In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in a time when the West seemed coming apart amid social divisions and radical movements, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Philaret, issued three “sorrowful epistles” highlighting the spiritual dimension of the turbulent era amid historically Christian countries, in the heresy of modern ecumenism as a form of chiliasm. Vladyka Philaret had survived persecution during his loyal stay with his flock of exiles from Bolshevik Russia in China after the Communists came to power there, throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Not long after his final departure from China he was elected, as the youngest Bishop of the ROCOR Synod, to be the new First Hierarch of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the free diaspora. His holy care for his flock was attested by his incorrupt remains, now in a vault below the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Jordanville, NY.
Linked directly below is a copy of the Sorrowful Epistles, in pdf form for reading in sequence online or printed out, and another copy that can be printed out double-sided for stapling as a booklet.
Some further context and background thoughts follow below the links.
Two famous historical figures from twentieth-century American Orthodoxy in particular commented in different ways on the Sorrowful Epistles.
The influential American convert, writer, and American monastic pioneer Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote in 1976, in relation to the epistles and other issues: “Among the primates of the Orthodox Churches today, there is only one from whom is always expected–and not only by members of his own Church, but by very many in a number of other Orthodox Churches as well–the clear voice of Orthodox righteousness and truth and conscience, untainted by political considerations or calculations of any kind. The voice of Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside of Russia, is the only fully Orthodox voice among ail the Orthodox primates. In this he is like to the Holy Fathers of ancient times, who placed purity of Orthodoxy above all else, and he stands in the midst of today’s confused religious world as a solitary champion of Orthodoxy in the spirit of the Ecumenical Councils.” (Orthodox Word, vol. 12, No. 1, Jan .-Feb., 1976).
By contrast, Archpriest Alexander Schmemann, who became a leading force in the Orthodox Church in America, which attained its autocephaly in 1970 from the Moscow Patriarchate in the Soviet era, had criticized Metropolitan Philaret’s first Sorrowful Epistle in an article in The Orthodox Church journal, in 1969. He called the epistle in effect the product of a schismatic group, and that its contents encouraged further schism. He set Metropolitan Philaret’s view at odds with the presence of celebrated Orthodox figures, like the scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky, at World Council of Churches gatherings. Fr. Schmemann concluded, in condemning the Metropolitan for writing the letter, that “to use this issue [of ecumenism] for adding new divisions to our Church, for creating an atmosphere of suspicion, hatred, accusations and ultimately, schisms, seems to me a tragedy and a sin.”
The test of time, however, has been kind to Metropolitan Philaret’s letters as works of spiritual guidance, strongly yet calmly criticizing the expanding and immersive mindset of global ecumenism, as the latter has accelerated in influence, at odds with traditional Christianity, in subsequent generations. Fr. Schmemann framed much of his criticism by referencing the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad as an isolated body in world Orthodoxy. But with the subsequent reunion of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate after the fall of Communism, it was Schmemannn’s jurisdiction that arguably had a more awkward position in world Orthodoxy, given the lack of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s full recognition of the grant of its autocephaly. In addition, controversy over the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s heightened emphasis on primacy in recent years, in relation to schism in Ukraine, its stepped-up diplomacy with the Roman Catholic papacy, and its controversial 2016 gathering at Crete, underscored the significance of Metropolitan Philaret’s arguments. Finally, retrospective awareness of Vladyka Philaret’s saintly life of trial has given him now a kind of authority that (without obscuring the academic achievements of Archpriest Schmemann or those he cited) today backgrounds the spiritual and historical importance of his Sorrowful Epistles to the Orthodox Christian world, which today may seem like letters to us from a modern past nonetheless foreshadowing anti-Christian upheavals in the world today.
A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg Pa on the Second Sunday of Pascha, 26 April 7529 (May 9, 2021 on the civil calendar.
Christ is Risen! In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus breathes on His disciples after the Resurrection, to impart unto them the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness or retention of sins, prior to the coming of the Spirit to the whole Church, which would occur after His Ascension at Pentecost. This speaks to the Apostolic succession of the Bishops and priests of our Lord’s Church. St. John Chrysostom wrote of this passage that, “The priest, even if he rightly orders his own life, if he does not have an anxious care for yours, yes and that of all those around him, will depart with the wicked into hell; and often when not betrayed by his own conduct, he perishes by yours, if he has not righty performed his part… “For they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account”…. for this is the Faith, to receive things not seen, since “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (citing Hebrews).
There is a recognition here of the Church in mysterious unity as the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which we are all a part, as we communicate in the Eucharist and the other mysteries of the Church including Confession. This emerges too from the wondrous realization of the Apostle Thomas, who although his faith wavered for a moment in doubt, experienced the bodily presence of Christ and awareness of His being fully God and fully man, which has come down to us as a blessing for all of us gathered in Orthodox worship around the world today on Thomas Sunday. “My Lord and my God,” the Apostle Thomas said. There are icons of the Apostle that in Greek are captioned with the message, “the touch of Thomas,” and in Slavonic, “Believing Thomas,” but sometimes in English rendered incompletely as “Doubting Thomas.” The Apostle’s touch brought forth an experiential wisdom, an embodied inspiration, that are at the heart of the mysterious of the Orthodox Church and our participation in her. Orthodoxy is not metaphysical, it does not operate by analogy like Scholasticism. It involves full experience of the uncreated divine energies of grace. Those uncreated energies are embodied grace. They come from the Holy Trinity as a whole, and especially the Holy Spirit, which in Orthodoxy is not reduced by the filioque to a secondary role, breathed upon us.
St. Thomas felt this when he touched Jesus and realized the embodied and transcendent to be together in mystery in His body. “Thomas, being once weaker in faith than the other apostles,” says St John Chrysostom, “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.”
St. Thomas realized the Church to be the conciliarity of the people and the mystical hierarchy together in that spiritual unity or communion with Jesus Christ called sobornost in Slavonic. This empowered his incredible missionary work as far as India. But the Apostle Thomas today, on this Sunday after Pascha, also stands for us as modern people who have found refuge from the ruins of secularism, in our salvation in the Orthodox Church. Like the Apostle Thomas we come to Eucharist and say “My Lord and my God,” and experience more than just religious feeling, but His body and blood. And our Savior tells us, blessed are those who have not seen but believe, knowing of the experience of the Believing Thomas. Today, all the Communists and post-human technocrats operating in the spirit of Anti-Christ in this world cannot prevail against His Church, His Body. They cannot take from us that embodied experience of the mysteries, from which we like St. Thomas exclaim, “My Lord and my God.” We can unworthily follow the Apostle in evangelism work near and far. May the Lord our God, with the intercessions of the Believing Thomas, prosper our efforts to build this mission in her work to evangelize our region for the Orthodox Church, which is the Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, for the Vespers for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
Gardening before Vespers on our mission land in rural northern Appalachia.
In America historically, Lady Liberty was cited as a kind of icon of the nation, symbolized in the Statute of Liberty in New York harbor, and at times on U.S. currency.
A Statue of Liberty replica on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, an hour south of our mission. —
But to Orthodox Christians, we know that we must dedicate this American land to the Most Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, of whom Lady Liberty can only at best be seen as an obscurely related type. Our Lady points us to liberty, in voluntary service to universal truth, in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our Lady of Triumph, also called Our Lady of Unachieved Victory, and most familiarly the Icon of the Theotokos of Port Arthur; she is crowned to honor her as Queen in the wake of the loss of the last Orthodox monarch of Russia. We chant the Akathist of this Icon once a month at our mission, seeking intercession from Our Lady for our evangelizing of central Pennsylvania. The original name of our mission, Holy Protection, relates to the image of the protecting veil of our Lady here; our current patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, was devoted to Our Lady, and associated with the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God (he is pictured on our new mission icon below, holding the icon of Our Lady, which was commissioned by our Rector, Fr. George Sharonoff).
Let us, planted originally as the Mission of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God in 2015, with God’s grace unworthily dedicate our mission land to be a garden of the Theotokos. She points us to her Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Directress, the holiest of all the saints. Under her patronage, may our mission land bloom forth for future generations, until our Lord comes again, with gardens, with berry patches, perennial flower beds, orchards, a pumpkin patch, beehives, a chicken yard, as we are planning, along with space for festivals and outdoor events, our already dedicated Orthodox cemetery, and most of all with a temple for worship, blossoming forth as the center of our community for generations to come, God willing. So with God’s grace we hope unworthily to nurture the kind of faith-based traditional community that Orthodox writer Rod Dreher calls for in his books The Benedict Option and Live not by Lies. Glory to God!
When we talk about our Lady the most Holy Theotokos, we also at this time of year during Great Lent, prelude to the spring of Resurrection, note the life and icon and inspiration of another Mary, St. Mary of Egypt. That wonderful saint is a model for us in America and in our mission’s evangelism work. Why was she given the honor by our Lord’s Church of being commemorated on the Sunday before Palm Sunday? She is not part of the Gospel narratives. She was a great sinner. But she was a great penitent, helped by the intercession of the Mother of God. The other, greater Mary so to speak, the Virgin Mary, undergirds and overlies the life of St. Mary of Egypt, and ultimately this Sunday points to her pointing to her Son in the upcoming Holy Week.
St. Mary of Egypt was 12 when she left home and began her life of licentiousness. She lived this way for 17 years. So that means she was 29 years old on the fateful day when God enlightened her and she left for the desert. According to her recounting to Zosimas the first time they met…she had lived in the desert for 47 years/ That would have made her 76 when she first met Zosimas. Add to that another year for when Zosimas brings her communion, and that means that she was 77 when she died. And her body was preserved unharmed, undecayed for a year until Zosimas came to bury her. We hear in her ancient life during Lent of her early encounter at age 29 with our Lady the Most Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary.
“My native land, holy father, was Egypt,” St. Mary of Egypt told Father Zosimas. “Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.
That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Lybians and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, `Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied, `They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, `Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’ `No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I have a body — they shall take it instead of pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosimas, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”
Zosimas, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”
And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’
I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once.
How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him. At last we arrived in Jerusalem. I spent the days before the festival in the town, living the save kind of life, perhaps even worse. I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped be to get to Jerusalem; many others — citizens of the town and foreigners — I also seduced.
The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I ad at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.
Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said:
`O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy ikon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners an for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’
Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium. Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. The I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed to her such words as these:
`O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfil my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: `If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: `O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’ With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey.
So the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Lady with Her son our God resulted in a changed life for St. Mary of Egypt, whose faithful penitence in the Desert then gave us such a blessed example for Lent, and for the joyful sorrow of Lenten asceticism for all of us, whether laity or monastic.
As we dedicate our mission land as the garden of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, as a type of Paradise around the Temple of her Son our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, perhaps our prayer for “this land” in the Divine Liturgy may take on an extra deep meaning. Let us remember the final words of the last Christian leader to leave the Soviet Union at the very end of the Russian Civil War, from the Far East, with exiles into China. General Diterichs in fall 1922, temporary head of a pocket of free Christian Russia in the east awaiting the return of a Christian monarch, when departing under the force of the atheistic communist regime into exile, said: ‘I believe that Russia will return to the Russia of Christ, the Russia of the Anointed of God, but I believe that we were unworthy of this mercy from the Supreme Creator.” May God give us the grace, faith, penitence, strength, wisdom, and health to help prepare the soil of this American land for the spread of the Orthodox Gospel, especially in our region, from our garden of the Theotokos, our Church home in the country, embracing through our Lady’s help the rule of our King of Kings, and Emperor of Emperors. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy us and our mission, and save us. Amen.
Icon of the Theotokos Enthroned, showing her crowned, which re-appeared at the time of the Russian Revolution.
This homily was given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church on March 9, 7529 (March 22, 2021). Afterward, those worshipping went around the block in procession, following the Cross, holding icons of our faith and the Gospel, censing, and chanting, in the middle of Lewisburg, PA, a secular university town, past emblems of secular radicalism on some homes and apartment buildings. There were a few surprised looks, some smiles and nods, and one older gentleman who, seeing the Cross, took off his hat and stood in respect.
Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 7529 (2021).
Brothers and sisters, the scriptural readings today remind us that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, as do the icons around us of our spiritual family, the saints, at their head the most holy Mother of God. They are witnesses, prophetically, historically, personally, to the Incarnation of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Whom we worship, and in Whose very body and blood we participate in the Church.
We are never alone, brothers and sisters, because He is always with us, and our spiritual family is always with us, as we march together on this Sunday of Orthodoxy. If we feel alone, let us pray to our Lord, and ask the saints our spiritual family for their intercessions, for as scripture tells us, the Lord setteth the solitary into families.
Through our Lord we gain friendship that is deeper and more authentic and more real than any we can hope for materially apart from Him. In our faith we have the answer to today’s epidemic of loneliness from the faithlessness in our world today.
The icons remind us of this. And so, amid the rigors and blessed struggle of the start of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the restoration of the veneration of icons in the Orthodox faith for all time, by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the pious rulers and right-believing hierarchs and faithful who supported its decree, completing the teachings and canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils that based in Holy Scripture and Tradition direct the Orthodox Church to this day.
“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” And he goes on to tell us of all those mighty spiritual ancestors or ours who through faith achieved seemingly impossible witness for the Christian faith amid all trials.
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” the Apostle tells us. And then he asks us to gaze upward towards Him Who is above and beyond infinitely all the others. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Nathaniel doubts that Jesus is the Messiah, probably because Jesus comes from rural simple Nazareth, and not as a magnificent king. But his friend Phillip didn’t contradict this prejudice, as Archbishop Averky of blessed memory notes in his commentary. Phillip simply said “Come and see!” Come and see! This is the invitation to us every day before our icons at home in prayer, and to come join in worship in our Lord’s Church, His Body and the Bride of the Lamb. This is the invitation we make to our neighbors as we march through our community today in procession.
The Lord meeting Nathaniel says He saw him under the fig tree. As Archbishop Averky writes:
“What happened to Nathaniel under the fig tree? This is hidden from us, and it seems that this was a mystery that no one could possibly know other than Nathaniel and God Himself.”
Perhaps Nathaniel had regular prayer under a certain fig tree, and had had a particular moving experience in that prayer recently. Hearing those words of recognition, Nathaniel in his heart knew they proved that our Lord is the Messiah. “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathaniel said.
Indeed, the Incarnation made Israel the Church, to which all, Gentiles and Jews, could join, of which Christ is King. Our King sees us in prayer under our fig trees, and we see Him in the icon on our banner, as we process today behind it as our standard of spiritual warfare before us, for this Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. As we process around the center of our town, we bear the banner with the Icon not Made by Hands of our Lord, and the Cross, which on one side depicts His crucifixion, and on the other His Resurrection.
We chant and proclaim the kingdom of our King, which is His Church, and invite others to join with Him from under their fig trees, as we journey further into Great Lent, the time of bright sorrow and repentance and ascetic struggle, toward the light of the Resurrection, which now is always with us. “Come and see” is the message of our proclamation of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
For as our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ has told us, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” and “Lo I am with you, even unto the end of the world.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today on the doorway of Great Lent we commemorate the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, and also Forgiveness Sunday. The linking of these commemorations on the ancient Orthodox Church calendar, as a living tradition of spiritual practice, therapy, and worship, is a link of unforgettable beauty in its joyful sorrow. It reminds us that Orthodox Christianity is a faith of the heart and not merely the head, for ours is a faith of getting the mind into the heart.
The Gospel reading for today sets this forth, telling us, in part, “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:…. be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance… But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our Lenten journey must be one of fasting not merely from dairy and meat, fish and wine. It is a hidden spiritual practice of looking away from comfort toward the uncomfortable truths and witnessing of our faith, expressed outwardly in love for each other based on truth, our Lord God, Who sustains us.
I recently viewed a short documentary about Ptesti Prison in Romania. Here Communists imprisoned Orthodox Christians, like Father Roman Braga and Father George Calciu. Physical and psychological tortures were combined in an effort to shape them into a Communist personality. Today in America we are subject to a different but also insidious type of behavior modification, efforts to refashion our personalities in the spirit of the Anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Christ, in the hours that we spend online and often in educational, professional, and work interactions. More strongly to uphold ourselves as Christians in the face of such psychological manipulation against our souls, this today must be part of our Lenten witness.
We know what we face against our Christian faith today in America. Just in the past month we have had great promotion in media of polyamory, yet another insane sin promoted by the pansexual materialistic anti-Christian culture today. This includes the idea, likely to become a mandated category of social and legal support, that multiple parents of undetermined sex should raise children in the same household, living without moral boundaries. The state of California this coming week will consider adopting school curriculum that in the name of racial equity seeks to target Christianity in K-12 education as oppressive and could promote schoolchildren offering prayers to Aztec gods who historically were part of pagan practices involving human sacrifices. These different forms of madness involve Anthropocenism, a spirit of our age that centers on a human virtual reality, in which materialistic human science and technology as the Anthropocene age claim to take the place of God. It assembles an official anthropology and culture seeking to elide and erase traditional cultural communities, through direct state relationships with children overriding parental faith, as well as a dominant digital environment and economy, controlling human life for supposedly “therapeutic” reasons. But these are all delusions of disembodiedness, a gnostic living in virtual reality that Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the “Soul and Barbed Wire” section of The Gulag Archipelago uncovered as “the permanent lie,” and which Hannah Arendt in her works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem came to term “the banality of evil.”
Solzhenitsyn and Arendt were writing about the twentieth-cenury precursors to disembodied, digital, and atheistic systems advocating transhumanism today in “soft” totalitarian ways. Such madness and insanity are harbingers of anti-Christ, as the Apostle John warns us against the spirit of anti-Christ that rejects the Incarnation of our Lord God, and would seek to destroy the embodiedness of our lives and faith. Our parish Bible study has been reading the Epistles of the Apostle John in the New Testament, in which he gives us our standard for Forgiveness Sunday today, that God is love, and that the source of our love for Him and for our neighbor is the truth that is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We must not shirk from witnessing to that love in truth, from carrying our cross. For to proclaim the Gospel in our lives daily is to witness. We witness for something, for the Resurrection, not merely against things, and to our neighbors and on behalf of the vulnerable.
Now the gateway to Lent stands before us, symbolized in the royal doors of the iconostasis, the gateway to Paradise, through which Communion comes to us today. Behind the iconostasis and above us in this worship space, the copy of the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God on the wall above the altar witnesses to our journey through Lent to Holy Week and to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of her Son, and to our hopes for building a temple this year. This icon was known as a palladion or protecting standard of the Russian imperial Army. In 1920 it went with the remnants of General Wrangel’s White Army and the group of bishops who became our Synod on the fleet of ships that crossed with many exiles from Crimea to Constantinople. It was present at the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose centennial year we are commemorating. It now rests in our cathedral on 93rd Street in New York and indeed humbly rested on one of the stands here we use in worship when it visited our mission in the early days of our founding.
The Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign
The icon dates back to the 13th century, and is one of the most ancient of the Russian Church, herself an heir in her roots to Byzantium and the Churches of the Holy Land. The icon comes into our history at the time of the Tatar invasion of Russia, its discovery by a peasant at the root of a tree in the forest by Kursk at that time was a sign of hope for the preservation of the Orthodox Church. It is linked with the liberation of Russia in the Polish-Lithuanian incursion in 1612, and in the 1812 Fatherland war. Now may this beloved standard go before us in our spiritual battle for freedom in America during this Great Lent.
The icon is of the Annunciation and includes the figure of the Sign of our Lord God within the womb of the Mother of God whose hands are outstretched in prayer, in an ancient depiction of the Theotokos, accepting the Annunciation. We commemorate the Annunciation during Great Lent. It is a reminder of our own rebirth during this time in our journey toward the Resurrection of Christ, even as the icon before us beyond the royal doors today is a reminder of God with us as we march into Lent. Interestingly, the Scriptural account of the expulsion from Paradise, and the traditional name of this Sunday’s commemoration, focuses on Adam’s expulsion, which perhaps can be taken to indicate how the “Second Eve,” the greatest of the saints, the Mother of God, would bear the Savior Who would restore the faithful to Paradise.
Around the Mother of God and the figure of our Lord are prophets of the Old Testament Church who wrote of the birth of Christ—the Holy Prophets King David, Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, Elijah, Habakkuk, Judge Gideon, Isaiah, Moses, and above them all the Lord of Hosts. This icon, our standard in marching into our spiritual warfare of Lent, tells us of the cloud of witnesses who are with us, all the prophets saints who intercede for us, led by the Theotokos, to our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. It reminds us of the love of God for us and of all in our great Church family who love us, as we unworthily seek forgiveness today. Let us remember as we go forth into Lent with joyful sorrow, under the standard of our Kursk Root icon, that our God, Who is truth and love in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, is with us.
Embarking on the journey of Lent, toward the Pascha of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ
Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg, PA, on Zacchaeus Sunday 7529 (2021 Civil Calendar), Feb. 1/Feb. 14
The account of Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading today tells us, as we prepare to enter the preparatory season for Lent, of how a money-loving tax collector became the good fruit of the sycamore fig tree he climbed. He left his love of materialism for the love of truth in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He did this through humility and repentance and practical deeds of charity, through the love of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel commentaries based in our Orthodox Church tradition by Archbishop Averky of Russia in the twentieth century and of the Blessed Theophylact of Byzantium in the twelfth century help provide background.
Zacchaeus as a publican was a tax collector and chief tax collector in the very rich Jericho area, which would have been a source of great income for him. This position also identified him closely with the colonial Roman oppressive regime, ultimately implicated also in the Crucifixion of our Lord. Zacchaeus’ position exemplified the love of money and materialism, and the status and power they were seen as conferring. This is even more of a temptation arguably today in our society.
The Blessed Theophylact notes that “The Lord seizes the mightiest of the devil’s vessels and destroys his cities. See how the Lord not only makes publicans His disciples, but He even takes prisoner, in order to save him, the chief of the publicans, Zacchaeus.”
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, actually a sycamore-fig tree, to see Jesus, but before he saw Jesus, Jesus had already seen Him. So it is with the grace of our Lord, Who answers our willingness and eagerness even before we know. Our Lord urges Zacchaeus to come down quickly. Zacchaeus followed the law of God in the restitution of his fraud, in true alms-giving, giving all he had, not only half to the poor, but of the rest fourfold to all he had defrauded, and his whole business so to speak had been in fraud.
The Lord then says that now Zacchauus is a son of Abraham. For our Lord knew Abraham, and in His theophany had been a guest of Abraham’s hospitality, and he saw that same hospitality in Zacchaeus’ repentance and active love, in giving up his possessions.
Short of stature as the chief wicked-doer in the area, Zacchaeus symbolically and literally could not see Christ until he had climbed up the sycamore-fig tree, past its sweet fruits, to make an ascent in his heart, to see Jesus. Jesus then called him to “make haste and come down,” so as to humble himself and not fall into pride because of that ascent to a higher life through repentance. Our Lord would abide in the house of a humble man, who proved this in his experience. The fourfold restoration by Zacchaeus of his fraud symbolizes the healing of his sins through the four virtues, known to the Church Fathers as courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. As the Blessed Theophylact concludes, Zacchaeus had long lived in the house of his father, the devil, and when he went out of the house of his father, out of himself and changed, he found salvation, as had Abraham.
Archbishop Averky noted, “The repentance of Zacchaeus is a model of true repentance that is not limited by a fruitless remorse over sins committed, but strives to expiate the sins through virtues that are the sins’ opposites.”
A couple other short items of note in this story include further Zacchaeus’ short stature. Some talk of the Napoleon complex by which short stature can relate to a desire for power. But as fallen human beings we are all short of stature in God’s eyes and prone to power. Zacchaeus gave this up symbolically by climbing the tree. In Egypt the sycamore-fig tree was widely cultivated, and it is thought that its cultivation spread from there to the Holy Land. In ancient Egypt that tree was known as the Tree of Life. So too St. John of Damascus referred to the Tree of Life in Paradise and in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, as symbolizing our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Maximos the Confessor spoke of the logoi or words of God, constituting our identity, as singing in the tree of the Logos. Jesus Christ referred to Himself as the true vine, and the Apostle Paul said that those becoming Christians who were Gentiles are engrafted in that true vine or tree.
Zacchaeus, although a Jew, had to leave his love for power and money to become a Christian, a follower of our Lord, climbing the tree and then following without hesitation our Lord’s command, and surrendering that which he had worshipped, his wealth. In the news today, new forms of crypto currencies raise questions about the nature of money freed from the gold standard. So this ancient Gospel account reminds us also of scriptural and canonical limitations in the Church on greed. We see this in prohibitions on usury. In the Old Testament we see how the laws of God incorporated regular forgiveness of debts in Jubilee Years and also recycling of land ownership, a reminder that the gifts and blessings of the Creation come from God. They are ours only in the sense that we are good stewards, as in the parables of the New Testament, for our Lord. Central to that sense of a gift economy based in God is philanthropy and alms-giving, as we should remember as we enter into Lent as well. As the Apostle Paul wrote, the love of money is the root of evil, because it involves a fundamental lie about the nature of things, leading to idolatry. How much all people today especially in our global consumer culture are engaged in such idolatry, even in our worship of material images online, and of materialistic success in careers and image and status for ourselves. This curse affects in different ways all political ideologies today, which all participate in the worship of materialism.
Like Zacchaeus, brothers and sisters, let our eagerness for Christ at each day and each moment lead us to climb the tree of repentance, ignoring the sweet fruits of materialism for a glimpse of Him. He will already be seeing us, and let us heed His command with the speed of little Zacchaeus, to follow Him and host with generous hospitality our Lord, as Zacchaeus’ spiritual father Abraham had done.
For little Zacchaeus truly became great only in Jesus Christ after practicing the grace-filled virtues that provided an antidote for sin. He became the good fruit of the fig tree. The sycamore fig tree became to Zacchaeus a type of the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations because of his zeal, his repentance, his humility, and his active expression of repentant love in charity, entering into the Body of our Lord, His Church. Let us heed and follow little Zacchaeus’ example as we enter the weeks preparing for Lent, and as we also prepare this month for building a temple for our worship in proclaiming the Gospel to our region.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
A chapter from the forthcoming book Amid Weeping there is Joy: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Tolkien’s Fantastic Realm. St. Basil Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture, Basilian Media and Publishing, forthcoming 2021.