but is shown forth most fully in the beauty of the Orthodox Christian services of the Nativity. Traditionally they are celebrated on Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar, which is Jan. 7 on the regular American calendar, known historically from the 18th century as “Old Christmas” or “Appalachian Christmas” still in parts of the United States.

Seen in one way from mortal logic, the working out of God’s plan at Christmas may seem like the rough shaggy underside of a tapestry with the pattern non-discernible. Yet consider it from the spiritual side, from above as God grants us to see, then we can make out the design even if only dimly, working across all the genealogies of the Bible toward that little cave and the cries of the baby Who is God With Us. In iconography His manger-cradle and swaddling clothes prefigure the tomb and winding sheets he left behind in his great victory over death for us.

Today we commemorate on the first Sunday after Christmas, and on the third day of Christmas, St. Joseph the Betrothed, who went with the Theotokos and her baby son, our Lord and God and Savior, into Egypt, fleeing Herod, with the guidance of the angel. The Gospel reading today reminds us of this. According to Church Tradition, a thief protected the little caravan when his robber gang would have attacked them. Latter according to Tradition that thief remembered what he had glimpsed of the Christ-child, when Crucified years later, he looked next to him and saw Jesus on the Cross, and recognized in his bloodied fellow human the hidden God. “Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom,” he said. “Truly today you will be with Me in Paradise,” our Lord Jesus replied. St. Rakh, that wise thief, thus “stole Paradise” hymns of the Church tell us. He earned his place customarily on an outer door of the iconostasis in Russian Churches, and in our pre-communion prayer, for he helped show us the way of repentance with God’s grace.

Likewise today we commemorate the ancient Prophet King David on this day also, for he is an ancestor of Christ who also represents the wise ruler protecting the Church, even with all his serious sins, which with God’s grace and the help of the Prophet Nathan he met head on in severe heartfelt repentance from which came the Psalms. We also commemorate today the Apostle James the Just, the first Bishop and stepbrother of the Lord, who became an early leader helping to nurture the Church, and one of her earliest martyrs, following the lead in that sense of Protomartyr Deacon Stephen, whom we also commemorate today, who was stoned to death in the early days after Pentecost. For the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and as a Deacon he was there to serve to the death. Holding the garments of his killer was Saul who would be transformed by an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ and become later the Apostle Paul.

All the figures from Christian history we commemorate today are related to the Nativity by their roles as nurturers and protectors of the Church in the family of Jesus Christ. The Most Holy Theotokos in her purity and love of God and her willingness to bear Him in her womb, later also helped nurture His Church after His Ascension. St. Joseph stands in the role of foster father who even in old age protected the Theotokos and the Christ child, and with his son St. James as stepbrother to Jesus Christ and first Bishop-Presbyter, and Stephen the first Deacon-Martyr, all served key roles as family members in effect for our Lord in His Church. King David held the ancestral role of ruler and father of their country, Israel. Each of these roles is essential to nurturing and protecting our mission parish today and our lives as Christians, as nurturers and protectors however unworthily of our Church family and our community, of the baby Jesus in our hearts and in the Church and in our country. Our Lord warns us in the Gospel that we must not become entrapped in a merely materialistic sense of family. For His true family are those who do His will. His Church is our family. We find our place in Her as the Body of Christ, Who is the Divine Wisdom, and thus we find our salvation in Him together, as members of His family, of the New Israel that is the Orthodox Christian Church.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!


The Sunday before Christmas of the Holy Fathers of the Church and of St. John of Kronstadt

A sermon from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, given on Sunday, Dec. 20, 7530 (civil calendar Jan. 2, 2022).

Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Old Testament Church and also the Feast of St. John of Kronstadt. This is a fitting combination as we prepare for Christmas on the ancient holy calendar of the Church, what in America historically was known as Old Christmas or Appalachian Christmas, which is also appropriate since our mission worships and evangelizes right here in Northern Appalachia. We call America back to her Christian roots, which are even more ancient and deeper and more alive in Orthodox Christianity than most Americans remember or know. But we are here, thank God.

This Sunday follows last Sunday of the Forefathers, and has more of an emphasis according to my Bible professor Father John Whiteford on the ancestors after the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, while still including others of the righteous of the Bible as well. The question of genealogy and ancestry interests many today who turn to or other sources to explore their DNA. In the Bible, we find many lists of genealogies in the so-called history books of the Old Testament, and reference to ancestry throughout. We also see this especially in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which list the ancestry according to the flesh of Jesus Christ, based on the patrilineal or father’s line through St. Joseph the Betrothed, who while he was not the father after the flesh was the guardian and the legal father so to speak recognized by the tradition of Israel at that time.

Literary scholars tell us that the parts of ancient literature that we as modern readers find most tedious were often the parts of greatest meaning to ancient audiences. This likely is true of the genealogies in many ways. They link together the Bible and they link us to the Bible. For through Jesus Christ we like St. Joseph’s ancestry in effect become part of the family of God. Look around us at the icons that in effect are our family portraits. Sometimes in our materialistic age people are accused of making idols of their families. Yet this is not possible when God is the head of our family as Jesus Christ is. Today when there are so many people isolated from a traditional sense of family, or challenged in our sense of identity or belonging in this crazy modern world He stands ready to adopt all of us.

The genealogy of Christ is also a reminder of how His Body the Church is both hierarchical and conciliar. Like a line of ancestry there is hierarchy and traditional authority in the Church. Yet like the ancestry of Christ there is also a conciliarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ of even all his fleshly ancestors, for He is all our God unto the end of the age. There also is in the lineage of Christ the reminder of the complexity and variety and mystery of fallen human nature touched with redemption by God’s grace. For here among others are Rahab the harlot who helped Joshua, and the Holy Prophet David who before repenting profoundly had murder and adultery on his hands. Then also as mentioned the whole lineage leads to St. Joseph who is not the biological father of Christ but in effect adoptive father for God of course is the Father of Jesus Christ Who Himself is fully God and fully man.

So to accept the genealogy of Christ as we do links us not only into the Old Testament Church and New Testament Church, and all the way back to our Forefathers Adam and Eve created by God, but also to Christ Himself as we are adopted into His lineage, which also relates to the ancestry after the flesh of His Mother the Most Holy Theotokos, who becomes our Mother in the Church as well. The Lord setting the solitary in families, indeed, and the Church shows this us especially at Christmas time. Look around you, brothers and sisters, at the icons, as we anticipate receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at Christmas Liturgy, and also at all those who worship with us in this community, for this is your family in Christ, together with the genealogy in the Gospel reading.

Based on the commentary in the Byzantine Synaxarion edited by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite: First the Memory of Adam and Eve, the first-created. Then of Abel the son of Adam, the first to prefigure Christ the Just One. Then Seth, who as Christ for us became first-born of a new line. Then Enose, first to call upon the name of the Lord. Then Cainan, Mahalalel, then Jared, then Enoch, who did not experience an ordinary death but was taken to an unknown place to await the resurrection. Then Methusaelah, then Lamech, then Noah who prefigured the Messiah, then Shem ancestor of Abraham, then Japheth who prefigured the entry of our ancestors the pagans into the Church, then Arphaxad, Cainan, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, and Abraham, the forefather of all who are saved by faith. Then Isaac who prefigured the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of Man for our salvation. Then Jacob or Israel, who saw the ladder between heaven and eath prefiguring the Mother of God, then Reuben, then Simeon, then Levi, Judah, father of the royal tribe of David from which Christ the Savior woud come. Then Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin, all sons of Jacob. Then Perez and Zerah, then Heron, then Aram, then Ammindadab, then Nashshon, then Salmon, then Boaz, born of Salmon by Rahab the harlot, who was spared on account of her faith when Jericho fell. God showed thereby that He calls pagans and sinners to share in salvation.

Then Obed and Jesse and then King David who made ready for the coming of the Messiah Who is both his son or descendant and His Lord.Then Solomon, whose temple highlighted Jerusalem as prefiguring the heavenly Jerusalem to come. Then King Rehoboam, whose worship of idols displeased the Lord and during whose reign the kingdom became divided. Then King Abijah, then King Asa who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and then likewise King Jehosaphat, then King Jehoram who abominably gave himself to idolatry, then King Uzziah the leber who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did his on King Jotham of Judah, then the impious King Ahaz who made his sons pass through fire as sacrifices to demons, then King Hezekiah who cleansed the Temple, and then King Manasseh who gave himself to magic and caused his children to pass through the fire but repented after being captured by the Assyrians and taken to Babylon, and so obtained pardon from God. Then King Amon who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Then King Josiah who renewed the Covenant with God in Judah. Then following St Matthew to King Jehoiachin who did evil in the sight of the Lord and was deported to Babylong by Nebuchadnezzer, and his son Shealtiel in exile. Then Zerubbabel who led his people from Babylon to Jerusalem and in rebuilding the Temple, who prefigured the Messiah by being of both kingly and priestly descent. Then not mentioned in the Old Testament, Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, to St. Joseph the Betrothed. Then many other outstanding figures of the Old Testament whose qualities place them in the line of the spiritual forebears of the Lord are honored today as well.

Finally perhaps the greatest of Russian saints just prior to the Revolution, John of Kronstadt, is also commemorated today with all these Holy Fathers. St. John, who was especially revered by our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who helped to win recognition of St. John as a saint by our Synod in 1964. St. John of Kronstadt worked and prayed tirelessly for the poor and the crowds who came to Liturgy at his Church in the industrial and slum-filled city of Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. He started a network of charities for the poor and also healed many. He was also known especially later in life for his prophetic warnings about the direction in which Russian culture was headed toward the materialism of Communism. To whom much is given much is expected as we as Orthodox Christians in America also need to remember.

“Russia has forgotten the saving God; it has lost faith in Him, abandoned the Law of God, enslaved itself to all sorts of passions, deified blind human reason,” St. John of Kronstadt warned. “It has replaced God’s all-wise, holy and righteous will with the phantom of sinful freedom, opened wide the doors to all manner of outrage, and therefore it will become immeasurably impoverished, and be shamed before the whole world—the worthy reward for its pride, for its slumber, inaction, venality, and coldness toward God’s Church. God will punish us for our sins; the Sovereign Lady will not stretch forth her hand to help us. Russia can be called a kingdom of the Lord. This is of course on the one hand. On the other, because of their godlessness and impiety many Russians, the so-called intelligentsia who have strayed from the right path, apostatized from the faith and mock it in every way, having trampled upon all the Gospel commandments and allow all kinds of depravity into our life—the Russian kingdom is not the Lord’s kingdom but a broad and far-flung kingdom of satan…

“The current terrible degradation of faith and morals depends greatly upon the coldness towards their flock of many bishops and the clerical ranks in general.

“Our ancestors sinned, but they called a sin a sin; today’s liberals however sin and try to justify the sin, as if it were a lawful deed. Take the sins of the flesh—all of this according to their opinion is not only simple weakness of human nature, but also the laws of nature and its demands.

“Russia is floundering, suffering, tormented by its bloody inner struggle, from bad harvests and famine, from terrifyingly high prices, from godlessness, from extreme moral degradation. Evil times—people have turned into animals, even into evil spirits. The government has become weak. It itself has falsely understood the freedom it has given to the people. Evil has increased in Russia to monstrous proportions and it has become almost impossible to set it right. When the consequences of all-around non-submission to the authorities and the inaction of the subordinate members of society, and with this inaction the action of the government ceases, as if the blood were to cease circulating in an organic body, then everything in society dies, descends, falls apart; social safety disappears and members of one society attack each other—a total rampage of thievery, plunder, enmity, and murder.”

Thus wrote St. John of Kronstadt. But we today in the suffering American land likewis ehave also the promise of Christ: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Let us remember our true ancestry in the Israel of the New Testament Church and let us go forth with God’s grace, however unworthily, to act with His help to be worthy of that ancestry. For the Holy Fathers who prophesied of Christ and were His ancestors after the flesh are still with us, able to hear our prayers, and to intercede for us. For as the upcoming Nativity service will remind us, God is with us!


Lazarus and the Rich Man

Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Oct. 25, 7530 (Nov. 7, 2021 on the civil calendar).

May our reading for this 22nd week after Pentecost, the parable of Lazarus and the Beggar, have special meaning for us.

First, the Church Fathers in interpreting this Parable remind us of the seriousness of what we do here and now in our life on earth in God’s Creation. For each day, our life is a gift from God, and any belongings we have are a gift from Him.

This upends the false stereotype today of cultural Marxists (capitalist or communist) and other atheists that Christianity is concerned only with the after-life. For in fact, it is how we live our life each moment here and now that works toward our salvation or damnation.

How we live our life needs to involve a life of alms-giving, the more excellent way of love as the Apostle Paul called it, and St. Paul was not praising his own strength for as the Protestant Henry Drummond noted in his famous essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” on I Corinthians 13, when we first meet the apostle Paul, before Jesus Christ appeared to him, his hands are stained with blood — from his complicity in the killing of St. Stephen and persecution of Christians.

When we love our neighbor as ourself, and we love our God with all our heart and all our soul and with all our mind, then we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ, for we are already loving God with all our self, we are loving God through our self so to speak. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ asked us, who was the neighbor? And it was the Good Samaritan. And who is the Good Samaritan a type of but Jesus Christ. So again we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ. The famous verses in Matthew 25 indicate this as well. For inasmuch as we have helped the least of these, His brethren, fed them and gave them drink when they were hungry and thirsty, naked and clothed them, and came to them when they were sick or in prison, we have done so to Him.

Brothers and sisters, how far we have to go as Christians, how far we have to go as a mission, to fulfill these charges given us by our Master, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. How tempting it is to be what the Apostle Paul derided as men-pleasers, attending to the small needs of the great and mighty to impress them and further our careers and to flatter ourselves. How often we sustain ourselves in comfort and forgot about those others truly in need, spending our money on things that are not true needs or worrying about our future needs instead of sharing our gifts from the Lord. Yea, whatever we have is more than a gift from the Lord, it is like our lives also in a sense a loan from the Lord. How are we using it? And how much do we spend money on interest for credit and loans of all kinds, and thus engage in usury from the receiving side, instead of balancing our books with God through love of our neighbor.

We do not always think of these things because we are living on borrowed capital especially in America. On a practical level a friend who is an expert in fundraising told me this week that the wealthy in their families go through their wealth in three generations, unless they are super-rich. That is, a family might have say ten million dollars but it will be gone in three generations. In America we have had a history of a strong middle class that has been the most prosperous and most extensive in the history of the world. Yet we have come up on our three generations or more since the so-called greatest generation of the Great Depression and World War II and the so-called silent generation who came of age in the Korean War era in the early Cold War.

There is an evangelical Protestant movie series called God’s Not Dead, a new episode of which came out recently, called God’s Not Dead: We the People. The neopagan modern philosopher Nietzsche infamously proclaimed that God is dead, to which a wag claimed to quote God’s response, that Nietzsche is dead. Orthodox Christians may say that God was dead, in the Crucifixion, but He is Risen. That is the good news we share with the world.

Yet in that new movie installment, there is a scene in which the key character Pastor Dave is very sad sitting in his office about the state of America, and looks at a photo of his dead friend, a Nigerian missionary. Suddenly Pastor Dave finds himself in a dream-like conversation with that friend, who tells him that America has been given much by God, and from her much is expected. It is clear in the movie that America has not lived up to that obligation. Yet that becomes a call to action for Pastor Dave to do something to help.

Likewise we as Orthodox Christians should find our bugle call to action in the Parable of Lazarus and the Beggar. In fact, such is the state of the rich man who lived for his comfort that as St. John Chrysostom points out in his commentary on the parable, his name is not even known to us or to God. The rich man during his life on earth objectified himself through his death and became in effect a non-person. In the after life a chasm separates him from the beggar whose poverty he had ignored on earth. Truly as some have observed, when we help those in need, it is they who are really helping us out of the abyss of self-objectification that is spiritual death, which would turn us into an idol of ourself like King Midas being killed by being turned to gold.

We do know the name of Lazarus, and perhaps, it has been pointed out, this is not really a parable so much as a vision of a real person in the afterlife, shared with us by Jesus Christ. This poor man’s faith was a real support unlike the riches of the wealthy man, which all left him at death. In the Orthodox tradition we are told that in the 40 days after death each of us will face the challenge of being examined for our unconfessed sins and our omissions in life, to determine in what state we will dwell before the Final Judgment. We pray for the dead, as the Church did yesterday on Demetrios Saturday, to ask our Lord Jesus Christ’s mercy for the departed. Only God knows the judgement faced by each of us after death at the particular judgment and then at the General Resurrection and Final Judgement. But the account of Lazarus the beggar and the Rich man shows us the seriousness with which we should take the charge of the Great Commandments and our duty to our neighbor. For our salvation occurs not alone but through the Church and in the sobornost of spiritual unity that in hidden but embodied ways connects each of us in both the grace and struggle of virtue, and the lying objectifications and idolatry of sin. May our Lord through the intercessions of His Most Holy Mother help us and give us good strength in our struggles against idolatry of comfort and apathy towards those in need.

As a mission, one central immediate way we can help others in these latter days is to support in all possible ways our building program, no matter how small or large we can donate our resources, for erecting a temple is a necessity to our outreach and evangelism. But also we must look daily for ways to share any wealth, however large or small, God has given us on loan with each day.

The new God’s Not Dead: We the People movie ends with a ringing declaration by Pastor Dave that this country belongs to “We the People.” But from an Orthodox Christian standpoint there is more than this. Our country belongs to God, like all countries, and like all Creation, and like all people. God is the source of our true freedom in voluntary service to Him. As our Church hymnology tells us: “Who is so Great a God as our God, Thou art the God Who Worketh wonders.” “O Lord of the powers have mercy on us, for in times of distress we have no other help but Thee.”

Pastor Dave in the movie is single pastor of a Protestant Church called St. Jude’s. Maybe in the next film he will convert to Orthodoxy and become an Orthodox monk or marry and ultimately become an Orthodox priest and bring his congregation with him. We can only hope there will be many more such conversions in real life. I will end with a small item of news I learned from Alexei Krindratch who runs Orthodox Church survey projects in North America. He said he found that a survey showed that parishes of our Synod, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), feature an incredibly high 70 percent rate of converts among her members, and also has seen measurable growth especially during the Covid pandemic, with Orthodox from other jurisdictions coming to ROCOR due to more open continuing services. He warns that the sample of converts in ROCOR is small and thus needs to be taken with grains of salt. But we in our mission are perhaps 95 percent converts. We know the appeal of traditional Russian Orthodoxy to Americans today. In giving a cup of cold water in Christ’s name, in feeding the hungry and ministering to the need in His name, we know that one of those desperate needs today is evangelism, and bringing more of our God’s sheep into His Church, for which we should give in all ways that we can with our efforts and resources until it even hurts in bright sorrow.

For redoubling our efforts to build a temple is a service to all in need in our community, and to ourselves as the neediest in supporting that evangelism, even while we also seek out all avenues for individual and community philanthropy, and in the process help to save our country while allowing love for our neighbors as Jesus Christ to lift us up as unworthy sinners. As the Prophet David said in Psalm 50, “restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uplift me with Thy free spirit.” Lord, may it be so. Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us, Amen.


After-Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple

Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Nov. 22, 7530 (Dec. 5, 2021 on the civil calendar).

Brothers and Sisters, This past week we commemorated the feast of St. Philaret Metropolitan of Moscow, one of the great spiritual leaders of the revival of Orthodoxy in nineteenth-century Russia, of which we are direct heirs. That revival brought anew the treasures of the Church fathers of Byzantium and their understanding of hesychastic eldership and prayer to Russia. Our spiritual forefathers and mothers in ROCOR came from that revival into exile, with the discernment it provided into the nature of Bolshevism as the spirit of anti-Christ. They were not afraid of martyrdom, which some received bodily, but as the early Irish Christians in pre-Schism days observed, exile from regular society is also one of the forms of martyrdom, to deepen and extend the faith through evangelism. They helped bring the gift of the Orthodox faith to us at great cost.

I’d like to share today some of St. Philaret’s inspired teaching on the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, which we commemorated yesterday, and in which after-feast we are still in today. This feast, as our Rector Fr. George noted well yesterday, marks a foundational moment in our journey toward the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. It also has been called the most childhood-centered of the 12 great Feasts of the Church. It commemorates our Lady the Most Holy Theotokos at age 3 entering the temple at Jerusalem, up until the time she was 14, when she was then betrothed to the elderly Joseph as her guardian, and then received with her assent the Annunciation. She is the greatest of the saints and our chief intercessor to her Son and our Lord. Her life and faith are an example and inspiration for all of us as she remains a help to us. But before getting to St. Philaret’s words on the significance of this feast, I would like briefly to outline from current developments why the message of her Feast of the Entrance is so important especially to us today in America.

Abbot Tryphon of ROCOR’s All-Merciful Saviour monastery near Seattle noted recently in a homily how a survey indicates that only 40 percent of American young people say they want to have children, because the future is hopeless. Not surprisingly, less than half of American young people according to a newly reported survey express hope in our governmental system.  Less than 18 percent of Americans today are in families consisting of married parents and children, a record low down from 40% of all Americans living in married households with children 50 years ago. And a growing number of those remaining households now involve same-sex or altered-sex parents with children conceived through non-organic means, to support such unions that run counter to traditional Christian teaching of marriage and humanity, now falsely called “marriages” under U.S. secular law. We know that people find themselves in difficult circumstances and can express amazing faith and achievement in non-traditional homes. But this data provides a snapshot of overall decline in American family life.

That decline parallels a decline of public morality in our country over the past 50 years at the secular level. Abbot Tryphon himself has seen this in his own home region of the Pacific Northwest, where he was seriously injured in a physical attack two years ago, when targeted apparently for wearing a cross, in our new American “time of troubles.” Early American leaders like John Quincy Adams warned that without strong family virtue, the American constitutional republic could not survive. Historically, we see evidence of American decay in a well-researched book out this past week, which presents new documentation of how an early combination of “fake news” and a “deep state” of immoral power helped lead to the removal of a U.S. president under false pretences in 1974. This was a low point in a period of turmoil from the mid-1960s to early 1970s, bookended by the 1963 US-backed overseas assassination of the president of South Vietnam, which proved decisive in laying the groundwork for the American defeat in the anticommunist Vietnam War, and was indirectly related to that later American presidential scandal Watergate.

Those secular historical milestones of corruption and scandal marked the start and end of a watershed era in American history, which climaxed in the legalization of abortion, wrongly as a “constitutional right,” in 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Millions of babies since in America have been sacrificed to the sexual revolution that undermined both family life and a republic once predominantly Christian in culture, despite her many theological problems and sins. These child sacrifices, reminiscent of the idolaters of Old Testament times, make a mockery of the basic American principle that God created all men equal, as Abbot Tryphon has noted.

Indeed, the emphasis on self-assertiveness without God that permeates our culture today has contributed to new rising racial and sexual divides in our society, which without a sense of God and of  Adam and Eve as our common ancestors focus on materialistic ideas of sex and race as the sources of division distracting people from the need for individual and community repentance and return to God. As in the earlier American “time of troubles” 50 years ago, the advance of sexual revolution has accompanied civil unrest, marked first by the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court in 2015 claiming to redefine “marriage,” and then by the Bostock decision in 2020, enshrining transgenderism as a constitutionally protected secular sexual anthropology.

In all this, what some proponents call “cultural Marxism” plays a continuing role. It relates to the Bolshevism that targeted Christianity in Russia a century ago, both with trademark atheism and what Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Orthodox dissident colleague Igor Shafarevich called a “death drive” aimed at destruction, but in forms attractive to prosperous high-tech Western capitalism and its desire for self-satisfaction. It substitutes cultural identity war for economic class war. We see it permeating a new ever-more godless corporate culture in America, in a mix of atheistic consumerism and socialism with identity politics. I recently watched a long promotional video on the “metaverse,” a name for a new proposed corporate online artificial reality and social utopia. It featured all the ways in which virtual technological reality claims to be able to take over in helping our careers, relationships, education, entertainment, material exercise, and home life. But there is no mention of Christianity, not surprisingly. Like many of the idealisms of our time, this new virtual reality essentially disregards the integral relation between body and soul in Christian faith, exemplified in the Incarnation. Like ancient Gnosticism, it works to deny that union, claiming to unloose the self from limits of the body, without God. The Apostle John said that the mark of the spirit of anti-Christ would be the denial that God has come in the flesh. This leads to a denial of our embodied nature as humanity, and leads to ideas that seek to destroy humanity.

Brothers and sisters, the spirit of anti-Christ is abroad in our land. Where do we look for safety and comfort? To the Mother of God, who is also our mother through Jesus Christ, the most holy Theotokos. She points us to Her Son and intercedes for us to Him. She stands as the patron of our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who reposed by the Kursk Root icon of her, and whose devotion to her is seen in his writings and homilies. She also remans the patron of the founding of our mission, which was done under the name of her Holy Protection, of which we are reminded by the icon of her Protection that has stayed with us from our humble founding, and remains on the icon stand to your left. She prepared herself in faith, with support from her parents and her ancestors the prophets, for her role in accepting God’s unbelievable gift in the Incarnation. Through God’s grace, as a young child according to tradition climbed the 15 steps to the Holy of Holies, marked by the 15 Psalms beginning with Psalm 119 in the Orthodox Bible, known as the Psalms of Ascent.As a woman her womb enclosed the Creator God and her nurturing love continued in her role in helping to found His Church after His Ascension, in which he embodiedly entered heaven. At the Dormition, her body joined her soul in heaven, helping to show us the way forward through faith and God’s grace.

St. Philaret of Moscow, a spiritual leader in the renewal of Russian Orthodoxy

St. Philaret give us deep insight into this very personal and wonderful feast, one of the Church’s 12 Great Feasts, in a homily of which a short selection follows below. He writes:

“God is wondrous in His ways. For in order to make blessed the being that comes from Him with a most exalted and incomprehensible blessedness, He from the ages deigned to unite His own nature with the nature of man, in the Person of His Only-Begotten Son—thus through Him to extend this union also to the fullness of the Church, which, according to the law of incarnation, is His body, and in this manner dissolving and as if mutually leveling all divinity with all lowly things, That in the dispensation of the fullness of times (Eph. 1:10). As the apostle says, When all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This great resolution of the eternal counsel, or, according to the Apostle, this mystery, although it hath been hid from ages and from generations, is now made manifest also to his saints (Col. 1:26). And the Holy Spirit nevertheless revealed even this very revelation, which bears seven seals, to His mystics, and through them to all humankind to the extent of its gradually growing understanding obligating it to match up to and facilitate its fulfillment. Thus did one of the Prophets [David], who saw mankind in the past days of its infancy and under the guardianship of the law growing to the fullness of its years, when it was obligated to become capable of its task of being betrothed to Divinity and giving birth to a timeless Child, portrays the Son of God as the King approaching the wedding. And taking upon himself the role of the bringer of the bride, or friend of the bridegroom, the Prophet as if impatiently convinces human nature not to further postpone this blessed union by betrayal and insubordination, but to commit itself to it through sincerity and faithfulness. Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty

“Long did this Divine voice call in the Church as in the desert, and apparently did not find a hearkening ear. Humankind did not have the boldness to triumphantly go forth to meet the Divinity. What would have happened to us had the heart of the blessed Virgin Mary not opened to the incomprehensible word of the incarnation, had her boundless dedication to God’s will not responded to the heavenly messenger, Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy will (Lk. 1:38)? She entrusted herself to the King’s desire without holding anything back—and the betrothal of the Divinity with the human race was fulfilled forever.

“From this we Christians can see how such an apparently personal event—the entry into the temple and consecration to God of a three-year-old maiden—becomes the subject of triumph throughout the Church. This venture of the yet infant bride of God constitutes the beginning of her betrothal to the Holy Spirit, and therefore, in a certain sense, the first pledge of all mankind’s betrothal to the Divinity. True, this mystery was to be deeply hidden within her for the time being, like a flower in its seed; but in order to show the perfection of its ways, Providence often precedes its essential actions with certain significant events that give us some understanding of the future. And pious tradition also tells us that the Most Holy Virgin’s entrance into the temple had already been proclaimed by those prophetic words: hearken, O daughter, and see…

“Now, in the days of fulfillment of the ancient beginnings and preceding signs, do you wish to see more clearly the glory of the present solemnity? Then follow the Prophet’s command: The virgins that follow after her shall be brought unto the King (Ps. XLIV:13. Do you not now see that the leading of the Most Holy Virgin to the king of Kings is the beginning of a great, solemn procession, in which all pure, chaste souls shall follow after her; that the present solemnity, by the Church’s intention, is a part and continuation of this great procession; that those who wish to participate in the present solemnity must unite themselves to it with a solemn procession, arraying themselves accordingly in the image of the great Leading Personage—the virgins that follow after her?

“Lest we Christians become hard-hearted, and in this sacred procession remain no more than idle spectators of another’s feast, let us address our souls with this prophetic call: Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; and forget thine own people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty, for He Himself is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.”

So let us unworthily join this procession, with all those who have gone before us in the Church, following her. May we too, as unworthy followers of Jesus Christ, and in imitation of His Mother, heed the message of the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple, of preparation and openness to grace, and of the realization of the transfiguration of the Old Testament Church into the New Testament Church, the Body of Christ, in which we partake at every Eucharist from the altar of Orthodoxy. My we share the spirit of that message and experience with our family, friends, and country, like the Apostles after Pentecost, so that our sorrowful land America may turn to a fuller and truer vision of her heritage in the Orthodox Christianity, and that we may as a community be worthy and prepared participants in the Church as the Bride of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

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


Homily on the Heavenly Wedding Banquet, by Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway)

A homily given at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Lynchburg, VA, by Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway), on Sunday Nov. 1, 7530 (11/14/21 on the civil calendar). Fr. Dn. Theodore is interim Dean of Students at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY. He also presented on that same trip a talk to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Liberty University, which is available at this link on video: This is on the same topic as the talk that he gave recently at Bucknell University, co-sponsored by our mission, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Church in Lewisburg, PA.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today’s Gospel reading is full of both fear and hope. Fear, because we are confronted with the foolishness of the Jews and how we ourselves can fall into the same mistake. Hope, because we see in this reading everything that our good God has done for us and offers to us.

The king in the parable is, of course, God Himself, and the wedding is the mystical union of Christ and His Church. The Lord compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet because the wedding banquet is the celebration of a new life, a new beginning, and the fulfilment of the desires of one’s heart in an act of love, for do we not, when we are married, leave the household of our old family and begin a new life in a new home, united spiritually to the one whom we love? Indeed, this is an icon of the penitent answering the eternal call of Christ to “give me your heart” and entering into the many paradisiacal mansions of the heavenly Father through being united to the Holy Church.

Those who are bidden in this parable are the Jews and the messengers of the King are the holy prophets, calling the people of old Israel to hearken to the words of the Lord and turn their hearts back unto His Law. Did they listen? By no means! While many who were called were satisfied in simply ignoring the call to repentance by making light of it and heading back to their farms or being happy merchants, which of course represents the love of carnal pleasures, the life of ease, material comforts, and the love of money.

A remnant, however, did not simply ignore God’s call to repentance, but actively opposed it. As the Lord Himself told this “stiff-necked people” who are “contrary to all men,” “you are the sons of them that killed the prophets!” This bloodthirsty hatred for truth – God’s Truth – led to these men, blinded by their impiety and madness, killing those true servants of the God of Israel, the prophets, and, ultimately, murdering God Himself when the incarnate Son came down to earth Himself and presented them with their last opportunity to turn away from evil. Ultimately, as the parable says, their city, Jerusalem with its temple, was razed to the ground. Despite this, we have an entire religion that, to this day, is explicitly based on the rejection of Jesus Christ.

We gentiles, then, are those who were summoned to the marriage feast from the highways and byways, which represent the foolish paths of paganism and idle philosophy, those paths which ultimately lead nowhere. We see this harvest being reaped even now, as more and more people, especially young men at this present time, hearken to the Lord’s invitation and are welcomed into the marriage feast of the holy Orthodox Church, turning away from heresies, false religions, and vain ideologies in order to pursue salvation in Christ Jesus.

At this halfway point in the parable, it is easy for us to look at those unfortunate men, the Jews, and be amazed at the rejection of the Messiah. If we consider things carefully, however, this is where the fearful aspect of this parable is most evident, for are we not just like the Jews, in that we have received the fullness of the Truth? Yet, we continually harden our hearts to the Word of God and His commandments. Actually, I will correct myself: we are in a more grievous position than the Jews, for while they received the Law and the Prophets, we have received the Gospel! When we Christians ignore the words of Christ and do not pursue a pious life, we fall from an ever greater height than the Jews!

This parable should warn us against complacency in our spiritual and moral lives, since just as those who were “of the seed of Abraham and slaves to no man” became the “Synagogue of Satan,” we who are the sons of the Apostles, “begotten through the Gospel,” can become the greatest enemies of Christ – apostates, heretics, schismatics, persecutors, and, possibly worst of all, lukewarm, half-hearted Christians because of whom the “Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.” Just as Jerusalem and its Temple were crushed under the feet of Roman paganism because of apostasy, so to was our Constantinople and its Hagia Sophia crushed under the feet of the Hagarenes, and our Moscow and its forty times forty churches crushed under the boot of the Bolsheviks, so take heed, we that “think ourselves to stand, lest we fall.”

As we continue the parable, we see that it is simply not enough the heed the call, but to continually transform oneself through repentance, co-operating with the bountiful mercies of God’s grace and love towards us. The king in the parable comes to inspect the guests and finds a man with no wedding garment. Contrary to popular belief, this wedding garment is not holy baptism, for to enter the banquet is to be received into the Church and to actively participate in the holy sacraments. No, this wedding garment is the virtues that we are called to cultivate through our life in Christ. The king’s appearance at the banquet is the dreadful Second Coming of Our Lord and that man with no garment represents all of those Christians who, despite receiving the fullness of Truth, despite receiving the fullness of grace, have not multiplied their talents, have not struggled to develop virtue, have not fought the good fight, have not run the race, and, ultimately, have not loved the Lord, because they did not keep His commandments. These are the whitened sepulchres that we too can become if we simply reduce our Christian lives to external pieties and empty religious observances, instead of cultivating true Gospel love in our hearts and genuine religious devotion. We can know all the dogmas and all the rules, but if this knowledge is not filled with a genuinely spiritual love, then we are just clanging bells.

This is why the Holy Apostle Paul warns us to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise.”  “The fool says in his heart that there is no God,” but even more foolish is he that claims to believe in God but doesn’t do anything about it. Maybe ignorance will be forgiven on the last day, but laziness and negligence certainly will not be. The Apostle calls us to “walk circumspectly,” because we need to be cautious in all things pertaining to the spiritual life: be vigilant, be reserved, be obedient, and, most importantly, be attentive to those things that are taking place within our hearts, using discernment, discretion, and a little bit of common sense to prevent ourselves from falling into the snares laid out for us by the enemy of mankind.

The Apostle tells us to “redeem the time” because we need to make use of every moment that God gives us in our earthly lives to cultivate those virtues, so that we may through His grace and mercy, be cloaked in that wedding garment on the last day, pure, undefiled, and spotless before Him. Every day, every hour, every minute that we waste will never be given back to us, with the exception of those to whom the Lord gives back the years “which the locusts have eaten,” which is those who have spent a great deal of time in the spiritual wilderness. For those of that that know Christ and know His Church, however, we are without excuse.

We redeem the time by “giving thanks always for all things unto God.” We redeem the time be using each day profitably, starting and ending it with prayer. We redeem the time by ensuring that God is glorified in all that we do during the day, making sure that our words are seasoned with salt and our deeds are in keeping with His commandments. We redeem the time by resisting evil and not giving in to temptation. We redeem the time by holding our tongue from gossip and criticism, from slander and insult. We redeem the time by controlling our appetites, neither gorging ourselves on food nor “being drunk with wine, wherein is excess.” We redeem the time by averting our eyes from carnal distractions and sinful indulgences. We redeem the time by not judging our neighbours but instead meditating on our own sinfulness and seeking to overcome it. We redeem the time, brothers and sisters, by simply being Christians and struggling to remain Christians from our baptism until our dying breath.

Saint Paul, when telling us to “redeem the time,” tells us to do so because “the days are evil,” and how many Jeremiads could be said about this! How many lamentations we could make about our current state of affairs! Our days are indeed evil, brothers and sisters, very evil. Now, the foolish are wont to tell us that we’ve always had problems and sin has always been with us, how immorality has always been rife and there have always been brutal murders. This is of course true, but in no time in history, since maybe the days of Noah, has evil ever been considered good and good considered evil. Such are our times! We are living in times of complete moral inversion. Whereas in pagan Rome, they pointed to Christians and said “see how they love one another,” due to the high moral and ethical standards of the Church, in our modern enlightened world, they say “see how they hate everyone,” because of these same high moral and ethical standards. I, for one, am happy to be a hater if that means hating sin.

The days are evil because we are once again being confronted by a beast system that threatens to destroy body and soul: a so-called healthcare system that churns out millions of corpses of infants every year, a so-called education system that seeks to extinguish the burning desire for God in every soul, a so-called justice system that sends the righteous to prison while the evil roam freely, and a so-called department of defence that actively seeks to destroy anyone who says “no!” to the globalist hydra, wherever they may be.

The days are evil because we are once again being confronted by a new religion that seeks to supersede the divine revelation of the Gospel, a religion that, unlike Islam which embraces death, seeks to avoid death at all costs. A religion of fear where no fear is, a religion of paranoia, of isolation, of cowardice, of disinfectant, and of casting aside of common sense for the sake of some measure of a temporary feeling of safety, a religion that throws aside its dogma of “my body, my choice,” when it is convenient, a religion of hypocrisy, of division, and of lies, all of which come from Satan himself.

We can choose to live the lie, or we can choose to stand against it, but we should always keep in mind that “our war is not against flesh and blood, but the spirits of evil in the high places.” Don’t be deceived into thinking that we are to take up arms against the beast, for you will fail. As we read at Matins today, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” We are simply called to persevere. As dogs, maybe, but alive to love and serve the Lord. We will be cast out from society, we will be vilified, we will be ridiculed, we will be mocked, we will be reviled, we will be slandered, we will be hated, we will be persecuted, but we will persevere, for “great is your reward in the Kingdom.” Just as the world hated the Lord, so too will it hate us. We simply need to persevere, brothers and sisters, enduring the spittings, the buffetings, the mockings, and following our Lord to the Golgotha that waits for us all. Remember, that without the Cross there is no Resurrection, and without a righteous death there awaits no eternal life. Rejoice, brothers and sisters, for this is a great time to be alive, as God is calling us to great things and promises us much in return for our labours!

This is the hope we find in today’s parable: a wedding banquet, laid out for us in the Kingdom, waiting for us to simply answer the call to return to the One Who loves us and gave His life for us. That wedding banquet, the eternal heavenly banquet, is here today in the holy Eucharist, and we, those who are called and those who are chosen, stand inside this holy church, which contains within it the holy throne room of God Himself. He calls us to Himself, not simply to keep His commandments, but to partake of the eternal life that He offers to us through His most precious Body and Blood, wherein we find the grace to persevere, the strength to struggle, and the love that we ourselves are called to bring to others. Come, then, and receive all the good gifts of our good God Who loves mankind, that we may be worthy of a wedding garment on that dread day and, instead of the outer darkness and weeping, there is eternal light and rejoicing in His presence. Amen.