THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
A historical account of the Nativity
In the history of mankind there is no greater or more joyous event than the coming of the Son of God into the world and His incarnation. It is a manifestation of the boundless love of God the Father, Who “so loved the world that He gave up His Son for it, in order that all who believe in Him shall not perish, but shall have life eternal.”
The incarnation of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary radically changed the world for the better: it provided people with a new way of thinking, ennobled their mores, set world events upon a new course. It poured into the decrepit human organism a stream of Divine life and thus endowed people with eternal life. For these reasons the incarnation of the Son of God has occupied a central place among world events and serves as the focal point of chronology – time is counted before and after the Nativity of Christ.
Before Jesus Christ’s nativity there was universal expectation of a Saviour. The Jews awaited His coming on the basis of prophecies; the pagans, suffering from disbelief and a general laxity of morals, also eagerly awaited an Ameliorator of human society. All the prophecies concerning the time of the Son of God’s incarnation had come to pass. Patriarch Jacob had foretold that the Saviour would come when the scepter would depart from Judah (Genesis 49:10). The holy prophet Daniel foretold that the Kingdom of Messiah would come in seventy times seven years (490 years) after the issuance of the commandment to restore Jerusalem, during the period of the mighty pagan kingdom that would be strong as iron (Dan. 9:24-27).
And so it happened. By the end of the prophesied period of time, Judea came under the dominion of the mighty Roman Empire, while the scepter was transferred from Judah to Christ. Since the people, having abandoned God, began to idolize earthly goods, wealth, and glory, the Son of God rejected these worldly idols and came into the world in the humblest of circumstances.
The events of the Nativity are described by two Evangelists – the apostles Matthew (from among the 12) and Luke (from among the 70 disciples). Since the Evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Jews, he set himself the task to prove that the Messiah came from the forefathers Adam and King David, as it had been foretold by the prophets. For this reason the Evangelist Matthew begins his account of the Nativity of Christ with a genealogy.
Knowing that Jesus was not the son of Joseph, the evangelist does not say that Joseph begat Jesus, but says that Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, from Whom was born Jesus, Who is called Christ. But why does he present the genealogy of Joseph and not of Mary? The fact is that the Jews were not accustomed to record their genealogies along the female line. However, the law demanded that they obligatorily take a wife from the same tribe as the one to which the husband belonged, and so the evangelist, without departing from custom, presented the genealogy of Joseph, thus showing that Joseph’s wife Mary and, consequently, the Jesus Who was born from Her, come from the same tribe of Judah and house of David.
Having been told by the Archangel Gabriel that She was chosen to become the Mother of the Messiah, the Holy Virgin went off to see Elizabeth while still being only affianced to Joseph. Three months already passed after the Angel’s tidings. Joseph, not being privy to this mystery, noticed Her condition, and though the external appearance could give rise to thoughts of the bride’s unfaithfulness, and though he could publicly denounce Her and subject Her to the strict punishment instituted by the law of Moses, in his kindness he did not wish to employ such a drastic measure. After much wavering, he decided to let his bride depart in secret, without any outcry, granting Her a letter of divorce.
But an Angel appeared to him in a dream and announced to him that his affianced bride would give birth from the Holy Spirit, and that he should call the Son born to Her Jesus, i.e. Saviour, since He will save His people from their sins. Joseph accepted this dream as a vision from above, obeyed it, took Mary in as his wife, but lived with Her not as husband and wife, but as brother and sister, or rather, taking into account the great difference in their ages, as father and daughter. Speaking of this, the evangelist adds: “And all of this took place in order that everything be fulfilled that had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, who says: Behold, a Virgin shall be with Child and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The name Emmanuel means “God is with us.” At this point Isaiah does not call the One born from the Virgin Emmanuel, but say that thus shall people call Him, i.e. they will say that the Lord Himself has come down to earth.
The evangelist Luke notes that the time of Christ’s Nativity coincided with a census of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, which was done by order of Caesar Augustus, i.e. Roman Emperor Octavian, who had received from the Roman Senate the title of Augustus – “the sacred one.” The edict concerning the census was issued in 746 from the foundation of Rome, but in Judea the census began in circa 750, in the last years of the reign of Herod, called the Great.
The Jews recorded their genealogies according to tribes and houses. This custom was so strong that having learned of Augustus’ decree, they each went to be recorded in the city of their provenance. Joseph and the Virgin Mary, as is well-known, came from the house of David, and thus they had to go down to Bethlehem, which was called the city of David, because David was born there.
Thus was fulfilled, by God’s Providence, the ancient prophecy of the Prophet Micah that Christ would precisely be born in Bethlehem: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel, and Whose provenance is from the beginning, from the days everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
According to Roman law, women were subject to a head count for the census on a par with men. For this reason Joseph did not go alone to Bethlehem to be recorded, but together with the Holy Virgin. The unexpected travel to the hometown of Bethlehem and, moreover, a travel on the eve of the Infant’s birth, served to convince Joseph of the fact that Caesar’s decree on the census was a tool in the hands of Providence, ensuring that Mary’s Son would be born precisely in the place predestined for the birth of Messiah the Saviour.
After an exhausting journey, the old Joseph and the Virgin Mary came to Bethlehem, but there was no place in the inn for the future Mother of the world’s Saviour, and thus She and Her fellow traveler were forced to settle themselves in a cave used as shelter in bad weather for grazing cattle. Here, during the winter night, in the humblest of circum-stances, was born the Saviour of the world – Christ.
After giving birth to Her Son, the Holy Virgin swaddled Him Herself and put Him in the manger. With these brief words the evangelist lets us know that the Mother of God gave birth painlessly. The evangelist’s expression “and brought forth Her firstborn Son” gives cause for unbelievers to say that the Holy Virgin had other children besides Jesus, Her firstborn, since the evangelists mention Christ’s “brothers” (Simon, Josiah, Judah, and James). However, it should be remembered that by the law of Moses every male infant born first was called a firstborn, even if he were also the last. Jesus’ so-called “brothers” mentioned in the Gospel were not his real brothers, but only relatives, being the children of old Joseph from his first wife Salome, and also the children of Mary Cleopas, whom Evangelist John calls “His Mother’s sister.” In any case, they were all much older than Christ and thus could in no way be the children of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus Christ was born at night, when Bethlehem and its environs were immersed in deep sleep. Only the shepherds, who kept watch in the field over the flock entrusted to them, were not sleeping. To these humble people, toiling and burdened, appeared the Angel with joyous tidings of the birth of the Saviour of the world. The dazzling light that surrounded the angel in the darkness of night terrified the shepherds. But the Angel immediately calmed them down, saying: “Fear not! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord.” With these words the Angel gave them to understand the true mission of the Messiah, Who did not come for the Jews alone, but for all people, since “joy shall be to all people” who accept Him as their Saviour.
The Angel explained to the shepherds that they would find the newborn Lord Christ in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger. But why did the Angel not announce Christ’s birth to the Jewish elders, the scribes and the Pharisees, and summon them to worship the Divine Infant? Because these “blind leaders of the blind” had ceased to understand the true meaning of the prophecies about the Messiah, and with their exclusive Jewish pride imagined that the promised Deliverer would appear in the full glory of a majestic king-conqueror and would conquer the entire world. The humble preacher of peace and love for one’s enemies was unacceptable to them.
The shepherds did not doubt that the Angel was sent to them from God, and thus they became worthy of hearing the triumphant celestial hymn: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14). The angels glorified God, Who had sent a Saviour to mankind, for from that time on peace of conscience has been restored and enmity between Heaven and earth, which had arisen as a consequence of sin, has been eliminated.
The angels departed, while the shepherds quickly went to Bethlehem and found the Infant lying in the manger, and were the first to worship Him. They told Mary and Joseph about the happening which had led them to Christ’s cradle, and told everyone else about it, and all the listeners were greatly amazed. “And Mary kept all these words, preserving them in Her heart,” i.e. She memorized all that She had heard. The Evangelist Luke, describing the glad tidings of Archangel Gabriel, the birth of Christ, and other events related to the Virgin Mary, obviously wrote from Her words.
On the eighth day the Infant was circumcised, as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Soon after the nativity, the Holy Family moved from the cave to a house, since the majority of visitors to Bethlehem had no need to stay there after the census was taken.
The adoration of the magi
The Gospel account of the adoration of the magi has an important meaning for the history of Christianity. This is primarily an account of Christ’s appearance to the pagans.
Joseph and the holy Mother of God, together with the Infant Jesus, were still in Bethlehem when the magi arrived in Jerusalem from the far-away lands in the East. Magi, or wise men, was the name given to learned people who observed and studied the stars. At that time people believed that at the birth of a great man a new star appeared in heaven. Many pagans within Persia, having been told by the dispersed Jews, knew of the forthcoming Messiah – the Great King of Israel. From the Jews they could also know of the following prophecy of Balaam concerning the Messiah: “I shall see Him, but not now. I shall behold Him, but not nigh. There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab” (Numbers 24:17); here “Moab” represents the Messiah’s enemies. The Persian magi expected a new star to appear in heaven when the promised King was born. Although the prophecy of Balaam spoke of a star in the spiritual sense, in order to bring the pagans to faith the Lord in His mercy gave a sign in the heavens in the form of the appearance of an extraordinary star. Upon seeing it, the magi understood that the awaited King had been born.
After a lengthy and prolonged journey, they finally reached the capital of the Jewish kingdom, Jerusalem, and began in inquire: “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” These words of such dignified strangers excited the majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and especially King Herod, who was immediately informed of the arrival of the mysterious Eastern sages.
From the first days of his reign Herod sat on a shaky throne. The people hated him, looking upon him as an usurper of the throne of David and a tyrant, and despised him as a pagan. The last years of Herod’s life were further complicated by personal misfortunes and bloody reprisals. He became inordinately suspicious of everyone, and executed his obvious and imaginary enemies at the slightest provocation. For this reason several of Herod’s children perished, and so did his wife, whom he had ardently loved. Ailing and decrepit, Herod now lived in his new palace on Mount Zion. Hearing of the newborn King, he became especially agitated, fearing that people would make use of his old age to take away his power and pass it on to the newborn King.
In order to determine who exactly was the new pretender to his throne, Herod assembled all the priests and scribes – people who knew the Scriptures well – and asked them: “Where is Christ due to be born?” They replied: “In the Judean city of Bethlehem, because thus it is written in the book of the Prophet Micah.” Then Herod secretly summoned the magi to him, elicited from them the time of the star’s appearance, and sent them to Bethlehem. Putting on a pious air, the cunning Herod said to them: “Go and search diligently for the Infant, and when you have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also.” In reality Herod was planning to make use of the information in order to murder the Infant.
After listening to King Herod and without suspecting anything, the magi departed for Bethlehem. And once again the same star which they saw in the East now appeared in the sky and, moving across the sky, it went before them, showing them the way. In Bethlehem the star stopped over the place where the newborn Infant Jesus was staying.
The magi entered the house and saw the Infant Jesus and His Mother. They bowed down to the ground before Him and presented their gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (precious aromatic oil). In the gifts of the magi one can see the following symbolic meaning: they gave Him gold as to a King, frankincense as to God, and myrrh as to a Man who was due to die.
Having worshipped the long-awaited King, the magi planned to return the next day to Jerusalem and to Herod. However, an Angel appeared to them in a dream, revealed Herod’s perfidious intentions to them, and commanded them to return to their countries by another route that did not pass near Jerusalem. Tradition has preserved the names of the magi, who later became Christian. They were Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
The account of Christ’s Nativity also makes note of the wondrous fact that the first people to worship the Saviour born into the world were the shepherds, who had nothing to give Him except the treasure chest of their hearts, full of simplicity, faith, and humility. Only much later came the magi from the East, adorned with learning and wisdom, who with pious joy gave the Divine Infant their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They had to undertake a long and arduous journey before they reached Judea, and even when they arrived in Jerusalem, they still could not straightaway find the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Does this not speak of the fact that both simplicity of the heart and honest learnedness equally lead to Christ? But the first path is more direct, shorter, and truer than the second. The shepherds were directly guided by the angels, while the magi had to “learn” from the silent star and, through Herod, from the Jewish scribes and elders. They achieved their desired goal only by overcoming great difficulties and dangers, and did not hear the celestial harmony that sounded over the earth: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill among men.”
HOMILY FOR THE SYNAXIS OF THE HOLY THEOTOKOS
On the second day of Christ’s Nativity the Church glorifies the Mother of God. This day is called the Synaxis of the Holy Theotokos. The entire church, both in heaven and on earth, all the angels, all the saints, and all mankind glorify the Mother of God, Who is more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, because through Her came the Creator of the world – our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We stand before the mystery of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary – a Virgin and a Mother. Virginity and motherhood – two mysteries that are united in the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin Mary. Mysteries that appear to be unjoinable by nature.
At the same time these mysteries speak of the fact that this is one and the same mystery of life, for true motherhood is prepared by genuine chastity and virginity, while chastity and virginity are fulfilled in motherhood. And spiritual growth is related to growth in both these spheres, so to some degree each person may become part of this mystery.
Those who preserve chastity acquire a sort of spiritual motherhood, which exceeds everything else and is part of the motherhood of the Mother of God. And on this day let us pray that virginity and motherhood, which have been desecrated among us, be restored to their original significance. We know that currently in our country and all over the world depravity and licentiousness are being implanted, while motherhood is being subjected to mockery and desecration, because the murder of one’s own children has been made legal. Not several thousand as in Bethlehem, but several million of unborn children are killed each year by their own mothers! But more horrible is the fact that a spiritual killing of children is also taking place, as almost from infancy they are subjected to depravity. Satanic programs of corruption are already being introduced into the primary schools.
On this day, through our prayers to the Mother of God, we must stop to think about the mystery of life and death. That is what we are facing. If we wish to participate in the preservation and continuation of life on earth, we must understand the mystery of the Mother of God’s intercession and prayers for all of us. Intercession for other people signifies not only someone who intercedes with prayer for another person, but who is willing to take the place of the person requesting prayer, i.e. to bear the consequences of that person’s sins. This is what prayer for others means – without ruing anything we may possess (even our life), to be ready to sacrifice ourselves so that the other person be forgiven, and saved, and not perish either here or in eternity.
And the Mother of God, Whose soul continues to be pierced by the Cross of the Saviour Who accepted suffering for the sins of all mankind, reveals to us precisely such kind of intercession and teaches it to us, if we truly wish to participate in all that regards us, our life and death.
Whoever hopes for the Mother of God’s intercession should strive to acquire the same qualities of life as those that are granted to us by the One Who intercedes for us. Otherwise there will not be any intercession, and we will be unable to accept that which the Mother of God grants us.
Of all these qualities we should most of all speak today of those which constitute the basis of life – purity and chastity. Purity, which engenders everything else. If there had been no purity – the supreme purity of the Mother of God – there would have been no Nativity of Christ, and God would not have come into the world. For God does not reveal Himself, cannot reveal Himself to anyone who remains impure. God cannot act in places where impurity has established itself. In order for us not to despair in this terrible world full of sorrows, but to find the courage to withstand evil – the corruption, iniquity, godlessness, and Satanism which surround and envelop us, – we must remember that this courage is granted only through genuine chastity and genuine motherhood. Therein lies the source of courage. Wherever a person has it and strives towards it, wherever through the intercession of the Mother of God he is capable of acquiring this gift and learning from it, – there occurs our salvation and the salvation of our children, our mothers, our Church, our people. Amen.
HOMILY FOR THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Over the course of the past two weeks, dear brethren, we have been commemorating those extraordinary events of 2,000 years ago which were a turning point in the history of mankind. And that means that these events had a profound influence on our lives as well.
We have recently celebrated the Nativity of Christ. Why did the Lord come down to earth and was born in the form of man? In order to exonerate us from the ancient damnation which fell upon mankind as a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. After the fall of our forebears, mankind descended further and further into the abyss of sin, and among all of humanity not a single person could be found who was righteous enough to expiate the original sin. God Himself was needed to atone for it, because the original sin was terrible not so much in its own self, but because it opened the door to all the other sins, and evil was thus able to freely spread over the entire universe and enter the fabric of man’s life on earth. To rectify this situation required the Son of God, the only One without sin, Who alone could carry the burden of the sins of the entire world. It is for this reason that the Lord was born as man.
Then, a week later, we celebrated the Circumcision of the Lord. Why did the Lord, being the Creator of the universe and of all laws, suffer the fulfillment on Himself of this Old Testament law? In order that through His own circumcision, dear brethren, He, Who was entirely without sin, could symbolically circumcise all of our sins, circumcise all that was old and worn out in mankind, and renew man completely.
And now we are celebrating the Baptism of our Lord. Why did the Lord, Who was absolutely pure and without sin, come to the river Jordan to be baptized by John like all the other repenting sinners? In order to drown all our sins in the waters of the river Jordan, in order to cleanse us of all impurity, enlighten us, vest us in the snow-white garments of original creation, return us once more to being the crown of creation, such as Adam was when he left the hands of the Creator. At the same time, by immersing Himself in the river Jordan, the Lord sanctified for all ages the element of water, of which we are primarily composed, and made this element salvific and healing for us: salvific, because we are baptized in water and through this baptism we become members of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church; and healing, because now we have holy water which we drink to heal our physical and spiritual infirmities, and with which we bless our abodes and our environment, in order to chase away the evil spirits.
And all of this the Lord has done for every one of us, dear brethren, has showered these innumerable blessings on each one of us. Let us reply to the Lord in kind: with love and gratitude; let us try to put aside all our sins as some old and motley garment; let us wash away our sins through repentance and communion; let us try to be spiritually reborn into a new life.
Let us also try to understand the essence and the depth of these holidays which we are now commemorating, in order to realize their very real importance to us. In the service for the feast of Epiphany there is a wonderful hymn which describes the holiday in the following moving words: “God the Word, having appeared to mankind in the flesh, stood in Jordan to be baptized. And John the Baptist said to Him: ‘How shall I stretch forth my hand and place it over the One Who in His hand holds everything? Even if Thou art an Infant born of Mary, still I know that Thou art pre-eternal God! And although Thou, Who art glorified by the Seraphim, now walk on earth, Thy servant has not yet learned how to baptize his Master.’ O, unfathomable Lord, glory to Thee!” Amen.
SUNDAY OF ZACCHEUS
Threshold of the Great Lent
The church begins the preparatory period which constitutes the threshold of the Great Lent with the “Sunday of Zaccheus” – the Sunday on which we hear the Gospel reading about a publican named Zaccheus.
There is a certain characteristic which runs like a golden thread through the entire festive cycle from the Nativity to the Baptism of our Lord, and which connects it with the Gospel reading about Zaccheus and with the Great Lent. This characteristic is the virtue of humility.
Just consider, dear brethren, how the momentous event of God’s coming down to earth and becoming incarnate occurred with the greatest modesty. There were no pomp and circumstance, no fanfare, only the angels sang the glory and the majesty of the One Who was born in a humble cave, and this singing was heard only by humble shepherds.
Afterwards, the early years of our Saviour’s life also passed in anonymity. And then came the moment when He appeared publicly to begin His service to mankind. This momentous event, too, took place without pomp or circumstance, without fanfare: the Lord quietly came to the river Jordan, in order to be baptized by John just like all other repentant sinners. And it was only John the Baptist, and the others who were there, – who had repented and were cleansed, – who saw the majesty of this moment in the first open appearance on earth of the Holy Trinity: God the Father speaking from heaven, God the Son being baptized in Jordan, and God the Holy Spirit descending as a dove and bearing witness to God’s imminent reconciliation with mankind.
It is this virtue of humility, which the Lord Jesus Christ Himself teaches us by the example of His entire life on earth, which the Church offers to us – in the Gospel reading about Zaccheus – as the beginning and the foundation of our purification, our spiritual regeneration, our unification with Christ.
In terms of human judgment, Zaccheus was a great sinner. First of all, in his capacity as head of the publicans, i.e. tax collectors, he was a thief and extortionist. By keeping back part of the money which he collected, he robbed both the people and the government, became rich at the expense of his neighbors, and cast widows and orphans into poverty. Moreover, by working for the occupying Roman forces, he was a traitor to his own people and showed himself as being unscrupulous. However, from the description of his meeting with the Saviour we see that Zaccheus was not a hopeless sinner, because he was not filled with that certain pride which would have forever barred him from salvation.
The Gospel tells us of how the Lord passed through Jericho, where this Zaccheus lived. Zaccheus, who had obviously heard of this new and extraordinary Teacher, showed a lively interest in Him. Zaccheus did not haughtily remain at home, disdaining to run after the crowd, nor did he try to push his way forward or demand to be let through before everyone else. He humbly waited to see Christ along the way, and he showed his ardent desire to see the Lord by climbing up into a sycamore tree, because he was short in stature.
Consider this moment, dear brethren: Zaccheus ardently desires to see the Lord, humbly waits to see Him, and then overcomes all barriers to his desire: by climbing up into a tree he overcomes the physical impediment of his stature, and also overcomes the psychological impediment of his important position, the possibility of being mocked and ridiculed by others, etc.
And what do we see? What does humility lead to, even of such a great sinner as Zaccheus? “Zaccheus!” – the Lord says to him, – “make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house.” With these words the Lord says to Zaccheus: I must abide with you, because you have opened up your heart to Me, you have come to meet Me; I must abide at your house, that is, in your heart, because your humility has merited My grace; I must abide with you, because you have now become totally transformed spiritually, and I must strengthen this within you; I must abide within your heart, because it is now ready to accept Me.
Thus we see how humility brought Zaccheus to his meeting with the Saviour; how humility attracted God’s grace to him; how humility transformed his entire being, made him cry out: “Lord! half of my goods I will give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man falsely, I will restore it fourfold.”
Such is the effect of humility, dear brethren! Let us follow the example of Zaccheus’s humility, let us burn with his ardor to see Christ, let us overcome all impediments to meeting with Christ, in order for the Lord to say to us: today I must abide at thy house, the house of thy heart. Amen.
The Light of Christ
(Homily for the Sunday after Epiphany)
Some time passed after the Lord Jesus Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. He came to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, but He did not stay there long. He saw that the arrogant scribes and Pharisees, and together with them the commoner Jews, were less ready to hear His divine teaching than the less educated but simplehearted Galileans. The land of Galilee is the northernmost part of Palestine, where the descendants of Jacob’s sons Zebulon and Nephthalim lived. There were no educated scribes here, as there were in Jerusalem and Judea, but the Galileans were not so infected with various prejudices and false beliefs concerning the coming Messiah as were the innate Jews. It was here that the Lord preached for the most part, from here He chose His disciples, here He performed many miracles.
Truth to say, there was a lot of ignorance in Galilee concerning the teaching of faith, and many zealots, including the entire Judea, looked upon the Galileans with disdain. The Jews even had a saying: “Can anything good come from Galilee?” However, all of the Galileans’ prejudices and errors in faith stemmed from ignorance, whereas among the Jews they were the result of their Pharisaic pride and vanity.
It is this land of Galilee that is spoken of in today’s Sunday Gospel: “The land of Zebulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people which sat in darkness saw great light, and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up” (Isaiah 9:1-2; Matt. 4:15-16).
“Before Christ’s coming mankind was in a most disastrous state: surrounded by darkness and idol-worship, people did not know where to go; according to the prophet they no longer even walked, but ‘sat in darkness’: this means that they no longer had any hope of being delivered from this darkness” (St. John Chrysostome).
In His life on earth our Lord Jesus Christ left us a perfect example of piety. His entire life was a single expression of continuous, ardent piety and fervor for piety. He was the ideal of perfection. And now this ideal of perfection expressed His preference for the ignorant land of Galilee with its simplicity and sincerity. The historical consequences of this were such that, as you all know, Christ was crucified by the proud experts in Mosaic law, while from Galilee came the first apostles and the primary core of the New Testament Church in general. Even the Roman Caesar Julian the Apostate, three centuries later, called the Christians – Galileans.
Thus, humility and simplicity in faith and in life draw a person nearer to God. At the same time, these humility and simplicity stem from a realization of one’s insignificance in the face of eternity, and from here it is only a single step to a mood of repentance.
It was precisely with this word – “Repent!” – that St. John the Baptist began his preaching. With this same word the Lord Jesus Christ, too, began His preaching. The mood of repentance is inherent in every believing Christian. A repentant mood helps us grasp the mysteries of faith, for man realizes quite clearly that he is nothing without God’s help in everything. If the mood is not there, then even simple things become difficult and often lead the worldly sage to an impasse.
Recently a story appeared in the press about a gathering on the West Coast of professors of science, who teach that man is superlative to nature, i.e. that man influences nature and his environment. And then, as an experiment, a group of such scientists was placed in the most elementary conditions of life, wherein they did not have such basic amenities as electricity, telephone, etc. And so these people came face-to-face with real nature. Their general conclusion was that nature’s influence upon us is immeasurably greater than our influence upon it. We have become used to having nature under our control, but no one thinks or talks about what would happen if it were to go out of control… To some degree this can be evaluated as a “repentant mood,” if one notices the fact that more and more often we hear of man’s inferiority and of the superiority of machines. And that is true: without faith man can fall very low. Such was the state of mankind before the coming of Christ.
However, a man who has faith in God, who has a living faith in his Creator, is far from such comparisons. There are examples of this in the history of the Christian era. The light of Christ illuminated all those who exhibited even the slightest response to His appeal. I think that each one of us has had bright examples of faith in our lives, has experienced the warmth of faith.
Unfortunately, many people do not have living faith, to which all of us can attest, and the consequences of such lifeless belief are heavy indeed. But I would like to note that there are live offshoots of faith too, that the “Great Light” shines also in our holy churches. These churches themselves were built through the living faith of their parishioners.
Let the turbulent sea of life rage around us, let the waves of the world rise high, but the Light of Christ will shine as long as He, the Lord Jesus Christ, allows it, and He will be with us until the end of time.
Thus, let us build our lives and maintain them on a church foundation, gear them to our churches. One can live a church life under any condition whatsoever, as long as one’s faith is not lifeless. If we walk before God in the light of faith, in the light of knowledge of God’s truths, – we will feel our entire being fill up with spiritual joy, and we will glorify God with the words: Glory to Thee Who has shown us the light! Amen.
ORTHODOXY AND ITS FUTURE
What is Orthodoxy and does it even have a future?
In 1976 the late Father Seraphim (Rose) wrote the following: “Orthodox Christians live today in one of the great critical times in the history of Christ’s Church. The enemy of man’s salvation, the devil, attacks on all fronts and strives by all means not merely to divert believers from the path of salvation shown by the Church, but even to conquer the Church of Christ itself, despite the Saviour’s promise (Matt. 16:18), and to convert the very Body of Christ into an organization preparing for the coming of his own chosen one, Antichrist, the great world-ruler of the last days.
Of course, we know that this attempt of Satan will fail… But the great question of our times for all Orthodox Christians to face is a momentous one: the Church will remain, but how many of us will still be in it, having withstood the devil’s mighty attempts to draw us away from it?”
“Orthodoxy” or “Orthodox Christianity” has come to mean a number of different things to different people in different Orthodox jurisdictions. There are all kinds of “Orthodoxy” around today. Some of it is recognizable; some of it seems very strange, very abnormal. For some, Orthodoxy is just a “place we go to” on Sunday mornings – just like other Christians. For others, Orthodoxy is an ethnic club, where one can hear the cherished language and music of one’s youth in the old country – in itself, not wrong. For still others, Orthodoxy is a career, a way of making money, of meeting friends. But for a few, a very few, Orthodoxy is the very Ark of Salvation, created by the Living God Almighty in order to bring us safely through this world to the next.
So before we can talk about the future of Orthodoxy, we must first have an understanding of the term “Orthodox.”
Orthodoxy is an “other-worldly” faith
Most Orthodox, converts included, tend to think of the faith as something very eastern, very Russian, or perhaps Greek, or Byzantine. Actually, this is correct only as far as it goes. But if asked, it’s unfortunately unlikely that most of us would say that Orthodoxy has to do with holiness, with sanctity, or with a peculiar concept called “other-worldliness.”
While on a trip to Russia in 1998, I had the privilege of venerating the holy relics of Saint Innocent of Alaska. Although he had died, full of years and honors as Metropolitan of Moscow, a great deal of his life had been spent as a married priest, Fr. John Veniaminov in Alaska, and then, later, as a bishop. In his journal, kept over a period of years while he was a missionary, he tells a remarkable story about his visit, unannounced and unexpected, to a particular island one day in April of 1828. As he stepped ashore he saw all of the natives standing there in a festive and joyous mood. They told him that they had been expecting him. And although some of them had been baptized into Orthodoxy many years before, they have been given no instruction in the Faith whatever. Where Orthodoxy was concerned, they were functionally illiterate. But an old man of their village had told them that a priest would come on this day and, when he came, he would teach them how to pray. The old man had also carefully described the priest – and indeed this was a description of Fr. John Veniaminov himself.
When he met the old man, the missionary was amazed at his knowledge of Scripture and Orthodox Christian doctrine – especially since he could not read or write and, like the other natives, had been taught nothing about the Faith. “There was no ‘normal’ way for him to know these things… The old man replied quite simply that two companions had informed him of these things. ‘And just who are these two companions of yours?’ he asked the old man. ‘White men,’ he replied… ‘They live nearby, in the mountains. And they visit me every day.’ The old man then provided a description which tallied very closely with the way in which the Holy Archangel Gabriel is portrayed on icons: in a white robe with a rose-colored band across the shoulders.” As this story unfolded, Saint Innocent learned that the old man had been visited regularly – daily, in fact – over a period of thirty years by two angels of God, who had taught him the depths and mysteries of Orthodox theology. When Fr. John asked if he could himself meet these spirits of God he was informed that he could. But “something unexplainable” then happened to Fr. John, as he reports to the bishop:
“I was filled with fear and humility, and thought to myself: ‘What if I really were to see them – these angels? I’m a sinful man, unworthy of talking to them. If I were to decide to see them it would be nothing but pride and presumption on my part. If I were to meet real angels, I might exalt myself for having such great faith, or start thinking too highly of myself… No, I’m unworthy; I’d best not go’.”
In this account we glimpse the element of the supernatural, the “other-worldly”; the fact that there is another world besides this one, and another life, different from the life we lead here; and this other world sometimes, according to God’s will, impinges upon us here in this life, in this world. This means that in order for us to have true Orthodoxy, and in order for Orthodox Christianity to have any kind of future at all, we must ourselves first of all have some sense, some awareness of that other world and its closeness to us.
Knowing about “other-worldliness” isn’t about having supernatural or some kind of “occult” experiences. But it is about remembering that this life is only very temporary, a pilgrimage in fact, and we should not hold onto it tightly because, ultimately, all of it will be taken away from us at death, anyway, and then we will have only the virtues that we have managed, by God’s grace, to acquire.
This is an extremely important message for us Orthodox Christians to bring to the world: that there is indeed another world, that this is not myth or a fairy tale but something which is real, and that this present life here on earth is a preparation for that life which is to come, that there is accountability and responsibility and judgment, as well as reward or punishment awaiting us after death, and that the saints and angels are aware of us (as are also the fallen angels, the demons) and are longing to help us join them finally in the Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of appearances to the contrary, the world really does want to know this, wants to know the truth of this, and is longing to hear it from us in a convincing way.
Orthodoxy is an ascetic faith
Several of the 20th-century teachers of the Church – men like St. John of Shanghai, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and others – have explained to us more than once and in several ways that Orthodoxy is, above all, an “ascetic” faith. What does this mean? The future of Orthodoxy – if it actually even has a future at all – depends on whether we understand the essence of Orthodoxy, which is asceticism.
Our word “ascetic” comes from the same root as the word “athlete,” and this is not a coincidence, for the ascetic and the athlete have some common characteristics.
The athlete works out, trains hard, and exercises in order to develop the muscles of his body so that he can compete in various kinds of sports or special events. He works very hard. He may go to an exercise gym every day and work for several hours. He follows a special diet and in every possible way takes good care of himself.
The ascetic is an athlete, too – an athlete of the spirit rather than of the body. The ascetic also exercises; however, he exercises not his biceps or other physical muscles, but the various dimensions and faculties of his soul. He “works out,” spiritually, through prayer and fasting, through standing at vigil, and by preparing properly to receive the sacraments. He, too, must compete, but not in a sports arena with a javelin or in some other event; no, the ascetic competes in the wide arena of this world, and his adversary, his opponent, the Devil, is quite real – as Holy Scripture teaches us. The athlete runs a race, but we, too, as Saint Paul tells us, run a race, a race to obtain the crown of immortal life with Christ in heaven. But to run this race, we must be athletes of the spirit.
It is this ascetic dimension of Orthodoxy that makes Orthodox Christianity different from every other Christian religion on the face of the earth. But from what I’ve said thus far, “asceticism” is still just an abstract concept. What does it mean in practice?
Again I turn to Saint Innocent of Alaska. While he was working with the Aleut and Klingit Indian tribes of the Alaskan peninsula, he was very anxious to properly communicate to them this “essence” of Orthodoxy. So he wrote a little booklet that has become a kind of classic and is widely read and studied today by people like us who are otherwise very far removed from the Native Americans of the Northwest. The little book is called The Indication of the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven. In this important little book Saint Innocent talks about asceticism in the same way that our Lord Himself does: he compares it to the carrying of a cross. Our Lord said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24-25), and: “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Now in life there are two kinds of crosses, Saint Innocent explained. The first kind of cross consists of those daily annoyances, temptations, and difficulties that come to everyone just because we are human beings. Ill health, financial setbacks, misunderstandings with others, various kinds of afflictions – all of these are crosses, but they are what Saint Innocent calls “involuntary crosses.” That is, they come to us according to God’s will, whether we want them or not. If we bear these crosses without complaining, without murmuring, then they become ascetic labors that are for our salvation; but if we complain and murmur, then they are for our condemnation. It is extremely important to understand this.
The second kind of cross, according to Saint Innocent, is what he calls “voluntary crosses” – that is, those special ascetic exploits or labors that we voluntarily take upon ourselves, such as strictly keeping the fast days and seasons of the Church year, standing for long hours at vigil services, and other kinds of asceticism or crosses that we may, with the blessing of our spiritual father, take upon ourselves.
These are some of the ascetic aspects of our Holy Faith which are signs of true and authentic Orthodoxy, ancient Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy of the saints.
The need for “holy zeal”
But to this concept of asceticism must be added one other element, which we call “holy zeal.” Here is what the late Archbishop Averky of Jordanville had to say about this:
“The chief thing in Christianity, according to the clear teaching of the word of God, is the fire of divine zeal, zeal for God and His glory – the holy zeal which alone is able to inspire man in labors and struggles pleasing to God and without which there is no authentic spiritual life and there is not and cannot be any true Christianity. Without this holy zeal Christians are Christians in name only… Meekness and humility do not mean spinelessness and should not yield before manifest evil… a true Christian should be far from sugar-sweet sentimentality…” (The Orthodox Word, 1975).
But this does not mean that we should be rigid and uncharitable towards others, or that we should have no discernment. Archbishop Averky himself pointed out that we must avoid what Scripture calls “zeal without understanding.” Especially, he said, we must avoid what he called a “false, lying zeal, behind the mask of which is concealed the foaming of ordinary human passions – most frequently pride, love of power and honor, and the interests of a party politics… for which there can be no place in spiritual life.” (The Orthodox Word, 1975). True Orthodoxy walks a thin line between fanaticism and looseness, between self-righteousness and “spinelessness.”
Orthodoxy in the West today
Concerning the extremes of the “right” and the “left,” Fr. Seraphim (Rose) said that “zeal not according to knowledge” was simply “an excuse for pharisaic self-satisfaction, exclusivity, and distrust” of others – something to be avoided at all costs, and it is the exact opposite of what Archbishop Averky called “being in step with the times.” The future of Orthodoxy should belong to neither of these two extremes, neither of the right nor the left, for “holy zeal” is not extremism, it is simply true and authentic Orthodoxy.
Therefore, in order to see the future and its possibilities, we must know something about what’s going on with Orthodox Christianity in both the East – in the historic countries of our origin such as Greece and especially Russia, – and we must be fully aware of what’s going on in the apostate West, too. Shortly I will speak in some detail about Orthodoxy in Russia, but first we should look briefly at what is going on with Orthodoxy in the West today.
In the United States, in particular, there is a kind of broad “spectrum,” from left to right. On the extreme right we have a relatively small number of Greek Old Calendarist groups. Many of these otherwise very sincere and pious believers often squabble among themselves, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not. Fr. Seraphim (Rose) called the extremist Greek Old Calendarists “exclusivists.” Partly because of this, and partly because of the disagreements among themselves, in America they have been relatively ineffective at reaching the Western mind and soul, often presenting (perhaps without intending to do so) a very rigid and even haughty face to prospective inquirers into the Faith. In my opinion, these groups are not the future of Orthodoxy.
On the “left” we have several groups that follow the New Calendar, and they have quite consciously accepted the principles of liturgical reform, innovationism, and modernism. One of these groups, in particular, is anti-monastic, which means that it vigorously opposes traditional Orthodox spirituality; repeatedly there is a call for what is called “American Orthodoxy.” Just exactly what this means, however, is difficult to say, but it is a contradiction in terms. America and its culture are by definition liberal, constantly changing, and unstable, interested in keeping her citizens comfortable and entertained and distracted from spiritual realities and needs. America also embraces everything that is modern and fashionable. True Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is by nature conservative, stable, and unchanging, even reactionary, and concerned with eternal verities, focused not on what is comfortable and perishable, but on the carrying of crosses as the only way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Some of these Orthodox groups are very open to missionary opportunities – and in this sense they can be very creative – but what are they bringing new converts to? Authentic Orthodoxy or some kind of “Eastern Rite Protestantism”? In other words, a church which more and more resembles the culture of the Anglican or Episcopal Church and is no longer Orthodox but something that is attractive on the outside, looking and smelling and sounding like the “real thing,” but inside it is an empty shell, incapable of giving the abundant life our Saviour promised in the Gospels.
The very fact that these modernist Orthodox are involved in liturgical reform and modernization – which often means drastically shortening or even completely eliminating some of the services, (and it also now means abolishing fasts and the churching of women after childbirth, it means the use of girl acolytes, and the tonsuring of female readers) – all of this is already a very serious and dangerous attack on our holy Faith, and virtually no one is objecting, no one is criticizing, and no one has the courage to stand up and cry out, “The Emperor has no clothes!” Our Blessed Metropolitan Philaret of holy memory would speak out, were he with us today, just as he spoke out courageously in his famous “Sorrowing Epistles” in the late 1960s. And our Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco would have spoken up, too. Decades ago he reminded us that we cannot and must not tamper with the Divine services because these “church services contain in themselves the fullness of the Church’s dogmatic teachings and expound the path to salvation. They embody a priceless spiritual wealth. The more fully and properly they are done, the greater the benefit received by those who participate in them. Those clergymen who perform the services negligently and abbreviate them out of laziness are robbing their flock, denying it vital bread, and abducting from it a valuable treasure…”
It is true that in some of these New Calendar Churches there was an initial burst of missionary growth, some of it healthy, some not. But that time is now passing as many of their new faithful discover the lives of the saints, the traditional spirituality of the Church, and other things that they had not been given when they first converted to Orthodoxy. They now want something deeper, something capable of sustaining and nurturing a profound and lasting spiritual life. Many of these seekers find their way to us, to the Church Abroad. So, clearly, the future of Orthodoxy – in spite of appearances just a few years ago – does not lie with the modernists. History shows that those who are too far to the right or to the left do not, in the end, carry the day either and, ultimately, will not even survive. Is there another way, another – “middle” – path to the future of Orthodoxy? I believe that there is.
“The Royal Path”
Between these two extremes of right and left is the “balance point,” or what the Fathers of the Church themselves called “the Royal Path.” As Fr. Seraphim (Rose) wrote: “This true Orthodox moderation is not to be confused with mere lukewarmness or indifference, or with any kind of compromise between political extremes… Its emphasis is constantly on the spiritual side of true Orthodoxy,” which neither the extremists of the left or the right know or completely understand. As Fr. Seraphim wrote unequivocally: “The Russian Church Outside of Russia has been placed, by God’s Providence, in a very favorable position for preserving the ‘royal path’.” He continued:
“Living in exile and poverty in a world that has not understood the suffering of her people, she [the Church Abroad] has focused her attention on preserving unchanged the faith which unites her people… Today, – Fr. Seraphim continues, – more than at any other time, we must struggle to preserve Orthodox tradition in an age of apostasy, so that the voice of true and uncompromising Orthodoxy could be heard throughout the world and have a profound effect on the future course of the Orthodox Churches… It is of critical importance, therefore, that this voice be actually one of true, that is, patristic Orthodoxy.” (The Orthodox Word, 1976).
Fr. Seraphim also observed – and this is very important – that “the ‘royal path’ of true Orthodoxy today is a mean that lies between the extremes of ecumenism and reformism on the one side, and a zeal not according to knowledge on the other.” (The Orthodox Word, 1976).
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On February 14th (the 1st by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the holy martyr Tryphon.
St. Tryphon was born in the 3rd century A.D. in Phrygia (a province in Asia Minor), in the town of Apamia. From his early years the grace of God was upon him, and he was endowed with miraculous powers: he was able to cure illnesses and exorcize evil spirits. Thus, for example, in 238 A.D. the Roman Empire came under the rule of Emperor Gordian, who was a pagan but did not persecute Christians. The Emperor had a daughter, the beautiful Gordiana, who was courted by many kings and noblemen. However, a great disaster befell this maiden: she became possessed by a demon who tormented her cruelly, throwing her into fire and water, and none of the court physicians could help her in any way. But at one point the evil spirit himself cried out: “No one can expel me from here except the youth Tryphon.” The king then straightaway sent his people to search for Tryphon. Many young men of that name were brought before the king, but none of them were able to exorcize the demon. Finally saint Tryphon was found in Phrygia, tending a flock of geese at a lake, and was brought to Rome.
As the saint approached Rome, the demon began to torment the king’s daughter even more, and cried out: “I cannot live here anymore, because Tryphon is approaching, and will arrive here on the third day, and I can no longer bear it.” Crying thus, the evil spirit left the maiden. On the third day, when saint Tryphon arrived in Rome, he was greeted warmly by the king, who asked him, however, to show everyone the demon in visible form. The saint agreed and spent six days in prayer and fasting, after which he attained even greater power over the evil spirits. On the seventh day the king and his courtiers came to Tryphon to see the demon. Then the saint, calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, ordered the devil to show himself visibly. Immediately the demon appeared before them in the form of a black hound with fiery eyes. Tryphon asked the demon: “Who sent you, demon, and how did you dare enter into this maiden, one of God’s creatures, when you yourself are so hideous and vile?” The devil replied: “I have been sent by my father, Satan, who stays in hell and who ordered me to torment this maiden. We have no power over those who know God and who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, – we run away in fear from such people, and only when we are allowed, we approach them with external temptations. As for people who do not believe in God and the Son of God, and who please us with their passions, – over those people we receive absolute power to torment them. And what pleases us is the following: idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, witchcraft, envy, murder, vanity; with these and similar sins people ensnare themselves as in a net, alienate themselves from God, and together with us suffer eternal torment.”
Hearing this, the Emperor and all those who were present were struck with great fear, and many of them came to believe in Christ, while the faithful joyfully gave glory to God. The Emperor magnanimously rewarded the saint and sent him home in peace, but Tryphon gave away everything to the poor along the way, and returned to his homeland to continue his former pious way of life.
After Gordian the Roman Empire was briefly ruled by Philip, who was succeeded by the ferocious Decius, who initiated a savage persecution of Christians. During this persecution St. Tryphon was also taken prisoner and brought before the Roman ruler of his province, being accused of having used his powers of healing to convert many people to Christianity. The ruler tortured Tryphon most cruelly and at great length, but the saint endured the torture with joy and was finally beheaded, earning the crown of martyrdom
Part of St. Tryphon’s relics were kept in Moscow, in a church bearing his name. The building of this church was occasioned by the following event: one time the favorite falcon of Czar Ivan the Terrible flew away, due to a blunder on the part of the royal falconer, Tryphon Patrikeyev. The Czar ordered his falconer to find the missing falcon without fail in three days, otherwise he would be executed. The falconer crisscrossed the entire forest, but was unable to find the falcon. On the third day, tired and weary, he stopped near a grove and from sheer exhaustion fell asleep under a tree. Before that Patrikeyev had earnestly prayed to St. Tryphon, his patron saint, for help. Then the falconer saw a wondrous dream: a handsome youth on a white horse appeared before him, holding the royal falcon on his hand. “Take your missing bird back to the Czar, – he said, – and Godspeed, do not despair.” The falconer awoke and in astonishment saw the royal falcon sitting on his hand. Patrikeyev then took the falcon to Ivan the Terrible and told the Czar about his vision. The Czar left off his wrath and looked upon his falconer with great favor, and in gratitude to God and his patron saint for saving his life, Tryphon Patrikeyev built a church in honor of St. Tryphon on the very spot where he had seen his vision. From that time St. Tryphon has often been depicted on icons as a youth on a white horse, holding a falcon.
Additionally, the Church has established a special moleben, containing the “exorcism of St. Tryphon,” which is served in the fields and vineyards, in order to rid them of harmful snakes and insects. This church rite is based upon the following event in the life of the saint: when Tryphon was still a youth, harmful snakes and insects appeared in his native village, devouring all the grains, leaves, and grass, so that the villagers began to suffer from famine. St. Tryphon prayed to God, asking Him to send an angel to destroy the harmful insects and, moreover, the saint himself used a special exorcism to remove them to inaccessible places, where they could no longer bring any harm to people.
CONSOLATIONS TO THE SORROWING
The wisdom of sorrows
Whatever the reason for the sufferings that are sent us, they are all invariably sent for our benefit – for the salvation of our souls, for the remittance of our sins, and in the case of innocent Christians – to merit a crown in the Heavenly Kingdom. The elders Barsonuphius the Great and John say: “Everything that happens to a man serves to test him on the road to salvation, in order for him to endure and believe himself to be unworthy. It is a good sign that you are sorrowing. Do you not know that whenever someone asks the fathers to pray for him, or asks God to give him aid, then his sorrows and temptations are increased to test him? Thus, do not seek bodily rest if the Lord does not send it to you, for bodily rest is vile in the eyes of the Lord, Who said: In the world ye shall have tribulation (John 16:33). Know that those who wish to have rest in everything will hear at a certain moment: Remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things (Luke 16:25). The one who is unable to bear tribulation will not see glory. Do you not know that there are many sorrows for the righteous and through them they are tested like gold by fire? Therefore, if we are righteous, we shall be tried by sorrow; if, on the other hand, we are sinful, we will suffer sorrows as being worthy of them. Let us remember all the saints and what they endured in doing good: they were hated and reviled by other people until their very end. Accept the suffering of sorrow in everything, in order to be the descendant of saints, and whether you experience sorrow, or deprivation, or insult, or illness, or physical labor, – for everything that befalls you give thanks to God.”
Saint Isaac the Syrian writes: “God did not wish for His beloved to rest while they are in the body, but wished that they, while living in the world, live in sorrow, hardship, labor, deprivation, solitude, need, illness, insult, in sadness of the heart and exhaustion of the body. The Lord knows that those who live in bodily comfort are unable to remain in His love. However, when illness, need, bodily exhaustion or fear of bodily harm trouble your mind and deprive you of joy and hope in the Lord, then know that you are being ruled by the body and not by Christ. Therefore, concerning all sorrows that befall you openly or secretly, make a cautious judgment that this has happened to you rightfully and justly. And be grateful for everything.”
Thus, in all cases suffering is meaningful. But we can also speak not only of the wisdom of suffering, but also of its necessity for man. N. N. Fioletov writes: “The soul of a man who has never suffered, never gone through tempests, agitation or struggles, often becomes covered with the crust of vanity, banality, self-satisfaction; it faces the danger of becoming immersed in a state of inertia and dullness. We can see in everyday examples how often people who have not suffered through anything are unable to understand the feelings of others, remain indifferent to the suffering of others, how often they lose the realization of the higher purpose and meaning of life, and become immersed in a bog of triviality. This state of complete self-satisfaction and dullness is commonly mistaken for happiness.”
Thus, all suffering sent from God is not a violation of universal harmony, but on the contrary, in all cases suffering is the manifestation of one of the forms of God’s constant Providence over man, proof of God’s love and charity towards fallen mankind. In view of God’s benevolence and wisdom, it could not be otherwise of course. Holy Matrona of Zadonsk often said: “Sorrows in life are presents sent to us from paradise.”
A Christian must essentially reject the worldly understanding of the word “misfortune,” for “all sorrow, united with patience, is good and beneficial for us,” – writes Saint Peter Damascene. There is no “misfortune” in a world ruled by the benevolent Lord God, and that which people call misfortune is rather a merciful admonition from God the Father, a testing by Him of a Christian’s faith. Apostle Paul writes that, in a Christian, tribulation engenders patience, and patience – experience, and experience – hope, and hope does not shame us (Rom. 5:3-5).
Saint John of Tobolsk says the same: “If man’s will were directed towards virtue and were truly submissive to and in accord with the will of God, then hardships, illness, sorrows, and other misfortunes which each man encounters in life would not seem to him to be a punishment, for he would suffer them with a joyous heart and love for God, reasoning and believing that they had been sent to him by the will of God for an unknown, but obviously good purpose.”
Moreover, saints and righteous people reached a stage where they, understanding the beneficial meaning of sorrows for man’s soul, not only suffered them good-naturedly, without grumbling or agitation, but joyously, and even hoping for them and seeking them. Thus the wise Abbess Arsenia writes: “After the Lord helps you get rid of passions, then sorrows become the greatest joy in life for your soul; it rises above them, it is not overcome by them, but only realizes and feels God’s great help, which strengthens the spirit by means of life’s sorrows and tribulations; realizes the great wisdom of God’s paths, which through these sorrows lead man to freedom, purify him, and always place him on the right path. Then the soul feels power and joy, and gives thanks to God for these sorrows, which seem insignificant to the soul in comparison with the blessings which it receives from the Lord through these sorrows.”
And another righteous one said: “The greatest joy in the world is the joy of suffering.” The righteous priest John writes: “All of us can complain when we do not experience suffering, for nothing else makes us as comparable to the Lord as the bearing of His Cross.” The philosopher Eckhart provides the following spiritual aphorism: “A quiet and tranquil life, spent in God, is good; a life full of tempests, spent in patience, is better; but to find tranquility in a life full of suffering is the best.”
We must always remember that a good-natured endurance of suffering is possible only with God’s help, and is God’s gift to Christians. St. Peter Damascene writes about it thus: “To endure insults with joy and meekness, to do good to one’s enemies, to lay down one’s life for others, and similar qualities are God’s gifts, which are sent to those who yearn for them, and who earn them from God by means of suffering.”
Thus, only he cannot endure “trials” and “tribulations,” who does not place his trust in God, who is not aware of his sinfulness, who does not feel the need to purify his heart, to save his soul, and who is not aware of his powerlessness to achieve this solely through his own efforts.
Elder Siluan writes: “If misfortune befalls you, think of it this way: the Lord sees my heart, and if He so wishes, everything will be well with myself and others, – and thus your heart will always be tranquil. But if anyone should grumble: this is bad, and that is not good, – such a one will never have peace in his heart, even though he keep the fast and pray at length. Some people suffer greatly from poverty and illness, but do not become humble, and so they suffer in vain… If you humble yourself, you will see your woes turn into tranquility, so that you will say to yourself: why have I tortured myself and sorrowed so greatly up to now? But now you are joyous, because you have attained humility and the grace of God has descended upon you.”
The same elder also says that “sorrows invariably accompany love and grow in one’s soul just as Christ’s love grows in the soul. This is understandable: Christ’s love (in the soul of a Christian) encompasses the entire world, and painfully and ardently co-suffers with all the sorrows of the world, just as Christ suffered and shed tears, looking upon Jerusalem and foreseeing its forthcoming destruction.” Therefore, writes Schema-Archimandrite Sophronius, “whoever loves God, passes through sufferings which the one who doesn’t have great faith in God is unable to endure and spiritually falls apart.” But – “great faith and love engender great courage.”
St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Whoever lives in virtue without suffering sorrow, will see the door of pride open before him.”
But the Lord’s care and aid to man in developing humility within himself permeates the entire world. Abbot John says: “All the facts and circumstances of earthly life are designed to humble man, to erase the pride of his feelings and his mind, enlightening him with an awareness of God’s mercy and suppressing his egoism. In this lies the meaning of innumerable illnesses, incurable ailments, humiliations, poverty, dependence upon others, feelings of impotence concerning one’s past, present, and future… At the same time this engenders gratitude to God and the collapse of all futile faiths, all vain hopes and false ideals.
How terribly would man’s pride grow were he not humbled by all that now humbles him on earth: death, illness, physical suffering, helplessness, frailty, moral torment, humiliation, labor, ingratitude, unreason, an ugly exhibition of inner passions, the judgment of one’s conscience…”
And Bishop Varlaam Ryashentsev adds: “Only then do we begin earning some merit in heaven when we, being innocent, undergo suffering with all humility, without grumbling, accepting it as God’s will and trial of us. In this manner the soul is cleansed of spiritual corruption. Without deep and innocent suffering, without a cross, no one can enter paradise. The path of God is a daily cross.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov writes similarly: “I often believe that all the thorns and brambles of our earthly situation are expressly set up by God to heal our souls.
Sorrows erase our sins. ‘Where there are no sorrows there is no salvation,’ – says St. Seraphim of Sarov. Not only the suffering that is sent by God, but all spiritual endeavors, all voluntary deprivations, all sacrifices are immediately exchanged for spiritual wealth within us: the more we lose, the more we gain. It is for this reason that ‘it is hard for the rich to enter the Heavenly Kingdom,’ because they do not undergo this exchange of earthly, temporal, corruptible benefits for heavenly, incorruptible benefits. Thus, woe is unto those who are satiated, laughing, merry – they will become deprived to the point of complete spiritual poverty.
Brave souls instinctively search for sacrifice and suffering, and become spiritually strengthened by tribulations. There are numerous proofs of this in the Gospel and in the writings of the apostles, especially Apostle Paul. Even non-Christian religions are aware of it: thus fakirs, yogis, and dervishes torture themselves with cold calculation.
We must ask God to send us trials, and we must feel concern when we live prosperously. Children who grow up in luxury and satiation grow up with spiritual emptiness, while those who go through illness and poverty grow up with great spiritual strength, for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, earns us a far more exceeding and eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17).
The Lord pities us greatly, but sends us suffering: only if we are struck by misfortune and calamity can we produce some sparks, some holy fire. Therefore, endure your sorrows with patience: even lower creatures do not live without suffering, and the higher is man, the more he suffers.
Illness has taught me much. It has strengthened my understanding that whoever is with Christ lives with suffering, and that there is no other path for a Christian except through internal and external pain. And, thinking of the multitude of suffering in the world, I have come to the realization that it is by means of such innocent suffering that the invisible Kingdom of God is built up, and His suffering Body – the Church of Christ – is assembled. Great is the purifying power and the value of suffering. Our spiritual growth depends primarily on how we undergo suffering. Courage in the face of suffering, a willingness to undergo it – such is the mark of a true Christian soul. But we must not search for suffering or make it up.”
The Lord often sends great suffering before one’s body dies. In this we can also see the aptness of such suffering: the more suffering the soul leaves on earth as it passes into the other world, the greater joy it finds in that world of “blessed repose.” Here we must remember the Lord’s words: but woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
It is for this reason that spiritual people pity those who sin in this world, who do not repent of their sins, and who live a life of amusement and vanity. It is said of such: “the Lord has abandoned them.” Of those who suffer tribulation it is said: “the Lord has visited them.”
Those who bask in earthly happiness lose their spiritual compass in life, they are the most miserable of men: their personal life is in danger. Thus, all wise men, both the ancients and contemporaries, and not only Christian, avoided earthly happiness, and their awareness of the world beyond prevailed over the visible world, and their sense of responsibility for their life was exceedingly developed… Wise people do not try to become comfortably settled on their earthly path, in order not to fall spiritually asleep and miss the Bridegroom’s coming at midnight…
Neither should a Christian’s mind be troubled at the sight of the suffering of innocent children. Even here God’s wisdom and providence are present. Most often the Lord wishes, through the suffering of such innocent children, to bring their parents or relatives to their senses, to impede the latter from stepping onto the path of sin and to place them upon the path of repentance. The children themselves will be subsequently exalted by God to a much greater degree than the temporary duration of their suffering.
At this point we should recollect the Lord’s words to St. Anthony the Great. St. Anthony once ruminated at length about the multitude of trials and afflictions which befell children, about the suffering of innocent children, and about other matters that were difficult for the human mind to comprehend. Then he heard the following words: “Anthony, such are the fates that are sent by God. It is detrimental to the soul to investigate them. Look rather to yourself.”
THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
The One Who was and is eternal
The Virgin for the world has borne.
And for the One beyond approach,
Incomprehensible by mind,
A shelter has been found on earth.
And angels in the heavens sing,
And shepherds hurry from the hills,
While darkness crowds before the Star,
Behind the Star the magi come.
And this night we have understood
How for our sake He could be born,
This Infant, our eternal God.
– V. Shidlovskiy
Translated by Natalia Sheniloff