Holy Trinity Church, Parma, OH, will be the site of the 17th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, a one-day gathering on Tuesday, November 13, 2012—the Feast of Saint John Chrysostom—at which a new Primate of the Orthodox Church in America will be elected. Podcasts from this meeting are available here.
Every time that we gather as Church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Eucharist, it’s always essentially the same. Essentially, it is always the same. Whatever the occasion, whatever the time, whatever the place, it’s always the same. St. John Chrysostom speaks about this very particularly in the Fifth Homily on 1st Timothy. Then, he goes on in the Sixth and the Seventh to elaborate, and he says, “No Liturgy is less holy or more holy than any other.”
And it’s always the same, and what it is, is the celebration and the proclamation; the experience; the entrance into the victory of God Almighty in the person of His Son and Word, Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of the whole world.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we celebrate the victory of God, like we sing on Pascha night, “Let God rise. Let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him, flee from before His face.” It’s always the day that the Lord has made, and we are to rejoice and be glad in it.
Every Liturgy, Christ, the Door, takes us into the Kingdom of His Father. As the Good Shepherd sacrifices Himself as the victim to God the Father, so that we could be purified and illumined and healed and saved. He’s the Great High Priest who offers the once and for all sacrifice to God His Father on the Cross, outside the city of Jerusalem, hanging between two thieves, criticized, ridiculed, mocked, spit upon, and beaten – being Himself, the very offering, the lamb that is slain; the bread that is broken and consumed. This is all for us and for our salvation.
But we also know that every celebration of the Divine Liturgy is always different. It’s always different. It’s never the same, ever. Every time we gather as Church, whatever the occasion, we are going to have a celebration, a proclamation, a holy Communion, and the experience of being loved by God, endlessly loved by God in a way that is new and different; hopefully deeper, wider, more splendid.
St. Gregory of Nyssa even dared to say that, “As we live in this world and we pass through all the experiences and the tests of human life,” and we must be tested. Job, in Scripture says, “A life of a man on earth is nothing but a trial.” It’s nothing but a temptation. We have to face those temptations and by the grace of God, be victorious over them.
And so this day was seen by God before the foundation of the world. The Lord God knew that we would be in this church today. We would be gathered and altogether here to make this celebration, and it would be new for us. It’s different today than it was last Sunday. And next Sunday, it will be different from today. And even God Almighty will appear new, different, and deeper. We grow in that, and that’s what we’re created to be for all eternity.
We know that there is the tragic side – the tragic side from the beginning. The Apostle Paul in Romans 1 says, “We are all created to know the invisible things of God, just by being human, made in God’s image.” We are created to share fully and completely in all the gifts of God, and not only His gifts, but His very life. God, in Christ, gives us not only the gifts, He gives us Himself.
By grace, by faith, by Christ’s cross, Christ’s victory, we literally could become everything that God is, by nature, forever and ever and ever and ever, and it never ends. And it’s always new, and it’s always different. But that difference in this world includes our sins; our betrayals; our failures; our wounds; our surrender to darkness; our surrender to our own vanity, our own pride, our own power, our own way, our own understanding of things, which puts us directly in the hands of the devil.
So the Apostle Paul also says to the Corinthians, “I hear that when you gather as Church, there are factions and divisions among you.” In Greek, it says schisms and heresies. And he said, “I partly believe that it must be so, so that those who are approved;” I think it really means those who are tested and stand the test and don’t give in and remain on the cross with Christ that they could be revealed; that they would be manifest.
John Chrysostom, whose day it is today and whose Liturgy we celebrate, commenting on that in his commentary on Corinthians says, “Let’s notice that those terms schisms and heresies, factions and divisions, they were not about the content of the faith,” like for example in the Galatian community.
He said, “That failure; those factions; those divisions were held by people who more or less believed the same Gospel; kept the same faith.” It was not a doctrinal failure. It was a moral failure. It was a spiritual failure. And so the very broken Body and shed Blood of Christ was blasphemed.
The Holy Spirit, who’s poured out on us, as it says in Scriptures, the Thessalonian letter, “The Holy Spirit can be quenched.” In the Letter to the Hebrews, it says, “The Holy Spirit can be outraged.” It says in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Letter to the Ephesians as well, “The Holy Spirit can be grieved.” And of course, our Lord said, “The Holy Spirit can be blasphemed.” Then, there’s no salvation for that.
We believe in the God who is love; the Son of His love; the Spirit through whom the love of God is poured into us. There’s nothing magical or mechanical about that. As one of my friends used to say, perhaps not very nicely, but he would say,” We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We do not believe in the magician, the mechanic, and the fairy godmother.”
So this trial is real, and we have to endure it. And as the saints teach us, when the grace of God is there, God is with us, and He never, ever, ever abandons us. We may think so some time, but it’s not true. It’s a lie of the devil. All this grace, and it’s all grace, we can stand upon the wreckage in order to enter paradise. We can stand upon the wreckage to enter into wisdom, understanding what a God we have.
In fact, all of this exists for just one reason, that we would know the marvelous, the majestic, the magnificent mercy of God, and the pitiful, wretched misery of us, ourselves. When we pray here, we say, all this great salvation has come for the sinner of whom I am first. There’s no judgment by comparison between people. No. Everyone is judged uniquely by hers or his own life; by how we live it; by how we pass through these things. And it’s a temptation to the last breath.
Some people think it’s a Russian saying, “No temptation, no salvation.” Actually, that’s Anthony the Great, who said when he was asked, “How can you be saved?” He said:
Say your prayers, and do you work. Have God always before your eyes. Whatever you do, do according to the Scripture, and whatever place you’re in, don’t leave that place easily. Cling to what is good and true and beautiful, as you understand it with all your might. Then, expect and know for sure that you will be tempted to your very last breath.
There’s a saying about Macarius of Egypt. He was stepping into Paradise, and he heard a voice saying, “Macarius, you have conquered,” and he looked and it was the devil. And he said to him, “Not yet.” He only had one foot in. And we all know the picture of the Ladder and flopping off the top.
So we’re here today to proclaim the marvelous mercy of God and our own pathetic misery, our sin. It’s always that way. Each time it’s different, because we are different. Life goes on. Today, the uniqueness of this day is that we will elect a Primate, the first arch-pastor among our pastors. And our pastors, we’ve done this before, haven’t we? And we’re here to do it again.
Last night, Fr. Alexander mentioned how Metropolitan Leonty, in 1950, was elected unanimously the Metropolitan of our church. And he remembered also that it was this Leonty, whose iconographic form in the back of the church there, where someday they will put the halo on it, he represented our church to the All-Russian 1917-18 Council.
He used to boast that he was one of those who put the name of Tikhon, the Metropolitan of Moscow, who had been our bishop here in America for nine years, and he was there. We know that at that council, they were reinstating the Patriarchate, after 217 years with no Patriarch in Russia. The church was controlled, in every detail, by the State.
And at that council, they chose the new Patriarch by lot. And so the council chose three men and put their names in the chalice. Then, they prayed all night, had the Holy Eucharist, had the prayer service, and then a holy elder came and pulled out the name. A Moscow proto-presbyter wrote an article for the newspaper describing that. This is what he said:
“The council put three names into the chalice. Arseny, the Archbishop of Novgorod was the strictest of all the Russian hierarchs. They put in the name of Anthony Khrapovitsky of Kiev,” whom we all know was the first hierarch in ROCOR (Russian Church Outside Russia after the Revolution). And he called him, “The most learned of the Russian arch-pastors.”
Then, he said, “But God decided that it would be Tikhon – the kindest, goodest, most gentle, most meek.” That’s the way God does it. Now, Metropolitan Leonty made it back home through China. He ended up the head of the Church himself for many years. I was fortunate enough to see him on his death bed.
But we know that he, perhaps, more than any other in our history, was a spokesperson for the particular calling of our mission here in America that began in Alaska. It was to be the Church here for everyone who wants to be saved and be in it. So be the Church here in this place, in this time, following our calling to be what God has asked us to be.
But all those leaders went through all those trials, unbelievable suffering, as we heard last night also. Leonty was kicked out of his cathedral by New York cops, because the Bolsheviks said they owned it. Church properties were taken. The whole thing was a chaotic mess; unbelievable even to describe. We went through it.
And this very same Tikhon was so meek and so gentle and so kind. In fact, one priest in America actually wrote in his diary, “The first time I see in a hierarch, a human being.” That’s what he wrote. He was touched. So here we are. And we know that Tikhon said that the night will be dark and long, and it still is. It most likely will be until the end of the world. Darker and darker as the clock tick. But we have to stand for that.
The reading today, on the continuous reading after Pentecost, contains the terrifying words in St. Luke’s Gospel, where the Lord said, “Not only, anyone who loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy; who loves brother and sister;” who loves lands, who loves ethnicity; who loves culture whatever.
He was even more powerful in Luke. He said, “Unless you hate father, mother, lands, possessions, and you’re your own life in this world, you can’t be my disciple.” You have to count the cost. He said, “Who builds a tower without knowing how many bricks to have? What warrior enters a war not knowing the troops? Then you’re put to shame.” You have to count the cost.
The cost was great. When the Bolsheviks took the country, there was a famine. They wanted to show how kind they were, so they were helping the hungry people. They went to the Church, and said, “We want the icons, vessels, and chalices. It’s over for you guys. We’re here now.”
And Tikhon gave the order that you’re to give whatever money you have. You’re to give the diamonds and all that from the crosses and all those things. But you cannot give the chalice and the diskos and the holy icons. You can give the silver off the icon, but not the icon.
So sixteen priests in Moscow were arrested for following him. Bolsheviks brought him and put him on the stand. They called him Comrade Bellavin. They said, “We understand that you are these guys boss.” He said, “Well, in a sense that’s true.” They said, “We understand that if you order them to do something, they have to do it.” He said, “In a sense that’s true, unless I order them to do something wicked, evil, immoral, or heretical. Then, I hope they would not obey me.”
The prosecutor said, “Well, then I will tell you. If you do not order these priests to give up these things, you will be executed.” Bishop Tikhon said, “I can, but if I did, I hope they wouldn’t obey me, because these things are not ours.” The prosecutor replied, “What do you mean, they’re not yours?” He said, they’re consecrated to God. They belong to God. I can’t give you what belongs to God.”
They said, “Yes, but you can order them.” He said, “I can.” They said, “If you don’t do it, they will be executed.” Tikhon stood up, looked at those sixteen priests, and said, “Then, bless them to die.” That’s our legacy here. He was bishop here.
Leonty, Alexis, Raphael, Nikolai they were all here in this land, and they all said the same thing. There has to be a church here that’s nothing but a church. It’s not a culture center. It’s not a heritage museum. It’s not a summer camp. It’s not a therapeutic center. It’s not a way of mystical progress. It’s just the Body and Blood of Christ, the household of God, the pillar and bulwark of the Truth, the fullness of Him who fills all in all against which mystically the gates of death will never prevail, but which can be betrayed, outraged, grieved, and even blasphemed.
Well, that went on in Russia for 70 years. Solzhenitsyn said, “70 years and 70 million corpses. What did we learn from it?” What did they, over there, learn from it? God forgive me, but sometimes you think it’s not very much. What did we, in America, learn from it and from our own story; our own tragedies; our own betrayals; our own grieving of the Holy Spirit and often even on the verge of blasphemy? What did we learn from this? This is the question of today’s Liturgy and today’s events. What did we learn from this?
I believe that the most known Orthodox Christian, in my lifetime, that most people would know this man and they would know who he is and his story, and they would know that he’s an Orthodox Christian, that man is Solzhenitsyn himself. When he lived in America, he was in our church. He was a member of our church.
Fr. Andrei was his spiritual father. Fr. Alexander built his house. Fr. Schmemann was his advisor in some way. In fact, he was the only one I know who ever argued with Solzhenitsyn and survived. But Solzhenitsyn said something that may be the word for us today, for us now. He said, “In the prison camps, I found God. I found love. I found the need for mercy and forgiveness, first of all for my own self.”
Like our dear elder, Fr. Roman Draga, who was in prison in Romania. First, he was being tortured, where they tried to change his mind and make him blaspheme the faith, and when they couldn’t do that, they put him in solitary confinement for years without a book, a pencil, paper. Nothing! An interviewer asked Fr. Roman, “What did you learn during that time?” He said:
When I was in the torture prison when they were trying to read and wash our minds and get us to lose our faith, I learned that the devil exists. But then, when they couldn’t do it, and they locked us up in solitary. We saw nobody and had nothing for years. I learned that God exists.
Sometimes, you have to go through those things so you really know that the devil exists and how cunning he can really be. Although, he’s really stupid. But we know that God exists also, and that He is with us. Solzhenitsyn said, “I learned that there. Without that, I would never have learned it.” Maybe, we could say the same thing.
Without being put through with what we’ve been put through, we would never learn things that we have to learn and that we have to know to be saved. And Solzhenitsyn formulated the lesson that’s learned, the most simple way. It applied to the prison camp. It applies to Orthodoxy all over the world. It applies to us in America and American society. God has willed that we would be. It’s all Divine Providence.
God saw this day. He saw it all. Solzhenitsyn said, “What God wanted us to see and to learn is a very simple thing. Evil is real, and it abounds.” Stupidity, darkness, envy, vanity, pride, fear. Read John Chrysostom. It’s unbelievable what he says about that. What he wrote to his best friend Olympia, the widow who was the head of all those women deacons in Constantinople, he wrote, “No one can harm him, who does not harm himself.”
And if we are angry and despondent and in darkness and doubting because of it, that’s our fault, not theirs! Solzhenitsyn put it this way, “Here we are in this world fallen; corrupted; perverse, yet it’s the world where the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. And there are the Scriptures and the Sacraments and the Services and the Saints and the suffering that always goes with it so that we can be saved.”
And he said, “There’s only three possibilities. And these three possibilities are our possibility today. You can give up, and the evil will crush you. You can give in, and become part of the evil yourself. Or you can go, being co-crucified with Christ and forgiving everyone who crucified you.”
Chrysostom said, “We should remember this Liturgy is celebrated not only for Orthodox, not only for us. It’s for the Emperor Supreme.” He was quoting St. Paul. Read it! It’s his Sixth and Seventh Homily on Timothy. He says, “We come here to offer all this on behalf of all and for all – for heathens, even for heretics, our worst enemies. That’s what we are doing, because that’s our calling.”
It’s especially the calling of pastors and arch-pastors to be the Image of Christ Himself on earth and to guarantee that the Church is the Church – nothing but the Church; one with the unity of God; holy with the holiness of God; catholicity with the fullness of God; apostolicity with the mission of God; that the Church, especially in the person of the bishop, would guarantee that this is the Kingdom of God on earth.
Then, we testify to its unity, its identity, its integrity, its continuity, its vitality, its harmony, and its unanimity in the face of all kinds of temptations, and we’ll be tempted to our last breath. But we can go on. We must go on. That’s what we’re called to do – to be faithful to the Gospel and to our calling specifically here in America.
Brothers and sisters, arch-pastors and pastors, let us not give up. Let us not give in. But let us go on doing it God’s way, which is always the way of temptation, trial, and suffering, because the victory is already won, and we’re going to celebrate that victory right now.