One week ago we commemorated the Sunday of All Saints, which is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. On the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven in the form of tongues of fire in order to unite Himself with the holy disciples and apostles of Christ. When the Holy Spirit descends unites Himself with man, man is utterly transfigured and becomes godlike. And last Sunday we saw the results of this descent and transfiguration: we saw the entire host of heaven gathered together, the assembly of All Saints. And likewise today, on the second Sunday after Pentecost, it is the custom of the Holy Orthodox Church to commemorate all the local saints of the particular nation in which the feast is being celebrated. But today, we celebrate the memory of All Saints of Russia.
This might for us engender some perplexity. Here we are, American monks living in America, praying together in the English language, and yet we are not celebrating today the feast of All Saints of America, but rather All Saints of Russia. Nearly all of us are even converts, and every single one of us living in this monastery was born and raised right here in the United States. We are not Russians who have come here in exile, wishing to cling to every remnant of our lost fatherland which we can possibly find. So why do we celebrate today the feast of All Saints of Russia?
There are many today who are speaking of the possibility of a united American Orthodox Church. There are many who long for an end to the ethnic divisions and jurisdictional boundaries which separate the Orthodox faithful from one another in this country. And truly the jurisdictional situation today is a tragic aberration, one of the countless bitter consequences of the god-hating Bolshevik Revolution. We in America were left bereft of our mother church, the Russian Church, which had until then guided and lovingly cared for the Orthodox missionary presence in this land. Therefore each of us had no choice but to fend for ourselves, and the resulting jurisdictional divisions have indeed been an enormous stumbling-block in our sacred mission to bring the Holy Orthodox Faith to the spiritually starving people of America.
But the pestilential scourge of communism brought another particular sorrow to our own Russian Orthodox Church Abroad: we were forced to separate ourselves from the Russian hierarchy in order to retain freedom and independence from the demonic Soviet regime. This was not a declaration of independence, but rather a grievous and temporary measure, one only taken at the utmost necessity. But thanks be to God, the Soviet regime eventually collapsed under the weight of its own iniquity, and eleven years ago full unity was restored between the Russian Church and the Russian Church Abroad.
That is why it is so important that we honor today the memory of All Saints of Russia. We have now, after many long and sorrowful years of estrangement, at last been reunited with our mother, and what possible reaction could the heart of any child have to such a long-awaited reunion other than joy? What a travesty it would be if that child were to choose just such a moment to begin speaking about independence and self-sufficiency! There will be time enough for all of that later. But now it is the time to rejoice together, to become reacquainted with one another, and above all it is time for our mother to again share with us her wisdom, to begin teaching us again the most important lessons of life which circumstances prevented her from teaching us before.
Because of our modern intellectual and independent disposition, it is very easy for us to forget a very important truth: Orthodoxy is not merely a set of principles and ideas that can be learned from a book, nor is it a faith that can be joined simply by assenting to certain abstract propositions. Orthodoxy is life, and life is a gift that is not given in the abstract, but personally. The giving of life is an act of love. It is only in that living and personal act of love that we can find our own life, our own identity.
It was the Russian saints who gave us the gift of spiritual life, who begat us in the Holy Orthodox Faith. We were not born in a vacuum, but out of century upon century of spiritual labor and podvig in the Russian land. That is why we continue to pray during the divine church services for the Russian people, and that is why we continue to especially revere the Russian saints. That is why we must continue to celebrate their memory, to read their lives, and above all to struggle – according to our feeble ability – to follow in their footsteps. Because only then will we learn who we ourselves really are.
We are commanded in the book of Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” Because, as St. Paul says in another place, “though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
This is what this Sunday is all about. It is not about us; it is about our fathers. It is about the faith that transfigured their lives, and that made them into saints. It is about learning to follow in their footsteps, to imitate that faith. But in order to do so, as the verse from Hebrews says, it is first necessary to “consider the outcome of their life.” If we do not read, study, and love the lives of the Russian saints, then we are cutting ourselves off from the very branch of the Church to which we have been grafted by the grace of the All-holy Spirit, and we thereby deprive ourselves of a millennium of spiritual wisdom and experience.
And it is above all spiritual wisdom and experience that we are sorely lacking in America today. We are all spiritual infants, mere beginners on the path to salvation. But we do not need to walk that path alone. We do not need to find our own way. On this Sunday of All Saints of Russia, we find the way to Heaven brilliantly illuminated, shining clearly for all who have spiritual eyes to see. We have our guides and teachers, pastors and shepherds, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and friends. We have Saints Cyril and Methodius, and Saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves. We have St. Sergius of Radonezh and St. Seraphim of Sarov, Saints Sergius and Herman of Valaam, St. Herman of Alaska and St. Innocent of Moscow. We have the Holy Elders of Optina and the Holy Elders of Glinsk. And above all we have the New-martyrs and Confessors of Russia, with the Holy Royal Passion-bearers Tsar-martyr Nicholas and Tsaritsa-martyr Alexandra and all the Royal Family at their head.
But it is not only their lives and their teachings that these holy saints have given to us, their weak and sinful spiritual children. Above all, we have their holy prayers and their heavenly intercessions. As the Scriptures also say, the “fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” And how much more the fervent prayers of such a host of saints as we have before us on this holy icon today! So let us humbly and reverently beseech their prayers, so that this nation too may one day blossom forth with the same fruit of Orthodox faith and piety which so abundantly adorned the Russian land.
It was precisely such Orthodox faith and piety which allowed the Russian people to weather the unprecedented storm of godlessness and persecution that visited their land in the 20thcentury. May we also here in America acquire at least some small portion of that faith and piety now in the 21stcentury, because as one Russian elder warned: “What started in Russia will end in America.”
The hour is late. But that only means that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, as St. Paul wrote: “now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” So let us awake out of sleep, and let us look with unwavering hope and eager expectation upon the icon before us today. All the saints of the Russian land are gathered here together with us, now during the Divine Liturgy, and every single one of us is being called to join their ranks and to enter with them into the Heavenly Kingdom. Let us strive therefore, with the help of God, to become faithful children and devoted disciples of these great luminaries of Orthodoxy. Let us read and be inspired by their lives, let us study their divinely-wise teachings, and above all let us earnestly beseech their holy prayers. And if we do so, then we can be assured that they will not leave their children orphaned.
Through the prayers of all the saints who have shown forth in the Russian land, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.