The Moscow Patriarchate reports that Patriarch Kirill I has completed his trip to China. He met with the country’s new leaders in hopes of reviving the dormant Chinese Orthodox Church. We wish him well in this endeavor.
Salman Rushdie writes an opinion piece for the New York Times on the lack of respect acts of courage are shown these days. Though he seems like a fascinating person and a truly brave man, I’m not a fan of his work – not because of his atheism, but because of his subject matter, which has never really moved me. Still, he makes some rather valid points on the mainstream position of moral courage being lacking.
There is one paragraph which really caught my eye:
Such is the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church that the jailed members of the Pussy Riot collective are widely perceived, inside Russia, as immoral troublemakers because they staged their famous protest on church property. Their point — that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is too close to President Vladimir V. Putin for comfort — has been lost on their many detractors, and their act is not seen as brave, but improper.
You know what? He has a point.
I loathe Pussy Riot. They blasphemed the liturgy, which, to an Orthodox Christian, is sacrosanct. The ‘band’s’ so-called performance in the middle of the liturgy was highly offensive to believers, and this is why Russians (and Orthodox Christians worldwide) were so disgusted by their actions. However, there is truth in that Patriarch Kirill has become too close to the secular Russian leadership over the years. He has forgotten that many Orthodox took offense to the Church being used as little more than a propaganda tool by previous leaders, most callously by monsters like Josef Stalin, a man who had nothing but hatred for Christianity until he saw it useful for rallying the nation to his side during World War II.
It is also disturbing to see Russian encroachment over their old sphere of influence, where they still act like obnoxious invaders in places like Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic Republics in a way that made Germans look like pikers. I see why ROCOR members have never been convinced of the intentions of the Moscow Patriarchate, despite my having deep respect for Russian Orthodox history and culture.
It is high time that church leadership reevaluate how they relate to the government, to countries which no longer sit on Russian soil, and to their fellow believers. To not do so is to risk squandering all the good gains the Church has made since the fall of Communism.
I am normally critical of what I would term Russian Ecclesiastical imperialism. The Russian Orthodox Church should have no need to operate in any other Orthodox country outside of its own, or in countries which are not officially Orthodox in order to minister to their flocks.
That being said, Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow is showing good judgment in telling the Abkhazian Orthodox Church that they must stay under the purview of the Orthodox Church of Georgia. Until Abkhazia and South Ossetia become (God forbid) independent countries, they have to respect Council law.
As our Roman Catholic and Protestant friends prepare themselves for Holy Week and Easter, the Orthodox Church celebrates the first Sunday of Great Lent as we prepare ourselves for Pascha, the holiest time of our calendar. Let us reflect on the words of the great Estonian/Russian/American theologian Alexander Schmemann as we start our road to Salvation:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rejoicing today in the triumph of Orthodoxy on this first Sunday of Lent, we joyfully commemorate three events: one event belonging to the past; one event to the present; and one event which still belongs to the future.
Whenever we have any feast or joy in the Church, we Orthodox first of all look back — for in our present life we depend on what happened in the past. We depend first of all, of course, on the first and the ultimate triumph — that of Christ Himself. Our faith is rooted in that strange defeat which became the most glorious victory — the defeat of a man nailed to the cross, who rose again from the dead, who is the Lord and the Master of the world. This is the first triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the content of all our commemorations and of all our joy. This man selected and chose twelve men, gave them power to preach about that defeat and that victory, and sent them to the whole world saying preach and baptize, build up the Church, announce the Kingdom of God. And you know, my brothers and sisters, how those twelve men — very simple men indeed, simple fishermen — went out and preached. The world hated them, the Roman Empire persecuted them, and they were covered with blood. But that blood was another victory. The Church grew, the Church covered the universe with the true faith. After 300 years of the most unequal conflict between the powerful Roman Empire and the powerless Christian Church, the Roman Empire accepted Christ as Lord and Master. That was the second triumph of Orthodoxy. The Roman Empire recognized the one whom it crucified and those whom it persecuted as the bearers of truth, and their teaching as the teaching of life eternal. The Church triumphed. But then the second period of troubles began.
The following centuries saw many attempts to distort the faith, to adjust it to human needs, to fill it with human content. In each generation there were those who could not accept that message of the cross and resurrection and life eternal. They tried to change it, and those changes we call heresies. Again there were persecutions. Again, Orthodox bishops, monks and laymen defended their faith and were condemned and went into exile and were covered with blood. And after five centuries of those conflicts and persecutions and discussions, the day came which we commemorate today, the day of the final victory of Orthodoxy as the true faith over all the heresies. It happened on the first Sunday of Lent in the year 843 in Constantinople. After almost 100 years of persecution directed against the worship of the holy icons, the Church finally proclaimed that the truth had been defined, that the truth was fully in the possession of the Church. And since then all Orthodox people, wherever they live, have gathered on this Sunday to proclaim before the world their faith in that truth, their belief that their Church is truly apostolic, truly Orthodox, truly universal. This is the event of the past that we commemorate today.
But let us ask ourselves one question: Do all the triumphs of Orthodoxy, all the victories, belong to the past? Looking at the present today, we sometimes feel that our only consolation is to remember the past. Then Orthodoxy was glorious, then the Orthodox Church was powerful, then it dominated. But what about the present? My dear friends, if the triumph of Orthodoxy belongs to the past only, if there is nothing else for us to do but commemorate, to repeat to ourselves how glorious was the past, then Orthodoxy is dead. But we are here tonight to witness to the fact that Orthodoxy not only is not dead but also that it is once more and forever celebrating its own triumph — the triumph of Orthodoxy. We don’t have to fight heresies among ourselves, but we have other things that once more challenge our Orthodox faith.
Today, gathered here together, Orthodox of various national backgrounds, we proclaim and we glorify first of all our unity in Orthodoxy. This is the triumph of Orthodoxy in the present. This is a most wonderful event: that all of us, with all our differences, with all our limitations, with all our weaknesses, can come together and say we belong to that Orthodox faith, that we are one in Christ and in Orthodoxy. We are living very far from the traditional centers of Orthodoxy. We call ourselves Eastern Orthodox, and yet we are here in the West, so far from those glorious cities which were centers of the Orthodox faith for centuries — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow. How far are those cities. And yet, don’t we have the feeling that something of a miracle has happened, that God has sent us here, far into the West, not just in order to settle here, to increase our income, to build up a community. He also has sent us as apostles of Orthodoxy, so that this faith, which historically was limited to the East, now is becoming a faith which is truly and completely universal.
This is a thrilling moment in the history of Orthodoxy. That is why it is so important for us to be here tonight and to understand, to realize, to have that vision of what is going on. People were crossing the ocean, coming here, not thinking so much about their faith as about themselves, about their lives, about their future. They were usually poor people, they had a difficult life, and they built those little Orthodox churches everywhere in America not for other people but for themselves, just to remember their homes, to perpetuate their tradition. They didn’t think of the future. And yet this is what happened: the Orthodox Church was sent here through and with those poor men. The truth itself, the fullness of the apostolic faith — all this came here, and here we are now, filling this hall and proclaiming this apostolic faith — the faith that has strengthened the universe. And this leads us to the event which still belongs to the future.
If today we can only proclaim, if we can only pray for that coming triumph of Orthodoxy in this country and in the world, our Orthodox faith forces us to believe that it is not by accident but by divine providence that the Orthodox faith today has reached all countries, all cities, all continents of the universe. After that historic weakness of our religion, after the persecutions by the Roman Empire, by the Turks, by the godless atheists, after all the troubles that we had to go through, today a new day begins. Something new is going to happen. And it is this future of Orthodoxy that we have to rejoice about today.
We can already have a vision of that future when, in the West, a strong American Orthodox Church comes into existence. We can see how this faith, which for such a long time was an alien faith here, will become truly and completely universal in the sense that we will answer the questions of all men, and also all their questions. For if we believe in that word: “Orthodoxy,” “the true faith”; if for one moment we try to understand what it means: the true, the full Christianity, as it has been proclaimed by Christ and His disciples; if our Church has preserved for all ages the message of the apostles and of the fathers and of the saints in its purest form, then, my dear friends, here is the answer to the questions and to the problems and to the sufferings of our world. You know that our world today is so complex. It is changing all the time. And the more it changes, the more people fear, the more they are frightened by the future, the morethey are preoccupied by what will happen to them. And this is where Orthodoxy must answer their problem; this is where Orthodoxy must accept the challenge of modern civilization and reveal to men of all nations, to all men in the whole world, that it has remained the force of God left in history for the transformation, for the deification, for the transfiguration of human life.
The past, the present, the future: At the beginning, one lonely man on the cross — the complete defeat. And if at that time we had been there with all our human calculations, we probably would have said: “That’s the end. Nothing else will happen.” The twelve left Him. There was no one, no one to hope. The world was in darkness. Everything seemed finished. And you know what happened three days later. Three days later He appeared. He appeared to His disciples, and their hearts were burning within them because they knew that He was the risen Lord. And since then, in every generation, there have been people with burning hearts, people who have felt that this victory of Christ had to be carried again and again into this world, to be proclaimed in order to win new human souls and to be the transforming force in history.
Today this responsibility belongs to us. We feel that we are weak. We feel that we are limited, we are divided, we are still separated in so many groups, we have so many obstacles to overcome. But today, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we close our eyes for a second and we rejoice in that unity which is already here: priests of various national churches praying together, people of all backgrounds uniting in prayer for the triumph of Orthodoxy. We are already in a triumph, and may God help us keep that triumph in our hearts, so that we never give up hope in that future event in the history of orthodoxy when Orthodoxy will become the victory which eternally overcomes all the obstacles, because that victory is the victory of Christ Himself.
As we approach the most important moment of the Eucharist, the priest says, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess….” What is the condition of the real triumph of Orthodoxy? What is the way leading to the real, the final, the ultimate victory of our faith? The answer comes from the Gospel. The answer comes from Christ Himself and from the whole tradition of Orthodoxy. It is love. Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess . . . confess our faith, our Orthodoxy. Let us, from now on, feel responsible for each other. Let us understand that even if we are divided in small parishes, in small dioceses, we first of all belong to one another. We belong together, to Christ, to His Body, to the Church. Let us feel responsible for each other, and let us love one another. Let us put above everything else the interests of Orthodoxy in this country. Let us understand that each one of us today has to be the apostle of Orthodoxy in a country which is not yet Orthodox, in a society which is asking us: “What do you believe?” “What is your faith?” And let us, above everything else, keep the memory, keep the experience, keep the taste of that unity which we are anticipating tonight.
At the end of the first century — when the Church was still a very small group, a very small minority, in a society which was definitely anti-Christian when the persecution was beginning — St. John the Divine, the beloved disciple of Christ, wrote these words: “And this is the victory, our faith, this is the victory.” There was no victory at that time, and yet he knew that in his faith he had the victory that can be applied to us today. We have the promise of Christ, that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. We have the promise of Christ that if we have faith, all things are possible. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, that He will fill all that which is weak, that He will help us at the moment when we need help. In other words, we have all the possibilities, we have everything that we need, and therefore the victory is ours. It is not a human victory which can be defined in terms of money, of human success, of human achievements. What we are preaching tonight, what we are proclaiming tonight, what we are praying for tonight, is the victory of Christ in me, in us, in all of you in the Orthodox Church in America. And that victory of Christ in us, of the one who for us was crucified and rose again from the dead, that victory will be the victory of His Church.
Today is the triumph of Orthodoxy, and a hymn sung today states solemnly and simply: “This is the Apostolic faith, this is the Orthodox faith, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith that is the foundation of the world.” My dear brothers and sisters, this is also our own faith. We are chosen. We are elected. We are the happy few that can say of our faith, “apostolic,” “universal,” “the faith of our fathers,” “Orthodoxy,” “the truth.” Having this wonderful treasure, let us preserve it, let us keep it, and let us also use it in such a way that this treasure becomes the victory of Christ in us and in His Church. Amen.
May you all have a blessed Lent and Easter.
After a brutal war with Georgia a few years ago over disputed territory, I’m warily hopeful that there is peace between Orthodox brothers again. From Interfax:
Moscow, January 11, Interfax – Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent an anniversary message to the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.
“Please accept my cordial congratulations on the 35th anniversary of your patriarchal ministry and your 80th birthday,” the president’s office quoted Putin as saying in his message.
Putin credited Ilia II with invaluable work in cementing Orthodoxy’s positions in Georgia and asserting Orthodox values in Georgian society.
“We highly appreciate your warm attitude to Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Your personal efforts and your appeals for peace, love, creative work, harmony and unity have been instrumental in taking the age-old ties of friendship and mutual understanding between our peoples through difficult times in history. I am convinced that fruitful spiritual, cultural and intellectual dialogue will become a solid basis for the further development of relations between Russia and Georgia. With all my heart, I wish you health and well-being,” Putin said.
We’ll see. Here’s the story from Interfax:
Moscow, January 10, Interfax – Russia is summoned not to borrow the civil society ideas from the foreign experience but to realize the ones which correspond to the self-consciousness of the people, the head of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin.
“Some radical political forces threaten us with 2017. They say that 17 is the fatal figure for Russia. As a matter of fact we have good chance of making the forthcoming 17th year opposite to 1917, to make it a year of creation, not destruction, to make it a year of state crisis but its strengthening, reinforcing of the ties between the state and the people,” the priest said at a press conference in Interfax.
By his opinion, “Russia`s mistakes in the 20th century generally were caused by trying to borrow ideologies alien to its development, self-consciousness and historical way for its people.”
“This borrowing led to 1917, caused a lot of problems after that date, made a sharp deterioration of psychological state for Russia in 1990s when the people for some reason decided to copy some foreign ideas and models to build up the worthy future,” he said.
Under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox Church has had its fair share of ups and downs. Between scandals involving third-rate art ‘performance’ groups to accusations, sometimes well-founded, of graft, the Russian laity is growing stronger. This I’m pleased to see.
On New Year’s Eve we feel the mystery of time more powerfully than at any other time. We feel, in other words, that its flow – in which we live and in which everything constantly vanishes as the “past” and constantly places us face to face with the unknown future – essentially contains within itself the main question that everyone is called to answer with their lives.
“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” asks the poet [Pushkin] in his immortal line. Indeed, it is enough for one moment to turn away from the cares that absorb us, enough mentally to stop the ceaseless waterfall of time, disappearing into the abyss, in order for the question “Why is life given and what is its meaning?” to rise from the depths of the subconscious, where we normally hide it from ourselves, and stand before us in all its implacability.
I was not, now I am, and I will not be; thousands of years passed before me, and thousands will come after… On the surface of this unimaginably infinite ocean I am but a fleeting bubble, into which a ray of life flashes for a split second, just to be extinguished and disappear then and there.
“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” What, in comparison with this only honest, rueful question do all the loud theories mean that seek to answer this with tiresome theoretics of a “bright future”? “We will build our new world. He who was nothing will become everything” [from The Internationale]… The most naïve, gullible, and dull-witted person cannot but know that all this is a lie. For both the very one “who was nothing” and the one who “will become everything” will disappear from the face of the earth, from this hopeless mortal world.
Therefore, regardless of whatever we were taught by pathetic prophets of a pathetic happiness, only one real question stands eternally before man: does this ever-so-brief life have any meaning? What does it mean, when compared with the boundless abyss of time, that this flash of consciousness, this ability to think, rejoice, and suffer, this extraordinary life that, however seemingly futile and random, is still looked upon by us as a gift?
Now the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. And as long as it strikes life for twelve short seconds stops and pauses, and everything as it were focuses on what is now to begin, posing and responding to the same torturous question: what is this – another step towards a meaningless end and disappearance, or the unexpected flashing of a ray of renewal and new beginnings? In response come words from an infinite loftiness and an infinite profundity: That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth… And of His fulness have we
received, and grace for grace (John 1:9-12, 14, 16).
These are the words of the Evangelist John the Theologian in the very beginning of his Gospel. They are thoroughly imbued with the joy, confidence, and love of a man who has seen the light of true life, about which it is said that it shines in darkness and was not overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). Listening attentively to them, the very same joy, the very same confidence, and the very same love begin to be kindled in our own souls. Time is powerless if this light shines above us. Life is not vain, life is not chance, but is a gift from on high, from God, about Whom the same John the Theologian said that in Him was life, and this life was the light of man (John 1:4). And every man that comes into this world is once again set alight, is once again gifted this life, and the love of God is addressed to each one of them, and to each one of them is addressed God’s commandment: “Live!” Live, in order to love! Live, so that your life will be filled
with love, light, wisdom, and knowledge! Live, so that in your life darkness, meaninglessness, and eventually death itself will be overcome! For eternity already shines through this world and through this earthly life. This gift of life in the world and with the world is given us that eternal life with God and in God may become part of us.
Yes, suffering, doubt, trials, the bitterness of separation – all these have fully become part of our lot. How often we are weakened in this battle, and give up, and fall, and change! How often we are scared and lonely, how often we lose heart when we see how evil and hatred are triumphing in the world! But the One Who gave us this life and granted us freedom taught us to discern good and evil; He gave us the loftiest of all gifts: love. For He said, and continues to say: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). We, too, can overcome in this very world, and in it our lives can shine with that same light that once flashed forth and continues to shine – that light that the darkness has not overcome.
The clock strikes… Let this mysterious future come to us; for, whatever it might bring with it, we know and believe that God is with us, that Christ has not orphaned us, that He is faithful that promised (Hebrews 10:23). Here are the marvelous words of Vladimir Soloviev:
Death and time reign on earth,
Do not call them your masters;
Everything, whirling about, disappears in the haze
The only thing fixed is the sun of love.
Yes, this is our calling, our freedom as children of God: not to call “masters” those things whose dominions have been destroyed, and not to close ourselves from access to the Sun of love, faith, and hope.
The holiday will soon be over, and routine, labor, fatigue, and depression will begin. But let us not permit the daily routine to overpower ours souls! Just as sunlight penetrates through closed shutters, so too let the light of Christ, through this mysterious holiday, become present in our daily lives, rendering our entire lives an ascent, a communion with God – a difficult but joyful path to eternal life. For the Apostle John said: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann