HOMILY FOR THE NATIVITY OF THE HOLY THEOTOKOS
“This is the day of the Lord – O people, rejoice!” Thus exults today the holy Church of Christ. But what kind of day of the Lord is it, when we commemorate the nativity of the Virgin Mary? We all know how mankind languished when the grace-filled live contact between earth and God was broken off as a result of the Fall. Humanity languished in the power of darkness. “Deliver my soul from imprisonment,” – exclaimed God’s prophet King David in the Old Testament. Darkness of the soul, as a consequence of sin, took such hold over man that life truly became similar to imprisonment. People awaited liberation from the power of this darkness. They knew that the One Who could destroy the power of sin over mankind was due to come, and they waited for Him. He was spoken of not only by the prophets, but He was spoken of even by the pagans who had been illuminated by the light of God. Both these pagans and the Old Testament prophets prophesied that the lost connection between heaven and earth would be restored, and that mankind must prepare itself for such an event.
This was also indicated by the Lord Himself. Do you remember Jacob’s flight from his brother Esau? Jacob, exhausted by the flight from his brother, fell asleep in the desert. And suddenly he saw a ladder rising from earth to heaven, upon which angels were descending to earth and ascending into heaven, and at the top of the ladder he saw the Lord Who said to him: “Fear not, I am with thee!”
This ladder represented humanity in the person of the Virgin Mary, Who ascended from earth to heaven through Her purity, faith, and love, while the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, descended by this ladder to us on earth.
The nativity of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary was the day that presaged the approach of the Light which humanity awaited and which was due to liberate mankind from the power of darkness. We glorify the Son of God, the Messiah, as the “Gladsome Light.” We call Christ the Sun of truth, come down from heaven to enlighten and sanctify the universe and man. And thus the nativity of the Holy Virgin Mary was that first star which presaged the coming down to earth of the Sun of truth and the Light of wisdom. It is for this reason that the church proclaims on this day: “This is the day of the Lord – O people, rejoice!” We also celebrate the day of the Virgin Mary’s nativity so triumphantly, because this day initializes the twelve major feasts of the church year. In the person of the One born today there appeared in the desert of Old Testament mankind a life-giving stream, which afterwards turned into a mighty current of living water for all people. “O people, rejoice!...” and how should we not rejoice over the One Who became our guiding star! In commemorating this great day in the life of mankind, we continue to sail upon the turbulent sea of life, turning our gaze upon the One Who manifested to mankind an image of purity, love, faith, humility, and meekness.
And as we make an effort to complete the path of our earthly pilgrimage in purity of heart, with love and loyalty to our Lord Jesus Christ, by the intercession of the Most-holy Virgin may we hear the Lord’s quiet voice saying: “Take heart, my son, be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Amen.
THE TEACHING ON THE CROSS
(According to St. John of Tobolsk)
The Cross – guardian of the universe
Each one of us wears a small cross. We do not wear this cross openly for show, but if we were pressured to take it off, we must not do so. This small cross reminds us that there is no Christianity without a cross. Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered on the Cross, with His Blood delivered us from damnation, and with His resurrection opened up the Heavenly Kingdom to us. However, He did not free us, His followers, from sorrows and suffering in this earthly life. On the contrary, just as by means of suffering and the Cross He Himself accomplished our salvation and entered into His glory, so He left an example for us to follow. This is the way of the cross. In His wisdom and boundless love for us, through His suffering the Lord has made the sorrows and suffering which we experience in this temporal life and which we have brought down upon ourselves by transgressing God’s commandment turn for us, faithful Christians, into a means of attaining eternal rapture according to God’s word: “Through many sorrows must we enter the Kingdom of God.”
What is the path of truth and where does the Christian find the way to it? St. John stresses first of all that the Saviour of the world indicated to everyone without exception the way of the cross – the way of life, the way of glory, the way to the City of Life, the way to the Kingdom. Without the cross there is no salvation for the soul, there is no hope for eternal rapture. There is no other way towards life and genuine inner peace safe by way of the holy cross. The entire time of our life is given to us in order to learn to bear our cross, and when the Lord comes to judge people, it will be the symbol of the cross that will appear in the heavens – this symbol at the last trial will be the sign by which the Lord will know His elect.
The Cross – splendor of the Church
What constitutes a cross and what are the different kinds of crosses?
A Christian’s cross is not only the visible sign of the cross, but also the decision to lead a virtuous life. According to Gospel teaching, a Christian’s entire life is a cross and suffering. This is particularly confirmed by the Lord’s words that “whosoever does not take up his cross and does not follow Me, such a one is not worthy of Me.” To bear one’s cross is to endure everything that brings sorrow, everything that causes suffering. To bear one’s cross means to endure in this world all the grief that the world causes for the sake of Christ. “To take up one’s cross, – says St. John of Tobolsk, – signifies readiness to die for Christ, signifies a spirit disposed to fearlessly meet every threat in the name of Christ, signifies non-attachment to this life.” God summons us to give Him one thing – to give Him ourselves, bearing our crosses. God does not demand any other price safe ourselves. The angel who spoke with St. Stavrophila pointed out various crosses to her: a cross with swords, lances, scourges, fetters, and chains “signifies the diverse sufferings of martyrs for Christ”; there is, for example, a cross of illness, which is not only beneficial, but sometimes even necessary; there is a cross to which are attached a staff and a sack – that is the cross of poverty. (Poverty and destitution can also serve as guides to virtue, if only they are born conscientiously. It is well-known that the acquisition of wealth is connected with many cares, the guarding of wealth – with fear and anxiety, and the loss of wealth – with great sorrow). Stavrophila took note of the cross which stood near the bed and asked about it. The angel explained to her that that particular cross signified sorrow at the loss of parents, relatives, and friends. Although it is difficult to lose loved ones, yet we should not grumble – they were taken away by the One Who had granted them in the first place. Afterwards Stavrophila noticed a cross with the image of a madman. The angel explained to her that this is the onerous cross of mockery, humiliation, and insult. Those who truly bear this cross are not ashamed or afraid to be mocked for the sake of Christ. Many Christians wish to serve God, yet at the same time seek glory and fame among people, loving humility without humiliation. St. John points out that oftentimes humiliation leads a person to gain an understanding of himself.
Often a person is burdened with many diverse crosses. In his oeuvre on the cross, Metropolitan John of Tobolsk most frequently mentions two examples of crossbearing: in the Old Testament – St. Job the Much-suffering, who accepted all deprivations and suffering so uncomplainingly, and in the New Testament – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, of course, Who alone endured all the sorrows on earth and commanded us to endure our own sorrows.
Why is sorrow so inseparable from Christian life? Why does the Lord wish His elect to experience trials and tribulations and not be able to attain the Heavenly Realm without a cross?
St. John explains to us: “The temporal life is a path towards the heavenly Homeland, and by God’s unfathomable providence humans are subjected to daily sorrows, in order for them not to come to love the path itself instead of the Homeland. For this reason the earthly path is very arduous, so that people would not enjoy comfort in this life and thus be captivated by the beauty of the path, would not wish to continue on this path instead of trying to cross it as quickly as possible, and, proceeding merrily on their way, would not forget that the Homeland awaits them… And so the Lord dilutes the seeming sweetness of this life with the bitterness of sorrows, in order to encourage us to strive towards genuine and salvific rapture. O, woe is mankind! The world is bitter, yet it is loved. How greatly would it attract everyone if it were full of delight?!”
The Benevolent God has set it up so that whoever wisely bears his sorrows in this life will experience joy in the next one, while those who seek worldly joys will end up with sorrow. We find a vivid example of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. St. Basil the Great notes that the rich man suffered so greatly in the flames not for unjust deeds, but for a voluptuous life.
However, if God knows the virtuousness of the righteous ones, why should they be tested? God tests the righteous ones not because He is not aware of their virtuousness, but in order to show others their great endurance. Many people do not understand with what disposition of the heart the saints venerate God, but oftentimes think that the saints serve Him for the sake of well-being in this life. However, by means of the cross and suffering, the righteous ones truly show the kind of love that attaches them to God. Patience is the greatest and most elect virtue. A righteous man cannot acquire patience without experiencing sorrow. St. John explains that a tree that is protected from the wind does not develop hardiness, while a tree that is subjected to the winds grows hardier and puts down stronger roots from being buffeted. God knows exactly which shoulders can bear what, and consequently sends everyone a measured amount of sorrows and misfortunes. We constantly complain and grumble that our cross is too burdensome and wish for a lighter cross for ourselves. The Metropolitan of Tobolsk remarks: “However, God alone knows that one person must struggle so much against the flesh, another person so much against one or another enemy attack, while a third must struggle longer than the first and the second, just as the strength of various vessels is tested differently: stronger vessels are tested with a mighty blow, while weaker vessels with a lighter one. For example, the master will barely touch a crystal vase, will hit a silver chalice more strongly, and will strike a bell with a hammer; moreover, a bell of greater weight he will strike more heavily, knowing that it is strong and will not break.” “At the same time, – says the holy hierarch, – we should remember that the Lord is not angry at anyone, does not disdain anyone, but looks upon each person’s fortitude and tests everyone’s strength as though on scales.” “There are many who love the Heavenly Realm, – teaches us St. John, – but few who love to bear the cross. Many love joy, but few love sorrow. Everyone wishes to rejoice in Christ, but very few wish to suffer for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of the bread, but few are willing to drink from the chalice of suffering. Many glorify His miracles, but few follow Him to humiliation and the Cross. O, how few are there who follow our Lord Christ! However, there is no one who would not want to come to Him. All wish to delight in joy with Him, but no one wishes to follow Him; everyone wishes to reign with Him, but no one wishes to suffer with Him; they do not wish to follow the One with Whom they wish to be.”
Before stepping onto the path of the cross, one must first of all learn to be concerned about desiring to follow the Lord with a brave heart and firm will. Then one has to pray to Him and entreat Him. There are many obstacles on the way of the cross: first of all one is tempted with earthly delights, and then there is the burden of carrying the cross for those who love fame. Since Orthodoxy is a religion of the cross, the only religion of the cross, it is so hated and misunderstood by the modern world: “For the world delight and fame are the main goal, while the cross reminds and summons to a completely opposite worldview and life. Nevertheless, there is not a single person living on earth who does not experience sorrow. Both death and suffering are inevitable for all.”
Let us return to the subject of the various kinds of crosses. Not only the righteous, but sinners also have their crosses. St. John says the following of the sinners’ cross: “Among all the suffering experienced by the human soul, there is no greater suffering than a conscience burdened by sin. For if there is no sore in a man’s soul, and if his conscience is not defiled, then even if he undergoes external sorrows, he finds a safe haven in his conscience and comes upon God there. But if he does not find tranquility in his conscience because of increased iniquity and because God is no longer there, what then will a man do? Where will he turn when sorrows begin visiting him? Whether he goes away from the field into the city, or from a populated place into his home, or into a place of the greatest solitude, – sorrows will follow him everywhere. He has nowhere to turn except within himself. But if there, too, he finds agitation, the smoke of untruth, the fire of iniquity, then he cannot find rest there, either.”
Lechers, moneygrubbers, the rich, and the ambitious – all bear their crosses. In all of those states there is something which causes sorrow and suffering. Carnal sin has the characteristic of stinging the one who engages in it. St. John of Tobolsk offers the following comparison: “Carnal delight is like a bee which, while delivering sweet honey, pricks a person with its sharp sting.” And wealth is often labeled as bramble in the Gospel: just as brambles prick and bring pain, so is wealth acquired with great effort and guarded with great fear, while the loss of wealth is united with great suffering. A rich man is constantly concerned over acquiring or guarding his wealth. And is not an ambitious man to be pitied? In order to attain power over people, he must first become a slave and demean himself before others.
Even marriage has its own cross. The hierarch of Tobolsk lists the reasons why marriage has its cross. One of the blessings of marriage is the indivisibility of the wedded union, yet this also constitutes a fettering to some degree. St. John writes: “Each of the spouses is fettered by the concerns imposed upon each one by the wedded union, which deprives the spouses of freedom by the fact that none of them is self-ruling any longer, but their power is divided among the both of them.” Children, on one hand, are a comfort to their parents, but on the other hand they are a source of grief and tears. The hierarch explains: “Whether children are born or not, whether they remain alive or die, they equally bring sadness to the parents. One man has many children, but not enough food for them, while another does not have an inheritor to his estate, which he had acquired by dint of great effort. From one man death has snatched a meek and beloved son, while another’s living son is depraved, and thus both men are worthy of compassion when one cries over his son’s death and another over his son’s life.”
St. John of Tobolsk teaches that man must prepare himself for the way of the cross. The Lord said that whoever wishes to follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross. St. John explains that self-denial involves three actions: denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ.
What does it mean for a person to deny himself?
A person denies himself when he makes himself over through repentance – he rejects the “old man,” i.e. the kind of person he had made himself through sin, and becomes the kind of person he had been created by grace. For example, if someone was full of pride, but then turned around and became humble, that means he denied himself. If a lecher turned to a life of abstinence, that means he denied himself. If a greedy man ceased amassing riches and began to give them away to the poor, such a one has truly denied himself. Archbishop John offers the following example of self-denial from a homily on repentance by St. Ambrose of Milan:
“A certain youth, wishing to rid himself of sinful love for a prostitute, went off to a distant land. When his passion quieted within him, he returned to his home country, and meeting his former beloved, paid no attention to her. The prostitute, quite surprised at this, thought that perhaps he did not recognize her, and coming up to him she said: “I am so-and-so.” “But I am no longer the same person,” – replied the youth and departed from her.
The Cross – confirmation of the faithful. How to follow the way of the cross?
With what attitude of soul should we accept and carry our cross? What are the conditions of genuine and salvific crossbearing? What kind of cross should we bear, and what is the duration of our crossbearing?
St. John describes all this in great detail. The cross should be taken up without delay. Crossbearing should never be put off. Some people intend to seriously take up spiritual life when they reach a venerable age or when their children grow up. Archbishop John ponders this: “Is it fair to give one’s young years to the world, and to God only one’s unfashionable old age; to give to the world one’s entire life and the strength of one’s powers, and dedicate to God only one’s decrepit flesh, exhausted by passions? Of what praise will you be worthy, if you dedicate to prayer and spiritual labors only a body that has been accustomed to a pampered life and is burdened with old age? A crown is earned only where there is combat and heavy spiritual labors.” But perhaps, without postponing the labor of crossbearing until old age, one could still delay it for at least a few years? To this the hierarch replies: “If a person could know in advance the time of his departure from this world, he could then give part of his life to the world and its delights, and dedicate the rest to the cross and repentance. But God, Who had promised heaven to the crossbearer and forgiveness to the penitent, did not promise even tomorrow to the lazy and inconstant ones… All ages are pleasing to God, but youth most of all… If you take on the Lord’s yoke too late, then instead of acquiring grace you will have to spend your time in repenting over your past life.”
Concerning the kind of cross we bear, we have no choice – “whichever one is sent, that is the one we have to bear. We must remember that the beginning of the cross and of every sorrow comes from God, Who is not only Absolute Goodness, but also the primary Source of all good. Nothing evil comes from Him” – He is All-good. His power is beneficial and salvific. The end of crossbearing is also good, since it always leads to goodness and salvation. For this reason, any cross sent by God cannot be evil. One should not feel ashamed of one’s cross, but rather bear it good-naturedly. This means that wherever we find the chance to bear the cross, we should take it up with joy. The cross should be carried without any vanity. The Lord looks not at what a man does, but with what intent he does it. Along the way of the cross we should remember above all that in all our actions our intent should be right, in order that all proceed towards God. One should not bear the cross on one’s own or rush ahead, but one should go along with Christ and His servitors. When we carry the cross without a guide or instructor, we rely on our own mind. St. John of Tobolsk explains that “a soldier going into battle does not choose his own way. He does not do things of his own accord, in order not to fall away from his banner, but follows a leader appointed by the king. He follows his orders and carrying his arms proceeds as prescribed, and thus accomplishes his mission properly.”
“Why is it wrong to ascend into heaven according to one’s own will?” – asks Stravrophila. The angel replies to her with the words of the venerable Elder Mark: “Because one’s own will is the leg of pride, and with it no one was able to ascend into heaven. Whoever goes along willfully and without reasoning and the instruction of the Gospel, such a person will stumble a great deal. Many people undertook great spiritual labors, underwent much deprivation and suffering for God’s sake, but because they acted willfully, without reasoning, and thought that they did not need help and instruction from others, all their efforts turned out to be fruitless and in vain.” One should not grumble about one’s cross being too heavy. It only seems great. In reality it is not so, but only seems to be so to those who do not look upon it properly. People are agitated and suffer not so much from the cross itself, but because they have a wrong perception of it. It happens that one and the same cross is placed upon two people. To the earnest person it seems light, while to the fainthearted one it seems heavy. The cross is one and the same, but the difference is in the perception of it. We always think that our grief and our cross are the heaviest. Thus, someone who suffers from his eyes, believes his illness to be the most unbearable. Whoever suffers from whatever will always believe his own suffering to be the worst in the world.
The cross must be borne daily. St. John instructs us: “The cross is of great duration, but do not abandon it, for your reward will be eternal. Constancy will sweeten the very effort. If someone exercises in something daily, that exercise becomes increasingly easier with time, and then the habit itself will turn into nature… Those who sail the sea for the first time are agitated and fearful, not being used to it, while those who have sailed many times and have experienced numerous tempests, bad weather, various dangers and shipwrecks, feel calmer in their ships than many do who remain on land… Daily labors and patience ease the heaviness of sorrows for us.” The archbishop then explains that not a single cross will seem protracted to us if we give it width, length, and height. The width is love – it only does good and makes sure that the good that was done does not perish. The depth lies in courage and long-suffering. To measure the height of the cross means to project one’s mind upward, towards the Lord God. Whether we wish it or not, we must still bear our cross and sorrows. If we bear them with gratitude, we will then earn the greatest rewards, while if we become impatient and grumble, then not only will we not ease our burden, but we will make it even heavier. As we bear our cross, we should remember that another necessary ingredient is prayer. Prayer greatly eases the cross and provides help in all sorrow. The more a Christian appeals to God, the less he thinks of his sorrows. Whoever has his mind aspiring constantly towards God can no longer pay too much attention to the sorrows of the cross.
In his work St. John speaks of the motivations for crossbearing. He explains his thoughts with the following idea: “During the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ there were four crossbearers, but all of them bore this burden with different motivations. The two thieves who were brought out with the Lord bore their crosses in order to receive just deserts for their deeds… Simon of Cyrinea bore the Lord’s cross like a hireling… and the Lord Himself, in bearing His cross, was primarily concerned with pleasing the Heavenly Father and fulfilling His will.” The hierarch points out three motivations: the first one – that of a sinner – to accept and bear the cross as punishment for one’s sins; the second one – that of a hireling – to carry the cross in hopes of a reward; and the third – filial – to bear the cross not out of fear of execution and not in the hopes of remuneration, but out of pure love, in order to please God. In this we see the three degrees of crossbearing: fear, hope, and love. The hierarch of Tobolsk writes in this regard: “Here, in short, is the difference in these three degrees: the one who is moved by fear bears his cross patiently; the one who excels in hope bears it willingly; while the one who has attained the perfection of love embraces it with ardent zeal.”
Let us ponder these ideas of the hierarch.
First of all, we must bear our cross as a punishment. Does not man, who offends God every minute, deserve punishment? If we accept the fact that we have received our cross for what we have done, then we will endure it good-naturedly. In the face of all kinds of crosses and all kinds of sorrows, it is useful to keep in our hearts and our minds the thought that we are suffering justly because we have sinned.
Secondly, in bearing our cross we must have hope of reward. The soul which hopes for reward endures everything willingly, and from among everything that it endures it counts nothing worthy of comparison with future benefits; thus it joyfully accepts everything, in order to receive that for which it hopes. Every effort seems lighter when it is expected to be rewarded. If people work so strenuously for their daily subsistence, what kind of labors would they not undergo for the sake of eternal life?
Thirdly, the cross should be borne out of love for Christ. True love does not feel bitterness, but rather sweetness. Whoever loves does not become fatigued, because for a loving heart all effort is pleasant. Whoever works for God with a love which expels fear, such a one does not feel the burden, does not experience the sorrow, does not seek reward. For those who have acquired love for God, neither fire, nor sword, nor poverty, nor illness, nor death seem burdensome.
St. John of Tobolsk teaches that the cross should be borne with joy and with thankfulness: “It is not surprising to thank God in times of well-being, but when a man who is overwhelmed with woes and sorrows in the sea of life offers thanks to God – that is a true sign of great endurance and good disposition. Even idol worshippers and pagans know how to offer thanks for benefits, but only Christians offer thanks for their crosses, sorrows, and tribulations… A single “thank God,” uttered in the midst of misfortune means much more than a thousand expressions of gratitude offered in the midst of fortune.” St. John repeats the profoundest thought of St. John Chrysostome, who compares those who offer thanks in misfortune with martyrs for Christ: “There is nothing holier than the tongue which thanks God in misfortune. Such a person is truly on a par with the martyrs and receives an equal crown with them. For before him, too, there stands a tormentor, who pressures him to renounce God through blasphemy; there stands the devil, who torments him with painful thoughts and clouds his heart with sorrow. Thus the one who suffers sorrow and thanks God receives a martyric crown.”
In concluding the second part of his teaching on the cross, Metropolitan John speaks of three forms of crucifixion: crucifixion of the flesh, crucifixion in respect to the world, and co-crucifixion with Christ. Before going on to the fruits of crossbearing, let us briefly turn our attention to these three forms of crucifixion.
(1) Crucifixion of the flesh. We are speaking here of the fact that not all of us are slated to be actually crucified on a cross. Only some of God’s very elect received such a fate. We must imitate Christ by figuratively crucifying our flesh through suppression of all its passions and lusts.
(2) Crucifixion in respect to the world. We crucify ourselves in respect to the world only when the prince of the world, i.e. the devil, comes and does not find anything of his own in us. And the world will crucify itself in respect to us when we refuse to accept any sinful desires. Love for Christ’s cross engenders life, while love for the world leads to death. Thus it is necessary for us to become mutually dead to each other: we to the world and the world to us. In speaking of this world we do not mean nature, the heavens and earth, but rather sinful everyday deeds – human glory, honors, praise, wealth, delights. The Lord’s words on this subject are quite apt: “If the world hates you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:18-19).
(3) Co-crucifixion with Christ. How can we become co-crucified with Christ? St. John of Tobolsk speaks of Apostle Paul, who said: “Yet not I live, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). The hierarch clarifies this with the following example: “A branch that is cut off its natural tree and grafted to another, dies completely for its original tree, but continues to live only through the second one to which it is grafted, and receives its life and energy from it. Similarly the one who becomes grafted to Christ and the tree of crucifixion dies for his former earthly life, and receiving the power of grace and virtue only from Him, lives a new life in Him.”
Cross – glory of the angels and wounding of the demons.
What are the fruits of crossbearing?
St. John does not limit his teaching only to explaining the need for crossbearing and describing how to bear the cross and the sorrows. He also speaks of the numerous fruits of crossbearing, both in this life and in the next. By means of the cross the Lord cuts off the causes and motivations for future sinning. St. John writes: “Foreseeing that some may greatly sin, the Lord visits bodily illnesses upon them, in order that they not sin, since it is more beneficial for them to suffer illnesses that lead to salvation than remain in good health leading to perdition of the soul. Many people in illness retain purity of morality, while in health they fall into vice; in the course of a bodily illness they refrain from offending anyone, but as soon as they regain their strength, they proceed to offend and insult innocent people. O, how many people become iniquitous in health, who in bodily suffering were estranged from vice! Illnesses cut off the sinning.”
The cross not only restrains from sin, but generally vanquishes the devil. The cross is an invincible weapon against Satan; it is a helmet protecting the head, a shield covering the breast, a plate of armor deflecting the enemy’s arrows, a sword which never allows the devil to attack man. The cross also cleanses us of sin – for this reason sorrows are oftentimes called cleansing. The hierarch says: “Like an ill person, who, by not allowing the doctor to cleanse his putrefied wound, becomes subject to even greater suffering, so the sinner, if he is not punished, is the unhappiest of all men.” Stavrophila asked the angel: “Why are people who lead unblemished lives often subjected to severe trials?” The angel replied: “Those who appear perfect to people, in the eyes of God still have some imperfections, from which the merciful heavenly Father cleanses them through His merciful wrath. Look at various artists. After creating an object, they show it to others, and inexperienced people find it perfect, but the artist himself knows what the object still lacks and corrects it… People who are not knowledgeable in art look at things one way, while the experienced artist looks at them differently. Similarly the holy men who please God appear to us to be sinless and perfect like the angels, but the Lord knows what is still lacking in them, and therefore sends them sorrows and trials for purification and improvement.”
The cross pours forth spiritual nourishment. St. John provides an example of this in the pressing of wine from grapes: “The grapes, for which a wine press is usually made, use the air freely while they still hang on their branches; but until they are put into the wine press and pressed, the grapes are not yet wine… How useful are grapes while they hang from their branches and have not yet been pressed into wine? They spoil very quickly or are eaten by birds, but when they are pressed, they turn into wine which is kept for a long time. Similarly a soul that is oppressed here by its cross and its sorrows will be preserved in the eternal dwellings.” The cross turns us into God’s temple. “God’s temple, – says St. John, – is not a building made of stone and clay, but a person who carries God’s image within him. Such a temple is not adorned with visible gold and precious stones, but rather with spiritual virtues, and these virtues are acquired through spiritual endeavors and sorrows. It is not surprising that even in physical temples the exterior appearance is that of a cross, i.e. that the churches built for the glory of the true God are usually cruciform in shape… Only those who are oppressed by sorrows, who suffer woes and illnesses, become the temples and dwellings of God.”
The cross unites one with Christ, and the Lord resides within sufferers. God’s presence may be recognized from the sorrow itself, because without Him who could have borne, who could have withstood, who could have endured the sorrow? St. John compares suffering with a ring: “Just as the ring is the sign of engagement, so the physical or moral suffering which people humbly undergo for the sake of God is a sign of their being among God’s elect and of the soul being engaged to God.”
St. John enumerates a whole series of other fruits of crossbearing, but we believe that most important for modern man is his reply to the following question: “For what will man receive the greater crown – for crossbearing and suffering, or for good deeds?” – “To do good and to endure suffering are both Christian duties. But even a small measure of suffering endured for the sake of God is incomparably more precious than many good deeds done without effort; and it is more beneficial for a person to patiently endure even a small measure of sorrow for the sake of God’s glory and love than to do great deeds without sorrow… By God’s providence, through suffering mankind has become reconciled with God, sin has been destroyed, and the heavens have opened…”
The venerable Anthony and Theodosius the Great erstwhile prophesied that in the end times zeal towards the labors of Christian life will weaken, and there will no longer be such holy fathers as those who shone forth in ancient times with their endeavors and grace-filled gifts. Piety will fade, and monastics will live in the world without differing in any way from laymen. But among these Christians of the end times, as the ancient holy fathers of the Church had prophesied, there will be those who will be saved through endurance of sorrows, i.e. their crossbearing. In God’s eyes they will be greater than all the great ascetics of ancient times.
DISCOURSE ON THE FALL
When God created the first people, He saw that “it was very good,” i.e. that with his love man aspired towards God, and that there were no contradictions in the created human being. Man represented complete unity of spirit, soul, and body – a single harmonious whole, i.e. man’s spirit aspired towards God, the soul was united with or freely subordinate to the spirit, and the body to the soul; there was unity of purpose, aspiration, and will. Man was sanctified and deified.
God’s will is precisely for man to freely, i.e. lovingly aspire towards God – the source of eternal life and rapture – and thus invariably remain in contact with God in the bliss of eternal life. Such was the state of Adam and Eve, who possessed an enlightened mind, so that “Adam knew each creature by name,” which meant that the physical laws of creation and the animal world, which we now know only partially and will know in the future, were revealed to him. But with their Fall the first people upset this harmony within themselves – the unity of spirit, soul, and body – and disrupted their nature. Unity of purpose, aspiration, and will ceased to exist.
In vain do some people wish to see a figurative meaning in the Fall, i.e. that the Fall resulted from physical love between Adam and Eve, forgetting that the Lord Himself commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply…” Moses clearly states that “Eve sinned first and not together with her husband,” – says Metropolitan Philaret. – “How could Moses write that, if he were writing an allegory, as some wish to see it?”
The essence of the Fall lay in that the forefathers, succumbing to temptation, ceased seeing the forbidden fruit as an object of God’s commandment, but began to look at it in relation to themselves, to their sensuality, their heart, and their mind, digressing from the unity of God’s truth into the multitude of their own thoughts and their own desires which were no longer concentrated within God’s will; in other words, digressing into lust. And lust, conceived in sin, begets actual sin. Eve, being tempted by the devil, saw the forbidden fruit not as it actually appeared, but as she wished it to appear, according to various forms of lust. What kinds of lust were manifested within Eve’s soul prior to her tasting the forbidden fruit? “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food,” i.e. she supposed the forbidden fruit to have a special and unusually pleasant taste, – this is lust of the flesh. “And that it was pleasant to the eyes,” i.e. the forbidden fruit seemed to the woman to be most desirable, – this is lust of the eyes or a passion for delight. “And a tree to be desired to make one wise,” i.e. the woman wished to taste that higher and divine knowledge which the seducer promised her, – this is earthly vanity.
The first sin was born in the senses through a desire for pleasant sensations and luxury; in the heart through a desire to experience delight without reason; in the mind through conceited thoughts of acquiring knowledge, and, in consequence, it permeated all aspects of man’s nature.
The disruption of human nature consists of sin having turned or torn the soul away from the spirit and, as a consequence, the soul has become attracted to the body and has become dependent on it, while the body, having lost the uplifting power of the soul and having been created out of chaos, has become attracted to sensuality, to chaos, to death. For this reason the result of sin is illness, destruction, and death. Man’s mind has become obscured, his will has weakened, his emotions have become distorted, contradictions have arisen within him, and man’s soul has lost its purposeful direction towards God.
Thus, having stepped outside the boundary set by God’s commandment, man turned his soul away from God, the true focus and fullness of everything, and established a false focus for the soul within its own self, imprisoned it in the darkness of sensuality and the coarseness of physical matter. Man’s mind, will, and activity rejected God, turned away from Him, and descended to the level of creatures, fell from the celestial to the terrestrial, from the invisible to the visible. Having been deceived by the temptation of the seducer, man voluntarily “became like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 48:12).
The disruption of human nature by the original sin, the alienation of man’s soul from his spirit, which even now pushes him towards sensuality and lust, are clearly expressed in the words of Apostle Paul: “For the good that I would, I do not do, but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (Rom. 7:19-20). Man constantly experiences the pangs of conscience in acknowledging his sinfulness and criminality. In other words: man cannot through his own efforts restore his nature, damaged and disrupted as it is by sin, but only with the help or intervention of God. This was the reason requiring the descent or coming down to earth of God Himself – the incarnation of the Son of God – in order to restore mankind’s fallen and corrupted nature, in order to save man from perdition and eternal death.
Why the Lord God allowed the first people to fall into sin. And if He allowed it, why did the Lord simply (“mechanically”) not return them after the fall to their former state of paradisiacal life?
The Almighty God could have undoubtedly prevented the fall of the first people, but He did not wish to suppress their freedom, because He did not wish to distort His own image in people. The image and likeness of God is primarily expressed in man’s free will.
This issue is very well explained by Professor Nesmelov: “In view of the fact that the impossibility of God’s saving people mechanically to many seems vague and even totally incomprehensible, we believe it necessary to provide a more detailed explanation of this impossibility. It was impossible to save the first people by preserving for them the conditions of life in which they had existed prior to the fall, because their perdition was not in the fact of their being mortal, but of their being transgressors. Thus, while they acknowledged their transgression, paradise was obviously closed to them precisely due to their cognizance of their own transgression. At the same time, had they forgotten their transgression, they would have only confirmed their sinfulness and, therefore, paradise would again have been closed to them due to their moral incapability of attaining the state in which they had originally been living in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, the first people were in no way able to reclaim their lost paradise – not because God did not wish it, but because their own moral state did not allow it.
But the children of Adam and Eve were not guilty of the transgression and could not feel themselves transgressors only on the basis of their parents’ having been such. Undoubtedly, then, the God Who was mighty enough to both create man and nurture a child could have taken Adam’s children out of a state of sinfulness and placed them into normal circumstances of moral development. But this, of course, required the following:
- The agreement of God to the destruction of the first people;
- The agreement of the first people to give up to God their rights to their children and to forever reject all hope of salvation;
- The agreement of the children to abandon their parents in a state of perdition.
Even if we allow the first two of these conditions to be somehow considered possible, the realization of the third condition is impossible under any circumstance. If the children of Adam and Eve would have truly decided to allow their father and mother to be destroyed by their transgression, they would thus have obviously shown themselves to be unworthy of paradise, and would have undoubtedly lost it.”
God could have destroyed the people who had sinned and created new ones, but would not the newly-created people, possessing free will, have likewise gone on to sin? God, however, did not want to allow His newly-created man to have been created in vain, but wanted him, in his albeit very distant progeny, to vanquish the evil which he had allowed to triumph over him. The Omniscient God does not do anything in vain. With His pre-eternal mind the Lord God encompassed the entire plan of universal creation; and His pre-eternal plan included the incarnation of His Only-begotten Son for the salvation of fallen mankind.
It was necessary to recreate fallen mankind precisely with compassion, with love, in order not to violate man’s free will; to ensure that man would wish to return to God of his own accord and not through constraint or necessity, for in such a case men could not become worthy sons of God. In God’s pre-eternal concept people were to become like unto Him, in order to be participants in eternal life with Him.
Such was the wisdom and goodness of the Omnipotent Lord God, Who did not disdain to come down to sinful earth, to take upon Himself our corrupted flesh, solely in order to save us and return us to the paradisiacal bliss of eternal life.
MODERN-DAY HERESY OF ICONOCLASM
Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council
Today, dear brethren, the Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council. At different times throughout the year, the Holy Fathers of the other six councils are likewise commemorated. The Church has decreed that the ecumenical councils be remembered, first of all, in order to honor the great Church Fathers, who, guided by the Holy Spirit, have labored so earnestly to cleanse the Church of iniquitous heresies and to restore the truth of Church dogmas. But that is not the only reason. It is also very important for us not to forget the work of the ecumenical councils because, although all the heresies that were examined at the councils were absolutely condemned by the Holy Fathers, these heresies have not disappeared from church life.
These heresies exist among us even today, the sole difference being that, on a par with the microbes and viruses which have so proliferated in the surrounding environment, these heresies have mutated, have adapted themselves to current times, have taken on contemporary forms. It is, therefore, very important for us, while appreciating the fact that we are within the true Church, and remembering the efforts of the Holy Fathers in this matter, to acquaint ourselves with the heresies which the Fathers have condemned, and to try to discern them in our contemporary life, in order to avoid being ensnared by them.
The Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, whom we commemorate today, condemned the heresy of iconoclasm. This heresy originated in the early 8th century, when the Greek Emperor Leo III decreed that all holy icons be taken out of the churches and homes, and burned in the city squares. The decree was motivated by a false belief that the veneration of icons was a form of idolatry. When the people began to resist this decree, to the persecution of icons Emperor Leo added the persecution of venerators, and many of the faithful were tortured and killed at that time. Nevertheless, the people continued to revolt against the Emperor’s decree, and prominent theologians of those times wrote from all sides, denouncing Emperor Leo: as, for example, St. John Damascene from Syria and Pope Gregory II from Rome.
After the death of Emperor Leo, his son and successor, Constantine Copronimus, continued the iconoclastic efforts of his father, but decided to try a different approach. He convoked a false council, at which the clergy that he had set up condemned the veneration of icons. As a result of this false council, not only did icons continue to be destroyed, but also priceless frescoes on the walls of famous cathedrals were plastered over. From persecution of icons Constantine turned to a persecution of holy relics, and then to a persecution of monasteries, which were all either destroyed or turned into barracks, while all the monks were brutally martyred.
The heresy of iconoclasm continued practically throughout the 8th century, and only towards the end of it, during the reign of the pious Empress Irene, the veneration of icons was restored. Through the efforts of the Empress, backed by the Patriarch of Constantinople Tarasius, the 7th Ecumenical Council, attended by more than 300 bishops, was convoked in A.D. 787. The council fully condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, condemned the false council that had been convoked by Copronimus, and triumphantly restored the veneration of icons by establishing the principle that in honoring icons we honor and venerate those who are depicted on them.
Centuries passed, dear brethren, and iconoclasm seemed to be a thing of the past, but in the 20th century it raged anew with great force in the Christian countries that had been subjugated by godless Communism. And once again one could see icons being burned, churches and monasteries being destroyed and defiled, the clergy and the faithful being martyred.
But now everything appears to be quiet again, and it seems that this heresy has finally disappeared for good, since nowhere apparently are holy icons being destroyed, nor is anyone being martyred for venerating them. And yet, dear brethren, iconoclasm continues to live on, it has not disappeared, it is alive and active, it has simply changed its form. For the devil is quite cunning: he has seen that open persecution of icons simply engenders martyrdom, which does not suit his plans at all. And so he has decided upon a different approach. Instead of suppressing the veneration of icons, he has decided to replace this veneration with another kind of worship.
This is in accordance with the same principle on which the Antichrist will operate. In Greek the word “anti” not only means “against,” but also “in place of.” Thus, after appearing in the world, the Antichrist will not only act against Christ, but also instead of Christ, i.e. he will set himself up in Christ’s place. The devil has applied the same method to iconoclasm: instead of struggling against icons, he has put forth other objects of worship in place of icons.
What are these anti-icons which we see around us, dear brethren? Regard: in the majority of contemporary homes you will rarely see true icons – icons of the Saviour, of the Theotokos, of the saints. At best, and only in the homes of the faithful, somewhere in the corner, in accordance with ancient custom, you will see one small icon, which often, moreover, embarrasses us in front of visitors of different faiths. But in the majority of homes, particularly in the rooms of young people, you will surely find pictures of rock singers, actors, and other contemporary idols. Even in modern technology computer images are called “icons.” It is these anti-icons which the devil slips to us in the place of true icons. And the same principle applies in this case: in honoring these images we honor those who are depicted on them. Thus it turns out that instead of God we worship idols. So cunningly has the devil ensnared us!
Dear brethren! Let us reject these anti-icons of the anti-religion of the coming Antichrist. And, in commemorating today the Holy Fathers of the 7th council, those great fighters for the true veneration of icons, let us follow their example: let us restore the veneration of icons in our hearts, in our lives, in our homes. Let us come to church, where the Lord Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the saints – all look upon us so tenderly, where we can communicate with them directly by venerating their images. And in our homes let us, without any embarrassment, hang up in the most prominent places icons of the Saviour, the Theotokos, various saints – who protect us from evil, guard our homes, look after us; with whom we can always “converse” by means of prayer, share our joys and our sorrows, ask for help; so that even when we are alone at home, we are never lonely. Thus, through the veneration of icons, let us communicate with the heavenly dwellers, so that we, too, may some day become denizens of the heavenly realm. Amen.
(Homily for the feast of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope, Charity, and Sophia)
Several times already, dear brethren, I have pointed out to you the wonderful connection which exists between the Sunday Gospel readings. The last three Sundays are a great example of this interrelation. Today we celebrate the feast of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope, Charity, and their mother Sophia. These holy martyrs are extraordinary not only in themselves, as three young maidens, girls actually, who courageously endured cruel torture for the sake of Christ and thus put to shame even the Roman Emperor himself; and their mother, who, while suffering inner torment and anguish, against her own maternal nature encouraged and inspired her beloved daughters to endure martyrdom. These holy martyrs also have a deep symbolic meaning for the Christian Church.
The girls bear the names of the three greatest Christian virtues – faith, hope, and charity – and are born of their mother Sophia, whose name means “wisdom.” Therein lies the depth of meaning: it is precisely spiritual wisdom which gives birth to these virtues in us, nurtures them in us, and helps us bear spiritual fruit from them. And the way all of this actually takes place in life can be seen in the Gospel readings of the past three weeks.
In the first place we see before us the woman of Canaan, who seeks help for her tormented daughter. The woman of Canaan turns out to be wise enough to understand that help can be received only through special, even supernatural, means. And in trying to obtain this help, this simple woman exhibits the three virtues of faith, hope, and charity. She has faith in that the Lord can help her with a single word; she has absolute hope that He will take pity on her, even despite His seeming indifference to her plight; and she has such great love for her daughter that she is ready to humble herself, to endure all possible humiliation, all possible insult, in order to get her wish. And we see the fruit of her wisdom and her virtuousness: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wishest.”
The following Sunday we hear of how Christ rewards His disciples with a miraculous catch of fish. This reward is given to them also in response to their exhibiting the three virtues. The apostles spent the whole night fishing in the Sea of Galilee without catching anything. The Lord commands them to launch out into the deep and let down their nets. The apostles were experienced fishermen and knew the laws of the sea well: if the fish could not be caught during the night, there would certainly be no catch during the day. But they did not argue with Christ or contradict Him; instead, they obediently did what He told them to do. Why? Because they, despite being simple fishermen, exhibited great wisdom: they had faith that according to Christ’s words even the supernatural could occur; they had hope that their faith would not be in vain; and they had such great love for their wondrous Master that they were ready to obey Him absolutely. And what happened? The same thing happened to them as to the woman of Canaan – a veritable miracle occurred! The boats were so overflowing with fish that they began to sink, while the disciples were caught into the net of even greater service to Christ: from catchers of fish they became catchers of human souls.
And finally, in today’s Gospel reading the Lord directly summons us to show wisdom: to have enough wisdom to understand that which in human terms is completely incomprehensible, even unnatural perhaps: the Lord summons us to love our enemies and to do good unto those who hate us. To us that seems impossible, even unbearable: how can we love people who blaze with anger at us?! But herein lies spiritual wisdom. We must determine very clearly the source of malice, enmity, and hate. They arise from the evil spirits, who are evil themselves, who hate mankind, and try their utmost to sow discord among people. And every person who is in a state of anger and enmity is ensnared in the devil’s net. For this reason it is extremely important to be able to distinguish between the person himself and his sins. If we truly love our neighbors, then seeing them in a state of anger we can only pity them for being ensnared by the demons, and in pitying them we would only be glad to show them our love and do something good for them, in order to help them free themselves from such entanglement. And in the process of doing so it suddenly becomes clear to us how it is possible to love one’s enemies and do good unto those who hate us.
Dear brethren, let us exhibit there three virtues – faith, hope, and charity – towards God, our Lord Jesus Christ, towards our neighbors; let us follow the Lord’s commandments which we have heard in today’s Gospel reading – to love our enemies, and be charitable towards them, and to lend without expecting anything in return; then we, too, will earn the great reward promised by the Lord – to become the children of the Highest and to inherit the Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.
AN ANCIENT MIRACLE
The Battle of Kulikovo (September 8, 1380)
The Tatar yoke over Russia lasted for 200 years, and this battle was the turning point after which Russia began its liberation from the power of the Tatars. A description of the battle was retained in ancient monastic chronicles.
On September 6th the Russian host approached the Don River, and the princes and boyars began to discuss whether they should wait there for the Tatars or go on further. Opinions were divided, but Prince Dimitri was for advancing. “I did not come here to watch over the Don River, but to deliver the Russian land from captivity. It would be better for us not to go out against the Tatars, than to come, accomplish nothing, and go back. Today we will cross the Don, and we will either be victorious, or we will give up our lives for the holy Church and for our brothers.” That same day Prince Dimitri received a message from St. Sergius of Radonezh, blessing him for the battle and advising him not to lose time.
On September 7th Prince Dimitri ordered his troops to find a good place for the cavalry to ford the river and to throw over bridges for the infantry to cross. On the following morning there was dense fog, but it soon cleared up, and the troops crossed the Don. The Russian regiments stood in a long line seven miles across, so that its ends abutted against places that were inaccessible to the enemy – gullies and swamps. In the middle of the line stood the main regiment with Prince Dimitri’s company, guarding his red banner with a golden image of the Saviour. On the left flank a reserve regiment under the command of Prince Vladimir was hidden within the woods.
Standing upon a tall hill, seeing the orderly rows of troops, the banners streaming in the wind, the glitter of weapons in the sun, and knowing that many thousands of these warriors would be killed, Dimitri began to fervently pray before the icon of the Saviour. Afterwards he rode through all the regiments and spoke with the warriors, calling them his loyal comrades and beloved brothers, and promising them honorable memory in the world and martyric crowns in heaven.
On September 8th, on the day of the feast of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos, the Russian host met with the hordes of Khan Mamai on a large field called Kulikovo. Commanders on both sides watched each other and slowly advanced. There were many more Tatars than Russians. The boyars pleaded with Dimitri to stay behind the main army, but Dimitri replied: “Where you will be, so shall I. If I hide in the back, how can I exhort you: brothers, let us die for the homeland”? He took off his gold-threaded cape, kissed the cross, ate the holy bread sent to him by St. Sergius, and went into battle.
The battle began with single combat. St. Sergius had sent off with Prince Dimitri two of his monastics, former warriors, Peresvet and Oslyabya. When a huge warrior by the name of Chelibeizi rode out from the Tatar side and began to call the Russians out to combat, Peresvet galloped out of the ranks and rode hard at him. They struck each other with such force that both fell down. Then Prince Dimitri went at the Tatars, loudly reciting the psalm “God is our refuge and strength.”
The fierce battle spread over seven miles. The ranks became mixed up. First the Russians drove back the Tatars, then the Tatars drove back the Russians. Almost the entire Russian front regiment was destroyed. The Tatars began to advance upon the center and managed to undercut the wooden staff holding the Russian banner, but the Russians were able to recapture it. Then the Tatars decided to break through the Russian lines and struck with all their forces at the right flank. The main regiment in the middle of the Russian line was in danger of being outflanked. It was at this point that Prince Vladimir ordered his reserve regiment to come out of the woods and attack the Tatars. This unexpected blow decided the fate of the battle. The Tatars were unable to withstand the new and fresh host, and Mamai saw his troops fleeing. Tradition holds it that he himself joined his fleeing warriors with the words: “Great is the Christian God!” Prince Vladimir then stood on the battlefield under the princely banner and ordered the trumpets to sound the battle cry of victory. Princes and commanders began to join him from all sides, but Dimitri was nowhere to be seen. Vladimir asked everyone about the whereabouts of his brother, but no one could answer him. They began to look for Dimitri, dead or alive, all over the battlefield and for a long time were unable to find him, but finally two warriors saw him lying under a tree. Having been stunned by a powerful blow, he fell from his horse and lost consciousness. Coming to his senses and seeing joyous faces all around him, Prince Dimitri gave fervent thanks to God and then, getting up on his horse, slowly rode over the entire battlefield, on which lay up to 200,000 Russian and Tatar warriors. Among the dead were many princes and both the monks sent by St. Sergius. In accordance with Prince Dimitri’s wishes, the Russian Church established a commemoration of all warriors killed at the Kulikovo battlefield to be held on St. Demetrius Saturday – the last Saturday before the feast day of the holy martyr-warrior St. Demetrius of Thessalonika on October 26th.
The Tatar yoke did not end with the Russian victory on the Kulikovo battlefield and continued for another 100 years, but the power of the Tatar hordes was broken, and the Russian people came to realize that with God’s help they could vanquish the Tatars. Such was the ancient miracle of September 8, 1380.
(Condensed version of the Battle of Kulikovo according to historian Karamzin)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On September 30th (the 17th by the old calendar) the Church joyously celebrates the feast of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope, Charity, and their mother Sophia.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, a young Christian widow by the name of Sophia lived in Rome. The name Sophia means wisdom. Sophia had three daughters, to whom she had given the names of the three greatest Christian virtues – faith, hope, and charity. She brought them up in these three virtues, and because the virtuous maidens were also very beautiful, they soon became known throughout the entire city of Rome.
Emperor Hadrian also heard about them and commanded them to be brought before him. Knowing in advance that the emperor would ask them about their religion, Sophia and her daughters earnestly prayed before going to the palace. There the haughty and cruel Hadrian was awaiting them in all his kingly splendor. Sophia and her daughters calmly came up to the throne, bowed before the emperor, and stood waiting for his questions.
As was customary, the emperor asked Sophia about her family, her name, and her faith. In response to the last question Sophia fearlessly declared herself to be a Christian and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ. Hadrian was at first amazed at Sophia’s courage and wisdom, and sent her, together with her daughters, to a certain noble woman, hoping that the latter would be able to talk them into renouncing Christ. But the woman indeed turned out to be noble, and realizing the danger that was in store for this Christian family, she did not hinder Sophia from spending the last days alone with her daughters, instructing them in faith and faithfulness to Christ even unto suffering and martyric death.
On the third day Hadrian once more called them before him, and admiring the beauty of the young maidens, he tried – first with kind words and promises to become their adoptive father, then with all manner of threats – to talk them into renouncing their faith. But the girls replied to him as one: “We have only one Father – our Lord and God – and we are His children. He takes care of us, while as for your threats – we do not fear them and are ready to suffer all kinds of tortures for Christ!” The girls spoke, interrupting one another, and their voices resounded with such noble courage that the emperor became embarrassed. He asked Sophia: “How old are your children?” Sophia replied: “The eldest, Faith, is twelve; the middle one, Hope, is ten; and the youngest, Charity, is only nine.”
And the emperor was amazed at the wisdom and courage of these children. Then he attempted to cajole each one of them in turn, and each one in turn he gave over to terrible tortures. But each little martyr steadfastly suffered for the Lord Jesus Christ, joyously waiting to be united with Him in heaven, and each one received a martyr’s crown through beheading.
Their noble mother, Sophia, standing there and suffering terribly at the sight of her daughters’ tortures, encouraged them and spurred them on to the Heavenly Realm, then collected the three bodies and piously buried them at her estate. Afterwards she spent three days without food or sleep at her daughters’ graves, entreating the Lord for a speedy reunion with her beloved daughters. And God heard her prayer: on the third day she peacefully reposed and passed into the other world, never again to be parted from her children.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Summary of the Orthodox teaching on the fate of the soul after death
“I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
Limitless and without consolation would have been our sorrow for our near ones who are dying, had not the Lord given us eternal life. Our life would be pointless if it ended with death. What benefit would there then be from virtue and good deeds? Then they would be correct who say: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” But man was created for immortality, and by His resurrection Christ opened the gates of the Heavenly Kingdom, of eternal blessedness for those who have believed in Him and have lived righteously. Our earthly life is a preparation for the future life, and this preparation ends with our death. “It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Then a man leaves all his earthly cares; the body disintegrates, in order to rise anew at the General Resurrection.
But his soul continues to live, and not for an instant does it cease its existence. By many manifestations of the dead it has been given us to know in part what occurs to the soul when it leaves the body. When the vision of its bodily eyes ceases, its spiritual vision begins.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in a message to his dying sister, writes: “You will not die. Your body will die, but you will go over into a different world, being alive, remembering yourself, and recognizing the whole world that surrounds you.”
After death the soul is more, not less, alive and aware than before death. St. Ambrose of Milan teaches: “Since the life of the soul remains after death, there remains a good which is not lost by death but is increased. The soul is not held back by any obstacle placed by death, but is more active, because it is active in its own sphere without any association with the body, which is more of a burden than a benefit to it.”
St. Abba Dorotheus, the 6th century monastic Father of Gaza, summarizes the teaching of the early Fathers on this subject: “For as the Fathers tell us, the souls of the dead remember everything that happened here – thoughts, words, desires – and nothing can be forgotten. But, as it says in the Psalm, ‘In that day all their thoughts shall perish’ (Ps. 145:4). The thoughts he speaks of are those of this world, about houses and possessions, parents and children, and business transactions. All these things are destroyed immediately when the soul passes out of the body… But what he did against virtue or against his evil passions, he remembers, and nothing of this is lost… In fact, the soul loses nothing that it did in this world, but remembers everything at its exit from this body more clearly and distinctly once freed from the earthliness of the body.”
The great 5th-century monastic Father, St. John Cassian, sets forth quite clearly the active state of the soul after the death of the body, in answer to the early heretics who believed the soul was unconscious after death:
“Souls after the separation from this body are not idle, do not remain without consciousness; this is proved by the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus… The souls of the dead not only do not lose their consciousness, they do not even lose their dispositions – that is, hope and fear, joy and grief, and something of that which they expect for themselves at the Universal Judgment they begin already to foretaste… They become yet more alive and more zealously cling to the glorification of God. And truly, if we were to reason on the basis of the testimony of the Sacred Scripture concerning the nature of the soul, in the measure of our understanding, would it not be folly to suspect even in the least that the most precious part of man (that is, the soul), in which, according to the blessed Apostle, the image and likeness of God is contained, after putting off this fleshy coarseness in which it finds itself in the present life, should become unconscious – that part which, containing in itself the whole power of reason, makes sensitive by its presence even the dumb and unconscious matter of the flesh? Therefore it follows, and the nature of reason itself demands, that the spirit after casting off this fleshy coarseness by which now it is weakened, should bring its mental powers into better condition, should restore them as purer and more refined, but should not be deprived of them.”
Today’s “after-death” experiences have made men shockingly aware of the consciousness of the soul outside the body, of the keener and quicker state of its mental faculties. But this awareness itself is not enough to protect one in that state from being deceived by appearances in the “out-of-body” realm; one must be in possession of the full Christian doctrine on this subject.
The beginning of spiritual vision
Often this spiritual vision begins in the dying even before death, and while still seeing those around them and even speaking with them, they see what others do not see.
This experience of the dying has been noticed throughout the ages, and its occurrence among the dying today is nothing new. Often the dying person begins to see departed relatives and friends, although the actual nature of the images of the departed which then appear is perhaps known to God alone. Apparently God grants this experience as the most evident way to inform the dying person that the other world is not, after all, a totally strange place, that life in the other world is also characterized by the love that one has for one’s close ones. Bishop Theophan expresses this touchingly in his words to his dying sister: “There father and mother, brothers and sisters will meet you. Bow to them, and give them our greetings, and ask their prayers for us. Your children will surround you with their joyous greetings. It will be better for you there than here.”
Encounters with the spirits
But when it leaves the body, the soul finds itself among other spirits, good and evil. Usually it inclines toward those which are more akin to it in spirit, and if while in the body it was under the influence of certain ones, it will remain in dependence upon them when it leaves the body, however unpleasant they may turn out to be upon encountering them.
Here we are solemnly reminded that the other world, even though it will not be totally strange to us, will not be simply a pleasant meeting with loved ones in a “summerland” of happiness, but a spiritual encounter which will test the disposition of our soul in this life – whether it has become more inclined towards the angels and saints through a life of virtue and obedience to God’s commandments, or whether by its negligence or unbelief in has made itself more fit for the company of fallen spirits. Bishop Theophan the Recluse has well said that even the trial at the aerial toll-houses may well turn out to be less one of accusation than of temptations.
While the fact of judgment in the next life is quite without doubt – both the particular judgment immediately after death, and the Last Judgment at the end of the world – the outward sentence of God will only answer the inward disposition which the soul has developed in itself towards God and the spiritual beings.
The first two days after death
For the course of two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day it moves into other spheres.
This teaching has been known to the Church since the 4th century, when the angel who accompanied St. Macarius of Alexandria in the desert told him, in explaining the Church’s commemoration of the dead on the third day after death: “When an offering is made in church on the third day, the soul of the departed receives from its guardian angel relief from the sorrow it feels as a result of the separation from the body… In the course of the two days the soul is permitted to roam the earth, wherever it wills, in the company of the angels that are with it. Therefore the soul, loving the body, sometimes wanders about the house in which his body had been laid out, and thus spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul goes about those places in which it was wont to do good deeds. On the third day, He Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day commands the Christian soul, in imitation of His resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all.”
St. John Damascene, in the Orthodox funeral service, vividly describes the state of the soul, parted from the body but still on earth, helpless to contact the loved ones whom it can see: “Woe is me! What manner of ordeal doth the soul endure when it is parted from the body! Alas! How many then are in tears, and there is none to show compassion! It raiseth its eyes to the angels; all unavailing in its prayer. It stretcheth out its hands to men, and findeth none to succor. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, meditating on the brevity of our life, let us beseech of Christ rest for him who hath departed hence, and for our souls great mercy.”
Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in a letter to the husband of his dying sister, writes: “But sister herself will not die: the body dies, but the personality of the dying one remains. It only goes over to another order of life… It is not she whom they will put in the grave. She is in another place. She will be just as alive as she is now. In the first hours and days she will be around you. Only she will not say anything, and you won’t be able to see her; but she will be right here. Have this in mind. We who remain weep over the departed, but for them it is immediately easier; that condition is a happier one. Those who have died and then have been brought back into the body have found it to be a very uncomfortable dwelling. Sister will feel this also. She is better off there; and we are in agony, as if some kind of tragedy has happened with her! She will look and surely be astonished at this.”
It should be kept in mind that this description of the first two days of death constitutes a general rule which by no means covers all cases. In fact, the saints, being not at all attached to the things of this world and living in constant expectation of their passage to the other world, are not attracted even to the places of their good deeds, but immediately begin their ascent to heaven. Others begin their ascent before the end of the two days because of some special reason in God’s Providence. On the other hand, the contemporary “after-death” experiences, fragmentary as they are, all do fit into this rule: the “out-of-body” state is but the beginning of the soul’s initial period of bodiless wandering to the places of its earthly attachments; but none of these people has been dead long enough even to meet the two angels who are to accompany them.
Some critics of the Orthodox teaching on life after death find such variations from the general rule of after-death experiences to be proof of contradictions in the Orthodox teaching; but such critics are simply too literal-minded. The description of the first two days (and of succeeding days as well) is by no means any kind of dogma; it is surely a “model” which indeed sets forth the most common order of the soul’s experiences after death. The many cases, both in Orthodox literature and in accounts of modern experiences, where the dead have momentarily appeared to the living within the first day or two after death (sometimes in dreams) are examples of the truth that the soul does indeed usually remain close to earth for some short period. Genuine appearances of the dead after this first short period of the soul’s freedom are much rarer and are always for some specific purpose allowed by God, and not according to one’s own will. By the third day (and often sooner), this period comes to an end.
At this time (the third day), the soul passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called “toll-houses,” at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one the soul comes upon the next one, and only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without being immediately cast into gehenna. How terrible these demons and their toll-houses are may be seen in the fact that the Mother of God Herself, when informed by the Archangel Gabriel of Her approaching death, begged Her Son to deliver Her soul from these demons and, answering Her prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared from heaven to receive the soul of His Most Pure Mother and conduct it to heaven. This is visually depicted in the traditional Orthodox icon of the Dormition. Terrible indeed is the third day for the soul of the departed, and for this reason it especially needs prayer then for itself.
Here again we may note that descriptions of the toll-houses constitute a “model” of the soul’s experiences after death, and individual experiences of them may vary considerably. Minor details such as the number of the toll-houses are, of course, quite secondary compared to the primary fact that the soul does indeed experience a judgment (the Particular Judgment) soon after death as a final summary of the “unseen warfare” it has conducted (or failed to conduct) on earth against the fallen spirits.
Continuing his letter to the husband of his dying sister, Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes:
“In the departed there soon begins the struggle of going through the toll-houses. Here she needs help! Stand then in this thought, and you will hear her cry out to you: ‘Help!’ This is where you should direct all your attention and all your love for her. I think that it will be the truest testimony of love if, from the minute of the soul’s departure, leaving concern for the body to others, you will go off and, being by yourself wherever you can, you will immerse yourself in prayer for her in her new condition and her new, unexpected needs. Having begun thus, remain in unceasing crying out to God to help her, for the course of six weeks, and indeed for longer than that. In the account of Theodora, the bag from which the angels took in order to be separated from the tax-collectors was the prayers of her elder. Your prayers will be the same; do not forget to do this. This is love!”
The “bag of gold” with which the angels “paid the debts” of Blessed Theodora at the toll-houses has often been misunderstood by critics of the Orthodox teaching; it is sometimes mistakenly compared to the Latin notion of the “excess merits” of saints. Again, such critics are too literal-minded in their reading of Orthodox texts. Nothing else is referred to here than the prayers of the Church for the reposed, in particular the prayers of a holy man and spiritual father. The form in which this is described – it should hardly be necessary to say – is metaphorical.
The Orthodox Church regards the teaching of the toll-houses as of such importance that it has included references to it in many of its Divine services. In particular, the Church makes a special point of presenting this teaching to each one of its children who are dying; in the “Canon on the Departure of the Soul,” read by the priest at the deathbed of each of the faithful, there are the following troparia:
“As I depart from earth, vouchsafe me to pass unhindered by the prince of the air, the persecutor, the tormenter, he who stands on the frightful paths and is their unjust interrogator” (Canticle 4).
“Translate me, O Sovereign Lady, into the sacred and precious hands of the holy angels, that being covered by their wings, I may not see the shameless and foul and dark form of the demons” (Canticle 6).
“O Thou Who gavest birth to the Lord Almighty, remove far from me the chief of the bitter toll-houses, and ruler of the world, when I am about to die, that I may glorify Thee forever, O Holy Theotokos’ (Canticle 8).
Thus, the Orthodox Christian in dying is prepared by the Church’s words for the trials in front of him.
The forty days
Then, having successfully passed through the toll-houses and bowed down before God, the soul for the course of 37 more days visits the heavenly habitations and the abysses of hell, not knowing yet where it will remain, and only on the fortieth day is its place appointed until the resurrection of the dead.
It is certainly not strange that the soul, having passed through the toll-houses and finished for good with earthly things, should then be introduced to the truly other world, in one part of which it will spend eternity. According to the revelation of the angel to St. Macarius of Alexandria, the Church’s special commemoration of the departed on the ninth day after death occurs because up to then the soul is shown the beauties of Paradise, and only after this, for the remainder of the forty days, is it shown the torments and horrors of hell, before being assigned on the fortieth day to the place where it will await the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. These numbers, once again, constitute a general rule, or “model” of after-death reality, and undoubtedly not all the departed complete their course precisely according to the “rule.” We do know that Theodora, in fact, completed her “tour of hell” just on the fortieth day – as time is measured on earth.
(To be continued)
PATH TO SALVATION
How blessed are we, when we walk
Courageously, with steady steps,
With cheerfulness and tranquil soul
Along the thorny path of life;
When our faith’s not undermined
By craftily-inspired doubts,
When bitter hours of temptation
And all inevitable falls
Do not impede our earthly path
And, getting up, we firmly stand,
And to the gates of the unknown land
Are ready once again to march;
When not just our words and deeds,
But purity of even our thoughts
Will reach unprecedented heights,
Disdaining all the earthly things;
When lifting our very souls
Like incense to our great Creator,
With an unflagging spiritual struggle
We’ll conquer our very selves.
– Translated by Natalia Sheniloff