THE GREAT LENT
On spiritual paralysis
In one of the Sunday Gospel readings we hear of how the Lord forgave the sins of a certain man sick of palsy, who was brought over by four friends and let down through the roof of the house to rest at the feet of Jesus Christ. Son, thy sins are forgiven thee, the Lord said to him. The man sick of palsy had been brought to Christ to be healed of his illness, but Christ first cures his soul of sin and only afterwards cures his body of illness. Son, He said to the man sick of palsy, thy sins are forgiven thee, and only after forgiving his sin did the Lord say to him: Arise and take up thy bed, and go thine way into thine house.
If this man sick of palsy had been brought to an earthly physician, the latter would definitely not have paid any attention to his patient’s sins, but would have tried to cure him with various physical medications. But the Lord does otherwise: He cures bodily paralysis through forgiveness of sins. Why is that? Because the illnesses that come upon us are a consequence of our sins, and because it is impossible to be completely delivered from illness without first being cleansed of sin. All illnesses and death itself began from the spiritual debilitation of the human soul, and now for many thousand years sin produces all manner of illness of soul and body in people.
Why then did the Holy Church establish this reading about the man sick of palsy? For the simple reason, dear brethren, that is sees all of as being enfeebled, it sees us in the grip of spiritual palsy, i.e. sin, and wants all of us to hurry to the Lord Jesus Christ to be healed. In truth, all of us are in the grip of spiritual palsy. Sin causes our heart to be paralyzed, our mind becomes blunted to all that is spiritual, and our will to do good weakens. For this reason the Church, knowing how important firmness of heart is for man, instructs us with the words of St. Andrew of Crete’s canon: O Lord, upon the rock of Thy commandments make firm my wavering heart, for Thou alone art holy and Lord.
Thus we are all enfeebled. Some of us, prodded by our conscience, recognize our own illness and go to Christ to be healed, while others need earnest outside help, need friends such as the ones the man sick of palsy had, who let him down through the roof to rest at the Saviour’s feet. For this reason the Lord encourages us both to repent ourselves and at the same time, through our own example and faith, help others become aware of their sins, leave off their profligate life, and lead them to Christ.
It is very convenient to come for repentance to the Lord – our celestial phy-sician. He has «visiting hours» every week. Every Saturday and Sunday in the church the Lord receives all those who are enfeebled by sins and heals them commensurately with their faith, with the priest serving as an intermediary. Each time a sinner sincerely repents of his sins, the Lord Himself says to him internally: Son, thy sins are forgiven thee. What can prevent us from approaching Jesus Christ and receiving a cure from Him? Come, dear brethren, and be healed: the «doctor’s office» is open throughout the entire Great Lent. The Lord Himself will see you. The priest only serves as a witness before Him, as an intermediary between Him and you. Only do not forget that one must come to the Lord with a keen awareness of one’s sins, with a recognition of one’s spiritual enfeeblement, and we must believe with all our heart that He alone has the power on earth to forgive sins. Also do not forget that after being cured of spiritual palsy it is dangerous and unreasonable to fall into a state of enfeeblement anew, i.e. continue to commit sins that had already been forgiven. Let us clearly remember the words which the Lord said to the Gospel paralytic: Behold, thou art cured; sin no more, lest worse things befall thee. Amen.
ON PATIENTLY BEARING ONE’S CROSS
“And He, bearing His cross, went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst” (John 19:17-18).
The major tenet of Christian moral teaching is the teaching about the narrow path or the bearing of one’s cross. Saint Ignatius Bryanchaninov indicates that the narrow path has been established by God Himself for His true followers.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ spent His earthly life in the greatest humbleness, being subjected to constant sorrows and harassment, being persecuted, slandered, humiliated by His enemies, who finally sent Him to a shameful death with criminals. The path of salvation that leads to eternal life has been established by the Lord as a narrow way full of sorrows – established both by the Lord’s holy example and by His holy teaching. The Lord advised His disciples and His followers that they would be sorrowful in the world, i.e. during their earthly lives, that the world would hate them, would persecute and humiliate them, would put them to death. The Lord likened His disciples’ and followers’ situation among depraved humanity to that of sheep among wolves. From this we can see that a life on earth full of trials and tribulations is the Lord’s own establishment for His true servants. And being the Lord’s own establishment, it cannot be deflected by any human means, any wisdom, any sensibility, any prudence, any vigilance.”
The great Russian pastor Protopriest Valentin Amphiteatrov also paid a great deal of attention to the Holy Fathers’ teaching on the bearing of one’s cross, and provided constant instruction on the proper endurance of sorrows, unquestioning fortitude, and complete submission to the will of God.
“Let us, Christians, follow the example of the Mother of God and immerse our will in the will of the Almighty, awaiting from Him instruction and aid in all good things…” “Why does the Saviour exhibit such wondrous tranquility amid the most terrible suffering? – because of His complete submission to the will of God the Father. He suffered, He pleaded in His humanity to have the chalice of suffering pass Him by. But the moment arrived in which He ended with a prayer: not as I will, but as Thou wilt. After that the Saviour no longer prayed to have His predestined chalice of suffering pass Him by…
The Lord showed such an example so that we, too, would seek tranquility in absolute submission to the will of God. For this reason He demands self-sacrifice from us, saying: whoever wishes to follow Me should deny himself. It is as though He were saying: whoever wishes to attain the perfection prescribed in the Gospel should reject his own will and live according to God’s commandment, because without God’s will even a single hair will not fall from your head. Do not pay any attention to things that are both pleasant and unpleasant for your vanity. Do not depend on mighty protectors and do not be offended by your visible enemies. Pleasant things are given to you for you not to become despondent, while unpleasant ones are given so that you do not overstep yourself. The mighty of this world may offer support to you only if God allows it, while persecutors may torment, humiliate, and harm you only as long as God allows it. Raise you mind and heart to God, and you will easily believe that God decisively rules over everything. One can do evil without the will of God, but even evil itself leads to a point at which good becomes clearer and more precious.”
In showing that life on earth does not represent any real joy or comfort except for the hope of salvation, St. Ignatius explains that the entire Christian life on earth consists solely of repentance. “Having taken upon Himself the human flesh and all human weaknesses except sin, the Lord also took penitence upon Himself… The innocent and most holy Lord, having suffered in His humanity for the guilty and sin-infected mankind, has shown suffering to be the path of salvation for all His followers, for all those of His provenance and ancestry… The innocent and most holy Lord spent His entire earthly life in suffering: even more so should the guilty suffer in full realization that they deserve to suffer; they should rejoice that by means of short-lived suffering they are delivered from eternal torment, they enter the ranks of the Lord’s followers and intimate ones. Whoever rejects suffering does not believe himself worthy of it, – such a one does not acknowledge his fall and damnation! Whoever passes his earthly life in pleasure – such a one renounces his own salvation!”
Acknowledging oneself worthy of all manner of punishment leads to a knowledge of the Saviour, as can be seen in the example of the wise thief. Some may say, perhaps, that the thief was an obvious criminal, and thus such a repentant state was natural for him. However, the other thief who was crucified next to Christ was likewise an obvious criminal, and yet he did not arrive at a realization of his sinfulness because there was no mercy or humility in his heart, but only hardness and pride. God’s saints continuously thought of themselves as sinners despite evident gifts of grace; the greatest villains, on the contrary, justified themselves and, being up to their neck in evil deeds, did not cease to proclaim their own virtue.”
All righteous people spent their earthly lives in sorrow: “For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Heb. 12:6). When the Lord came across the virtuous youth in the Gospel, He advised him to follow after Him, taking up his cross. Let us not reject the summons! The summons is accepted when, upon the arrival of sorrows, a Christian deems himself worthy of these tribulations; a Christian takes up his cross and follows the Lord when he thanks and glorifies God for all the sorrows that have been sent, when he submits himself entirely to the will of God, when he fulfills the Gospel commandments, especially the commandment on loving one’s enemies.
“The cross of true crossbearers is a good-natured endurance of unmerited suffering. When we see a sick person calling upon the name of God without complaint, when we see before us widows and orphans who, having lost their dear ones, submit themselves to the will of God, – these are Christ’s crossbearers. When we see before us people who are ragged and deceived, when we see people whose honor and innocence is being trampled upon by envy, malice, and slander, – these are Christ’s crossbearers. And we ourselves are Christ’s crossbearers when we allow goodness to take over our hearts.”
The Holy Spirit Himself extends a celestial greeting to those who have been subjected to misfortunes: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2). “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12).
Nowadays this teaching is especially important, because, according to the prophecies of the Holy Fathers, in the end times the monastics and all Christians will be saved primarily through endurance of sorrows. Other endeavors: fasting, spiritual labors, great physical feats, nightly vigils, etc. will be taken away from us because of a paucity of spiritual and physical strength. “One time the Holy Fathers of an Egyptian skete were prophetically discoursing about the last generation. “What did we do?” – they said. One of them, the great Abba Ischerion, replied: “We fulfilled God’s commandments.” They asked him: “What will those who come after us do?” “They, – said the Abba, - will fulfill only half of our endeavors.” And again he was asked: “And what will those who come after them do?” Abba Ischerion replied: “They will not engage in any monastic endeavors, but they will be subjected to sorrows, and those of them who endure will have a higher standing than either we or our fathers.”
The same applies to the whole of Christendom!
THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem
After Christ showed His absolute power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead, and after Mary anointed His body with precious myrrh, of which He spoke as of His anointment for burial, the Lord stepped upon the path of voluntary passion to His Cross, in order to fulfill the Gospel – the glad tidings of God’s love for mankind – to the very end, to show this love in deed and not only in word.
His entire life from Nativity to Baptism, from embarking upon His public service with the words “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” to today’s entry into Jerusalem – has been the blossoming of a miracle. Beginning with the first miracle in Cana of Galilee, when at His Mother’s humble request He turned water into good wine, and ending with this last miracle, which He performed in the home of His dearest friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, who of all believers in Him were the firmest in their belief.
In response to the prayers of Mary, sister of Lazarus, He raises him to life and at the same time demonstrates His glory, as it was said in the Gospel of the first miracle. However, at that time He told His Mother that His hour had not yet come. But now, three years later, His hour has finally come. There are no more impediments to the performance of the greatest miracle. The Lord Himself speaks of this in the Gospel: “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23). “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31).
The Lord always goes this way, and only for those who believe in Him does He perform miracles and manifest His glory. Only for them. Earlier, in His secret conversation with Nicodemus, the Lord said that man must change by being born from on high – through water and the Spirit – for a new eternal life. And even Nicodemus, a Judaic teacher, who searched for true faith, was unable to understand this concept.
And now, having raised Lazarus from the dead, the Lord demonstrated this complete change, this prophecy of what will happen to all mankind. However, this concept presented an insurmountable difficulty for those who had no faith in Him, and this lack of belief led them to a scheme to kill both Lazarus and Christ. This was the scheme of Satan, the original murderer of man, and of his servants – to kill Christ. And not only Christ, but all mankind. Satan’s intent is to kill all mankind, while Christ wishes to give everyone life, and life in abundance, “affirming before His passion the universal resurrection.” For this reason Christ’s passion begins immediately upon the resurrection of Lazarus.
The resurrection of Lazarus opens the doors to the death of Christ. Christ openly reveals Himself, entering into Jerusalem as the King of Israel, as the Master of the temple, as the Lord Who, according to the prophet, “shall suddenly come to His temple, and who may abide the day of His coming?” (Mal. 3:1-2). The high priests and the scribes, keepers of the sacred mysteries of the faith, were unable to tolerate the sight of Him. And not because He entered into Jerusalem and into the temple with unsurpassed glory, but on the contrary, because His entry – meek and humble – deceived their expectations.
Pascha begins precisely with complete rejection, humiliation, and hate of Christ on the part of the high priests. He was coming, meek and humble, and this was irreconcilable with their dreams of Judea’s majesty.
Christ enters into Jerusalem through narrow gates, and here begins the way of the Cross for those who love the truth. Passion week begins with Palm Sunday. Great praises are sung to Christ on this day, and we cry out together with the crowd: “Hosannah! Save us on high, King of Israel! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” But the rejoicing of the people, the welcome to Christ Who is on His way to death reveal the depth of mankind’s fall, reveal the blindness of people before the light of Christ’s love. He is delivering them from death, while they are condemning Him to death.
In greeting Christ the crowd (and even His disciples) expected to see worldly triumph. They did not think of the fact that He was going to His death, and this in itself was condemning Him to death. We are amazed at how easily the cries of “Hosannah!” become the cries of “Crucify Him!” But in truth, as the Holy Fathers say, even at this moment we could hear the words of Christ said on the Cross: “Father! Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And through all this the Lord, the Conqueror of death, continues coming.
“Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is He Who comes to save mankind through the passion of the Cross! The Lord speaks of mankind just as He does of His friend Lazarus: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (John 11:4).
“Rejoice, O Zion, for the Master, Who is carried by the seraphim, Who holds all within His hand, is coming on a young ass.” Fulfilling the prophecies of the prophets, Christ comes to the city in which the prophets were put to death, in order to be put to death Himself and save us from eternal death. The Church knows that the rejection of Christ, the suffering to which He is subjected – humiliation, blows, spitting, the Cross – represent the mystery of our salvation. The Lord endures everything meekly, in order for our suffering and our death to become – through Him – a gift of God. Today, in our modern world of criminal injustice, the Church of martyrs and confessors is approaching a new time of trial. But if we are with Christ, the more our suffering grows – the more we participate in His sacrifice on the Cross, the stronger becomes our tie with His victory over death, with His divine joy, and the more we come to know His love for us.
The Lord enters into Jerusalem, and the meaning of His unjust suffering is turned around completely: formerly it was a sign of the blind tyranny of sin over mankind in accordance with sinful law, and now it becomes the measure of the gift of His glory and resurrection. Having formerly suffered defeat, we now greet Him with palms and follow after Him, “carrying the banners of victory.” Amen.
THE LEGAL ASPECTS OF THE SAVIOUR’S TRIAL
After the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus, many Jews came to believe in Christ’s divine power. “Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said: ‘What do we do? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.’ And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them: ‘Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not’… Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put Him to death” (John 11:47-50, 53).
The Jewish leaders feverishly sought the means to accomplish their intent. Falling into the sinful passion of avarice, one of Christ’s disciples, Judas Iscariot, offered to betray his Divine Teacher to them for 30 pieces of silver. In the evening of Thursday, after the Mystic Supper, Judas accomplished this betrayal. Christ was seized.
Jewish law forbad making an arrest in the evening or at night. As an exception, a nighttime arrest was allowed when the threat existed that a criminal would commit a new crime during the night, or that he would flee. But even then the trial could begin only on the morning of the following day. (In the Acts of the Apostles we see that for this reason the incarcerated apostles were kept in prison until the morning.)
In accordance with Jewish law, the inquest began with an accusation from eyewitnesses or individuals who were victims of the crime. The court warned the accusers not to forget that it is one thing to testify in regard to property, and quite another thing when a human life is involved. When slander was spoken, and on the basis of such false testimony a man was condemned to death, the responsibility for the injustice fell upon the false witness and his descendants. (This explains the cries of the Jewish crowd during the trial before Pilate: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). The Jews, as the Saviour’s accusers, took upon themselves the entire responsibility for their testimony in accordance with this oath.)
The Saviour’s trial and His detainment took place at night in violation of the law. Moreover, the inquest began without an accusation from witnesses or victims. At that time only the high priest investigated the existence of guilt, thus bringing an accusation before the Sanhedrin.
According to ancient Jewish law, just as in present times, the court should be objective towards the accused. But in the trial of Christ, the high priest simultaneously took on the function of both prosecutor and defense attorney. The holy Evangelist St. John the Theologian confirms this: “The high priest then asked Jesus of His disciples and of His doctrine. Jesus answered him: ‘I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort… ask them which heard Me, what I have said unto them’.” (John 18:19-21). In His first words at the trial Christ did not try to justify Himself. He was more concerned for the soul of the high priest, which was under the threat of damnation in this unjust affair. His words reminded all that the law demands an accusation from eyewitnesses. For this reason, when one of the servants struck the Saviour in the face because of His answer, Jesus Christ said to him: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou Me?” (John 18:23).
In view of the obvious violation of the legality of the inquest, it was useless to expect objectivity from the court, and so Jesus ceased to participate in the unjust trial. “And when He was accused of the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing” (Matt. 27:12).
Then they began to search for witnesses. “Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put Him to death” (Matt. 26:59). Many were found, but their testimony was false.
According to Jewish law, there were three categories of witnesses: false witnesses who were obviously lying; idle witnesses whose testimony was not con-firmed by other proofs in the case; and reliable witnesses, whereby the testimony of several witnesses coincided.
At the daybreak of Friday, the Sanhedrin convoked its meeting. It was a session of the lesser Sanhedrin assembly, although criminal cases, which were punishable by death, were required by law to be investigated by the greater Sanhedrin assembly. This assembly was twice as large, which was a requisite guarantee of the objectivity of the verdict.
Many false witnesses appeared at the Sanhedrin assembly. From the holy Evangelist Matthew we learn that two of them declared: “He said: ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days’.” (Matt. 26:61). The judges accepted them as reliable witnesses. But St. Matthew called them false witnesses. They distorted Christ’s words about the fact that He, the Omnipotent God, will erect a new temple – not build by hands – on the site of the hand-built temple of Jerusalem, with which He foretold of His resurrection.
Despite the testimony of the false witnesses, the described action did not merit the death sentence. Then the high priest himself began to conduct the inquest on the Saviour. The high priest said: “I adjure Thee by the living God, that Thou tell us whether Thou be the Christ, Son of God?” (Matt. 26:63). Jesus replied: “Thou hast said; nevertheless, I say unto you: hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Hearing such words, Caiaphas did something completely unprecedented – he tore the high priest’s garment. He thereby tried to publicly show his “righteous wrath,” but in essence he demonstrated his frenzied rage against the Lord. The high priest’s garment – gold-broidered, made from finely-woven golden and silver threads, was preserved and passed on as a holy relic from the time of Aaron. Thus the tearing of it became a visible sign of God’s invisible punishment – the depriving of Jewish priests of God-given priestly dignity.
The high priest exclaimed: “He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? Behold, now ye have heard His blasphemy” (Matt. 26:65). These words clearly show how the “judge,” instead of preserving legality, becomes an accuser himself. However, the high priest said this because some of the members of the Sanhedrin, among whom was Joseph of Arimathea, insisted that they found no guilt in the accused.
Soon after that the Jewish leaders pronounced the verdict: “He is guilty of death” (Matt. 26:66). Another violation was committed. Jewish law demanded that when the trial was over, the crime proven, and a death sentence expected, the accused was to be taken to prison, while the court sat in session the entire day, discussing the crime, the proofs, and the punishment (during this time it was forbidden to drink wine). And it was only on the following morning that the punishment was determined. The members of Sanhedrin violated this important guarantee of the fairness of the verdict. They were in a hurry, for the day of Sabbath, sacred to the Jews, was approaching, and it coincided with the feast of Passover, at which time it was forbidden to engage in any affairs. This also explains why the previous violations of the law were committed: the nighttime arrest, the nighttime trial, an inquest without accusations from eyewitnesses or victims. If the Saviour had been detained on Friday morning, the trial would have taken place on Friday, and then the entire Sabbath day the court would have had to discuss the fairness of the verdict. Being in a hurry to condemn the Saviour to death, and at the same time officially observing the law of Moses, the Jews committed a vicious and unjust act. Thus, while preserving the letter of the law, the Jewish leaders renounced its spirit of mercy and truth.
In order to punish the Saviour with death, the Jews rejected their original accusation for which they had found false witnesses, and condemned Christ for blasphemy. Such a condemnation was based only upon His words to the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:65). In the language of the law this is defined as self-confession. However, according to law, the punishment cannot be based upon the accused person’s self-confession without being confirmed by the testimony of other witnesses, gathered in the process of the trial, because it was believed that due to extreme psychological tension a person who stood trial tended to confess to non-existent crimes.
In view of the fact that Judea at that time was subordinate to the Roman Empire, in order for a death sentence to be executed, it had to be confirmed by the Roman procurator.
The Saviour was taken to Pontius Pilate, who was the procurator of Judea, i.e. the deputy of Emperor Tiberias, and possessed full administrative, legal, and priestly powers. The place where the procurator stayed was called the praetorium. Since this place contained statues of the Roman gods, the Jews led the Saviour up to the praetorium, but did not enter it, in order not to be defiled before Passover. The Jews stopped at a place called the Pavement, from which the Roman procurator announced his verdicts and decisions. This was a podium about 80 cm. high, encompassing an area of about 180 square meters. The podium was paved with flagstones and covered with an awning.
The Roman trial of the Saviour
Attracted by the noise of the Jewish crowd, Pilate mounted the judgment seat and asked: “What accusation bring ye against this man?” (John 18:29). The procurator’s words show that he had decided to strictly follow Roman law. According to Roman law, it is impossible to begin a trial without a final accusation. The Jews were not ready to present it. On the one hand they sought to preserve their relative independence in religious affairs, and on the other hand they feared that their accusation would not stand up in an unbiased and objective court. They therefore replied: “If He were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered Him up unto thee” (John 18:30).
Pilate refused to judge without an accusation: “Take ye Him, and judge Him according to your law” (John 18:31), – he said. Thus the Jews were forced to present an accusation against the Saviour. The holy Evangelists do not describe this accusation, but it is implied in Pilate’s question to Jesus: “Art Thou the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33).
The elders’ accusation was ambiguous. The formal truth was reflected in the word “king.” The Sanhedrin condemned Christ because He had declared Himself to be the King of kings, i.e. God, and thus blasphemed. It was not clarified to Pilate precisely what kind of king the Saviour was – earthly or heavenly. The scribes did not dare to accuse Christ of believing Himself to be an earthly king, because many people knew of Christ’s words: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21), while an open assertion that Christ was being punished for blasphemy would not have been accepted by Pilate.
Pilate led Jesus into the praetorium for questioning. Here the Lord answered, for the trial was being held in accordance with the law. From His words Pilate understood that Christ’s teaching threatened neither the government, nor civil order. The procurator became convinced of Christ’s innocence also from the fact that the high priests were persecuting Him out of envy, and so he testified: “I find in Him no fault at all” (John 18:38). He therefore made an offer to the Jews, in accordance with existing custom, to let Christ go on account of the feast of Passover. However, spurred on by the high priests and the elders, the people expressed their preference for the brigand Barrabas.
At that time Pilate’s wife, too, spoke up in defense of the Saviour, when she told her husband about the terrible prophetic dream she had seen that night. Subsequently Pilate began to search for a way to free Christ.
Then the high priests came forth with the following accusation: “He stirreth up the people…beginning from Galilee to this place” (Luke 23:5). Pilate focused on the word “Galilee” and decided to free himself of a difficult affair by passing it on to the ruler of Galilee – King Herod.
At that time Herod was in Jerusalem to participate in the celebration of Passover. He had long sought a meeting with the Saviour in the hope that he would witness a miracle. But Christ did not satisfy the ruler’s idle curiosity and did not answer his questions. In resentment Herod gave the Saviour up to humiliation. However, as a sign of His innocence, Herod ordered the accused to be dressed in light-colored garments and returned to Pilate for trial. The ruler of Galilee did not have enough courage to declare Christ’s innocence and free Him. He preferred to return the affair to the Roman procurator.
Pilate found himself in a quandary. He gathered the Jews and told them: “Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people; and, behold, I, having examined Him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him; no, nor yet Herod, for I sent this man to him, and, lo, nothing worthy of death has been found in Him” (Luke 23:14-15).
In order to satisfy the desires of the Jews and at the same time pacify his own conscience at least slightly, the procurator determined the following: “I will therefore chastise Him, and release Him” (Luke 23:16), – and gave the Saviour over to flogging.
Pilate declared more than three times that he found no fault in the Saviour. Despite this he gave Him over to flogging. The punishment was severe. Roman whips – made of the sinews of oxen with ribbed tin tips – cut the flesh open, killing a person or leaving him half-dead.
The compromise verdict delivered by the procurator was a step towards his final abandonment of truth and legality. Pilate’s faint-heartedness encouraged the Jews, and they increased their pressure. “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend; whosoever maketh himself a King speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12), – they shouted. These words made Pilate afraid. Several complaints against him had already been sent to the Roman Emperor. Moreover, the accusation of “speaking against Caesar” constituted a betrayal of state and, according to law, was punishable by death.
Pilate retreated. He violated the statute proclaimed by Roman law that only a single punishment could be meted out for a single action. Despite the fact that Christ had already undergone an unjust and inhumane punishment – flogging, the procurator approved the death sentence of the Jewish Sanhedrin. “And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they desired, but he delivered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:24-25). St. John the Theologian notes: “Then delivered he Him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led Him away” (John 19:16).
(Pilate was the procurator of Judea from 26 to 33 A.D. He crushed a Sadducean revolt with great cruelty and was recalled from Judea. In Rome Pilate was unable to stand the accusations and did away with himself. Due to the faint-heartedness he had exhibited, his life ended similarly to that of the betrayer Judas Iscariot.)
No one raised his voice in defense of the Saviour.
The sentence was put into effect. Human injustice appeared to have taken the upper hand, and the forces of evil were victorious. But spiritually and invisibly the supremely victorious God’s love triumphed, and a truly great sacrifice was offered for the redemption of mankind.
THE JOY OF CHRIST’S RESURRECTION
The holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, speaking in his Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ’s last farewell talk with His disciples, cites the Saviour’s words: “Ye now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”
The farewell talk at which these words were said took place during the Mystic Supper, before the Saviour’s journey to suffering. In this talk the Saviour encouraged and fortified His disciples before those great and at the same time terrible events that were to take place in the night of His suffering – His podvig and death for the salvation of the world. Whoever reads or listens piously and attentively to the Gospel narrative on this talk, sees not only the divine depth of its content, but also its very special nature. Reading or hearing it, one could think that it was not the Saviour Himself who was embarking upon suffering, but rather His disciples – so agitated and upset were they, and so majestically calm was He, – knowing and seeing in advance all that He would have to undergo and suffer in just a few hours’ time. As a loving Father and a concerned Teacher He fortifies His beloved and loving children, and as a good Shepherd He prays to His Father for them…
At that time it was not yet revealed to the apostles all that their Lord and Teacher knew, but from His words and actions they clearly and undoubtedly felt that some terrible event was approaching, and that some kind of danger threatened their Teacher. It is for this reason that, comforting and encouraging them, the Lord says to them: “Ye now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”
The hours of Christ the Saviour’s redemptive suffering finally arrived, and His sorrowful prediction came to pass: “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone”… The apostles became afraid and abandoned their Teacher – and were themselves left alone. Inexpressible sorrow filled their souls, and darkness enveloped them… They loved their Lord with all their soul, all their heart, all their strength, all their thoughts, in the entire world there was no one and nothing more precious to them than He, and with His death the sun seemed to stop shining for them, and the world became empty, cold, and dark…
But then – Christ arose! A miracle of miracles occurred! There came the day of which in deep antiquity King David sang; “This day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice in it!” And the Church joyfully proclaims: “Now all is filled with light: the heavens, and the earth, and the netherworld; let all creation celebrate Christ’s resurrection, in which it is affirmed”… The feast of feasts and the triumph of triumphs!
The Holy Gospel tells us that the first word which the Lord said to the myrrh-bearing women who saw Him after His resurrection was an appeal to joy: “Rejoice!” – He told them, and bright joy filled their souls. But He also knew what sorrow and grief had taken hold of those whom in His love and compassion He had called His brothers – His beloved disciples. And thus, on this very day of His resurrection, He appeared to them as they sat gathered together. “And the disciples rejoiced, seeing the Lord,” – notes St. Evangelist John. What the Saviour had prophesied to the apostles at the Mystic Supper now came to pass – their souls were filled with the joy of His resurrection. Now no one could take away this joy from them, and they spread this joy to all of mankind. For in their preaching they primarily stressed the fact that they were witnesses to His resurrection, and the book of the Acts of the Apostles specifically points out that the apostles testified to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ with great power.
To this joy of Christ’s resurrection the Holy Church also summons all of us by saying: “Come, let us rejoice in the Lord who had destroyed the dominion of death”… Before Christ’s resurrection the “dominion of death” was indestructible – death lorded it over all living beings, and had the last word in regard to every living being by terminating its life. But the resurrected Christ trampled down death by death, destroyed its power, shattered the dominion of death, and now for every Christian believer death is only “eternal rest in blessed dormition” or, according to St. Basil the Great, “a passage from sorrow to that which is beneficial, sweet, comforting, and joyous.” This is what the Conqueror of hell and death granted to us through His resurrection. Come then – let us rejoice in the Lord!
And let nothing darken or take away from us the joy of the bright feast, of the great triumph of our faith, which is “the victory that overcometh the world” (1 John 5:4). Let dark clouds gather over the world. Let life become more disturbing and tense, and let our planet become like a powder keg thanks to the latest technological discoveries, ready to blow up any minute and destroy all existence. Let the world, which is getting farther and farther away from God and His truth proceed to its inevitable and inescapable end. “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give every man according to his work shall be” – says to us the Conqueror of death and hell (Apoc. 22:11-12).
Before embarking upon His mankind-saving endeavor, Christ warned His disciples, and through them all of us who believe in Him: “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He makes everyone who truly believes in Him a participant in this victory. And this victory is the victory of His Resurrection, the victory of life over death, of good over evil, of light over darkness. Let each faithful soul see Him, the Master of life and the Conqueror of death, through the eyes of faith, and let it rejoice with the triumphant joy of His Resurrection – and this joy no man will take away from it for ages unto ages!
Christ is risen!
THE OPTINA HERMITAGE
The period of eldership of Elder Ambrose was different from the time in which his predecessors labored. First of all, initially there was no regular postal, telegraph, or railway communication as in Father Ambrose’s time; moreover, in his time the situation of the Church in general and of monasteries in particular had improved dramatically. Secondly, the tradition of eldership had already become established in this monastery, and the fame of the Optina Hermitage had spread throughout Russia.
After his arrival at Optina, Elder Ambrose found such pillars of monasticism there as Abbot Moses and the elders Leo and Macarius. Furthermore, there were quite a number of prominent ascetics among the brothers there.
In general, monasticism under the leadership of the elders carried a special imprint of spiritual virtue. Simplicity, meekness, and humility were the distinguishing characteristics of Optina monasticism. The younger monks did their best to humble themselves, not only before their elders, but also before their equals, fearing to offend others even with a single glance, and at the least provocation they immediately asked forgiveness of each other.
Elder Ambrose was born Alexander Mikhaylovich Grenkov in the Bolshaya Lipovitsa village in the Tambov province on November 23, 1812. His father was a sacristan, while his grandfather was a priest. There were 8 children in the family. In his childhood Alexander was a very lively, merry, and bright boy, but for his pranks and extreme mischievousness he was not too well-liked in the family. He simply was unable to fit into the mold of a strict, patriarchal family. At first he read in church together with his father. Afterwards he was sent to a religious academy and then on to a seminary. He had extraordinary ability. In July of 1836 he graduated with top marks and a commendation for excellent behavior.
Initially he worked as a house tutor, then became a teacher at the Lipetsk religious academy. He was loved in society for his quick wit and cheerful character. Soon, however, he fell seriously ill. There was almost no hope of recovery, and so he made a vow to enter a monastery if he recovered. He got well, but could not part with the world for another 4 years. He began praying at night, but this made his comrades laugh at him. In the summer of 1839, while on his way to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, he stopped to visit the hermit Father Hilarion. The holy ascetic issued a definite command to Alexander: go to Optina, you are needed there. Alexander still wavered, but finally, after recognizing his own indecision and shakiness of intent, he suddenly decided to escape to Optina, without permission and without farewells. Afterwards all his traits – liveliness, sharpness of wit, sociability, cheerfulness – were most useful to him in dealing with people and instructing them.
From the very beginning the life of Elder Ambrose, spent under the tutelage of the wise elders, progressed smoothly, without any special impediments, guided towards further and further spiritual improvement. However, Father Macarius, who had taken upon himself the guidance of the young monk, subjected Father Ambrose to sharp blows at his ego, nurturing in him a strict ascetic who embodied the monastic virtues of poverty, humility, endurance, and others. During the elder’s lifetime and with his blessing some of the brothers already started coming to Father Ambrose to confess their thoughts. Father Macarius also acquainted him more closely with his spiritual children in the world, thus preparing a worthy successor for himself, which Father Ambrose subsequently became. After the death of Father Moses the brothers elected Father Isaac as their abbot, and the latter treated Father Ambrose as his own elder. Thus there was no contention in Optina among its leading individuals. During his illness Elder Ambrose was secretly tonsured into the schema. He had two cell attendants: Father Michael and Father Joseph (the future elder).
Father Ambrose arose at 4:00 A.M. to hear the morning prayers, and after that his day was similar to that of Father Macarius. After the evening prayers the elder asked everyone for forgiveness and let his cell attendants go, which was often at midnight. Two years later he succumbed to a new illness, and his health became quite frail. He could no longer go to church and had to take communion in his cell. In 1868 he became quite ill. Such turns for the worse took place many times. It is difficult to imagine how, confined to his bed and utterly depleted of strength, he could receive crowds of people and respond to hundreds of letters. The life-giving grace of God was quite obviously in assistance here.
People often saw an extraordinary light above the elder’s head. At the end of his life Father Ambrose established a convent in Shamordino, with an orphanage for homeless children. The convent grew rapidly and soon contained up to 500 nuns. After the demise of the Abbess Sophia, the Elder was forced to take upon himself all the convent’s concerns and to visit it in person. He went there for the last time in the summer of 1890, was forced to spend winter there because of illness, his health worsened, and he could not return to Optina. He reposed on October 10, 1891. The funeral procession was accompanied by a crowd of more than one thousand people. It was raining, but the candles were not extinguished. On the way from Shamordino to Optina the procession stopped at every village, and panikhidas were served. The elder’s death was a universal loss for Russia.
COUNSELS OF THE OPTINA ELDERS
Counsels of the venerable Elder Ambrose
If we desist from our wishes and ideas and try to fulfill God’s wishes and ideas, we will attain salvation in every place and in every situation. On the contrary, if we persist in our own wishes and ideas, then no place and no situation will help us. Eve transgressed God’s commandment even while living in paradise, while for the miserable Judas even life at the Saviour’s side did not bring any benefit. As we read in the Gospel, we require patience and encouragement towards pious life wherever we may be.
In vain we blame those who live with us and surround us for hindering and impeding our salvation or spiritual improvement. The unsatisfactory state of our soul and spirit comes from within ourselves, from our lack of spiritual finesse and our erroneous frame of mind, with which we absolutely refuse to part. And it is precisely that which leads us into embarrassment and doubt and bewilderment; and all of this agonizes and burdens us, and leads us into a joyless state. It would be well for us to comprehend the simple words of the Holy Fathers: if we humble ourselves, we will find tranquility everywhere, without letting our minds roam over other places where we may meet with worse things.
The main means to salvation is the endurance of a multitude of sorrows, whatever is fitting for each person, as it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God.”
Those who wish to attain salvation should also remember the apostolic commandment: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” There are many other commandments, but none of them have such an addendum, i.e. “and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This commandment has great significance, and we must take care of it before all others.
Many wish for a good spiritual life in the simplest form, but only few people and in rare cases execute their good wish; it is precisely those who firmly keep to the words of the Holy Scriptures that “we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God,” and, appealing to God for help, they try to endure sorrows and illnesses and various discomforts without complaint, always remembering the words of the Saviour Himself: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments,” and one of the Lord’s commandments is: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Our salvation requires unfailing fulfillment of God’s commandments and submission to the will of God wherever a person may live. Only in this manner and none other can we acquire inner peace, as it is said in the psalms: “Great peace have they which love Thy law, and nothing shall offend them.” But you continue to seek inner peace and tranquility of the soul in external circumstances. It seems to you that you are not living in the right place, nor communicating with the right people, that you did not do the right thing, nor did others act properly. The Holy Scriptures say: “His (i.e. God’s) dominion is everywhere,” and that the salvation of a single Christian soul is more precious to God than all the things in the world.
The Lord is ready to help a person acquire humility, as in all other good things, but the person must show some concern for himself as well. The Holy Fathers say: “Give blood and receive the spirit.” This means that you should labor to the point of figuratively bleeding, and you will receive spiritual boons. But you are looking for and asking for spiritual boons, yet you hesitate to offer your blood, because all you wish for is not to be bothered. But can one really acquire humility in a calm life? Humility is when a person sees himself as being worse than all other people. Thus when people bother you, you see that you are unable to bear it, and you become angry at other people, and then you automatically believe yourself to be deplorable. If at the same time you regret your shortcomings and berate yourself for them, and sincerely repent of them before God and your spiritual father, – then you are already on the way to humility. But if no one bothered you, and you continued to live in tranquility, how would you be able to recognize your shortcomings? How would you recognize your vices? If others try to humiliate you – this means you are being humbled; yet you yourself ask God for humility. Why then should you be offended at other people?
Whoever has malice in his heart should not despair, because with God’s help a person can rectify his heart. One must only monitor oneself closely and not let slip even a single chance to help others, and also frequently confess one’s thoughts to one’s spiritual father and engage in charitable deeds. This cannot be done right away, of course, but the Lord is patient. He ends a person’s life only when He sees him ready to pass into eternity, or when He no longer sees any hope for the person’s correction.
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
NOAH’S ARK ON MOUNT ARARAT
For many years the Russian people were brainwashed into believing that the Deluge and the story of Noah were simply myths that had nothing to do with science. But recently some secret Soviet intelligence materials have come to light, which confirm that back in the 1940s a Russian pilot, flying over Mt. Ararat, saw a huge ship on top of the mountain, frozen into a high mountain lake…
What do we know about Noah’s ark? From the offspring of Adam and Eve mankind multiplied very rapidly. From Seth came pious and good people – the sons of God, while from Cain the wicked and evil ones – the sons of men. Mingling among themselves, the descendants of Cain and Seth became depraved and iniquitous. Out of the whole of mankind only Noah and his family remained righteous. At that point God decided to cleanse the earth of iniquitous humanity, but to preserve the righteous Noah and his family for the restoration of mankind.
God appeared to Noah and warned him that He would send a deluge upon the earth in order to destroy the wicked people. He commanded Noah to build an ark – an enormous ship into which his family and the animals could be placed. Noah was told the exact measurements of the ship: 300 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width, and 30 cubits in height (150 x 25 x 15 meters). This was an enormous structure, which Noah proceeded to build over a period of several decades.
In the age of rationalism doubts began to be expressed concerning the reality of the events described in the Bible, that supposedly the story of Noah was nothing more than a myth, despite the fact that all over the world there are various inexplicable structures attesting to the fact that the technical knowledge of antediluvian mankind was on a much higher level than that of contemporary mankind.
Strangely, the first confirmation of Noah’s story was found by scientists precisely in mythology. It turned out that diverse peoples, totally unrelated to one another and living on different continents, have legends very similar in content concerning a deluge and the salvation of chosen individuals.
The second confirmation of the historicity of a universal deluge came from modern geology, which found proof of a global catastrophe in the earth’s fossil layers.
But the most vivid confirmation of the universal deluge and the story of Noah would have come from the discovery of Noah’s ark.
The Bible says that the ark landed on top of the Ararat mountains. The Greater Ararat is a mountain 5,165 meters high, whose top is eternally covered with ice to a depth of almost one kilometer. In the early 1950s mountaineers made two attempts to find Noah’s ark, but both were unsuccessful due to snowstorms. The search was also made more difficult by Ararat’s location at the intersection of the borders of three countries that have concluded an agreement forbidding the ascent of Ararat.
In recent times the ark was discovered by French mountaineer Fernand Navarra. A report of this discovery in 1955 became a sensation. Navarra found the ark frozen into the ice of a mountain lake located at an altitude of 5 kilometers from the top, and was able to cut out a piece of the hull. A radioactive analysis performed in several countries confirmed the age of the structure – circa five thousand years. Scientists believe that the ark, which used to sit on the very top of the mountain, gradually slid down under pressure from snow avalanches, until it came to rest and froze into a lake situated in the path of its descent. The expedition was conducted by Navarra without official authorization. He was shot at by border guards and arrested, but was later let go with his photographs and the piece of the hull.
Navarra was not the first discoverer of the ark. In the 3rd century B.C., Babylonian and Greek historians wrote of how an ancient ark lay in the Kurdish mountains of Armenia, and how people tore off pieces of tar from it to use as antidotes or amulets. In his opus “Judean Antiquities” (1st century A.D.), Joseph Flavius reported that many people brought down pieces of the ark from Ararat. The same was confirmed by Theophanus of Antioch in the year 180.
Several reports appeared in the 19th century about people having seen the ark, while the Turks reported that they even went inside the ship, which was built with partitions that were now filled with ice.
One of the most interesting confirmations of the ark was obtained in 1916, when Russian aviator Roskovitsky unexpectedly saw the ark while flying near the top of the mountain. That year the weather was warmer, the snows on the Ararat melted down more than usual, and the ark could be seen more clearly. Roskovitsky reported his find to his superior, who repeated the fly-by with the aviator and then sent off a report to the Russian government. Emperor Nicholas II ordered an official expedition to be sent to Ararat which, despite many difficulties related to bad weather and snow avalanches, was still able to reach its goal and found the ark roughly in the same location and the same condition as it was later found by Fernand Navarra. A detailed report on the results of the expedition was sent to the Russian Imperial government, but by that time a revolution had taken place in Russia, and the report was “misplaced” (or deliberately kept quiet or even destroyed). Several years later, living abroad as an émigré, Roskovitsky revealed this story, but his account was doubted and even ridiculed, because it was no longer in keeping with the spirit of the times.
Only Navarra, some decades later, with his photos and his scientific research was visibly able to confirm the existence of the ark. Several more expeditions ascended the Ararat after him, bringing back new proofs and pieces of the hull. The ascents continued until the mid-70s, when the Turkish government firmly forbad any further climbing of Mt. Ararat.
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
Commemoration of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
On March 22nd (the 9th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the forty martyrs of Sebaste.
The feast of the forty martyrs of Sebaste was always a great celebration for the Orthodox Church. From ancient times, from the day of their martyric death which took place in the early 4th century, in A.D. 313, the Church lauded and glorified these saints. They suffered for Christ on the very eve of the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire. At that time the famous Edict of Milan, which granted freedom to confess the Christian faith, had already been adopted, but there were still separate outbursts of persecution before the achievement of Christianity’s complete victory and its firm establishment in the Roman Empire.
These forty soldiers were martyred for Christ in the icy Lake of Sebaste. However, their death was especially glorious because they were simultaneously tempted by the possibility of deliverance from suffering: a bathhouse was heated up on the shores of the lake, and each one of them was offered the chance to leave his place of martyrdom and seek this means of salvation. This bathhouse was not the simple bathhouse we think of today. In those times the bathhouse was like a social club in which the entire life was spent; it represented all that a man who does not know God would be looking for in life.
This spiritual endeavor is also memorable for us because one of the soldiers was actually unable to stay the course and did do just that: he chose a safe and comfortable life without Christ over death with Christ. This was seen by one of the guards. By God’s unfathomable providence it was revealed to the guard that the place where the martyrs were standing contained life and glory. It contained the warmth which cannot be found anywhere else, at any time, for the Lord Himself was there. Seeing martyric crowns descending upon the sufferers, he cried out: “I, too, am a Christian!” – and joined them, in order to share with them both the suffering and the glory.
From the very beginning the Church saw in this image that which determines the life of every Christian and the life of the entire Church. For better or for worse each person faces such a choice at different periods in life, and each must choose either one thing or another. That is the way life is set up: we must either give up Christ, or give up our well-being. No one can avoid this choice.
Sometimes there are tribulations that overwhelm the entire Church. The persecutions which took place in the early days of the Church, and those which took place in recent times have all been defined precisely by that concept – some chose Christ, while others renounced Him. Some renounced Him when they were close to receiving a martyric crown. And yet among people indifferent to the Church and even among its persecutors were unexpectedly found those who preferred death with Christ to life without Christ.
And so we ponder the state of being Christ’s elect. The Lord tells us in His Gospel that the mystery of the salvation of each individual is deep, and that only the Lord, Who reads our inner hearts, knows who will endure the hour of persecution and who will renounce Christ. The Lord also tells us that it does not matter when a person is called to Christ: at the last hour or among the first. A person can seemingly be with Christ and in the Church throughout his entire life, yet at the last hour renounce Christ. Even an entire people can seemingly be with God and then suddenly renounce Him, as was the case with the Jewish people.
In commemorating the forty martyrs of Sebaste we ponder this mystic providence of God – the fact that the Lord calls each person to Him irrespective of the progression of the person’s external life. Some come in the first hour, as the Lord says in the Gospel, others in the third or sixth hour, still others come much later, and some, as it turns out, come when there appears to be no hope left whatever of conversion to Christ – in the eleventh hour.
The Lord calls some people to Him when they are in the bloom of youth, others at the noon of maturity, and still others at the sunset of their lives. Some can reach the Lord within the space of an hour, as did the wise thief, while for others even a whole lifetime is not enough to come to Christ.
Some people are called by the Lord when they have been able to accomplish a lot here on earth; others when they stand on the threshold of life, full of aspirations, perhaps even noble ones, of accomplishing great things; and others still when they have not even begun to live.
And all are equally received by the Lord, no matter when, or at what hour, or at what age the person is called to Christ. The Lord is compassionate toward all people and especially to those who seem to be unable to come to Him. To those who stand around until the eleventh, the last hour, like laborers who wish to be employed, who wish to use all their abilities and talents in life, but who are unable to make use of them. No one needs them. Or perhaps they do not have any special talents, and this is why no one needs them. The Lord is always deeply compassionate towards such people. He calls them to Him, too, and gives them His own work, the work of Christ, which, as it turns out, is not any lesser than the work done by other people. And we look with amazement upon the generosity with which the Lord recompenses all who come to Him. Some have labored throughout the entire day, while others have labored for only one hour and have not suffered the heat or toil of the day. Yet He gives the same recompense to all.
At this point a very important mystery of spiritual life is revealed to us: that in reality the Lord takes into account not the quantity of our labors, but our love. Everything we do in life is regarded by the Lord through the prism of the inner content of what we do.
This is what defines man’s entire life and his participation in the Church. It is so understandable: just like when a child draws a picture for his mother’s birthday – how precious the gift is to her! The mother is overjoyed, and this picture is dearer to her than any other gift. The same concept measures our offering to the Lord, only to an infinitely greater extent.
Let us absorb this mystery of life by remembering our New Martyrs of Russia. Let us not forget that the trials undergone in the 4th century and in the 20th century still await the Church at the very last turning point in history. The trials in which each person, the entire Church, the whole of mankind will have to make a choice: the terrible choice that was already made once when Christ was being crucified, when they shouted: “Give us not Him, but Barrabas.” The choice that was made by one of the martyrs of Sebaste, who preferred those “warm bathhouses” – life in all its well-being – to Christ. “Not Him, but Barrabas,” – such was the choice made by mankind at that time. And such will be the last choice before the end of the world. We see that it is already being made before our very eyes.
Let us remember that one person may be engaged in some grandiose activity, seemingly even a Christian one, and may occupy a very important place in the Church, while another person may be completely unnoticeable and unknown, and may perform his services humbly, quietly. Yet the Lord tests the hearts of people and accepts them not in accordance with their external service, but according to the spirit in which the person performs this service, in order to make him part of His bounty and His boundless love.
May God grant us a beneficial passage through the forty days of the Great Lent. The forty martyrs are like these forty days, with each day granting us the possibility of either living or dying spiritually. Let us then become dead to sin, in order to become confessors of Christ’s truth, become those who prefer the Lord Christ to everything else on earth. Amen.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN THE FORMATION OF THE RELIGION OF THE FUTURE
In 1975 Father Seraphim Rose published a book entitled Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, which examined widely disparate religious and cultural phenomena in the modern world at that time – Yoga, Zen, Transcendental Meditation, various gurus, UFOs, the “charismatic” movement, etc. – and contrasted these with the Orthodox Patristic standard of spiritual life. When Father Seraphim was writing about the dangers of these phenomena in the mid-1970s, there were other “cult watchers” who had come to conclusions similar to his. Without the Patristic principles of spiritual life, however, they were not able to see the underlying unity behind Eastern religions, UFOs, and the “charismatic revival.” As Fr. Seraphim showed in his book, both UFO encounters and “charismatic” experiences are forms of mediumism, bringing one into contact with fallen spirits and providing an “initiation experience” that is pagan in character, not fundamentally different from the initiation experience offered by Eastern religions and various forms of shamanism.
Fr. Seraphim saw that the diverse spiritual phenomena of his time were converging to form a new religious outlook, and that this outlook was replacing whatever remained of the Christian worldview within Western civilization. Christian spirituality was on the wane in the West, while paganism was on the rise, gathering momentum like a tidal wave, hiding its force and power by manifesting itself in forms that bore no outward resemblance to each other, and that could even wear a Christian guise, as in the “charismatic” movement. These converging currents of paganism would ultimately comprise the “religion of the future,” in other words, the religion of Antichrist.
Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future struck a responsive chord in the decades following its publication, awakening many souls – both in America and abroad – to the spiritual dangers of our times. This article attempts to bring the book up to date, discussing developments in the formation of the “religion of the future” that have arisen during the last twenty-five years.
1. The “New Age” Movement
One reader of Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future has aptly observed: “Some years ago, when I read this book, it seemed very far-out to me. I thought: These are just fringe movements Fr. Seraphim is describing – this kind of thing can’t really be taking over the world. Now, however, I see otherwise. All that Fr. Seraphim was saying is true.”
Any thoughtful observer of the world today can see that the formation of a “new spirituality” has progressed precisely along the lines which Fr. Seraphim described. When Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future was first published in 1975, the form of neo-paganism in Western society was only beginning to be delineated. Today it has taken on a more definite shape, being seen most clearly in what has come to be known as “New Age” spirituality. In 1975 the term “New Age,” though familiar in Masonic, esoteric, and countercultural groups, was not commonplace parlance. Now it is a banner term for a whole worldwide movement – and a multi-billion dollar business.
Unlike most formal religions, the New Age movement has no central organization, membership, geographic center, dogma, or creed. Rather, it is a loose network of people who share similar ideas and practices, and who align themselves with the worldview of the “new religious consciousness.”
Because the New Age movement has no single set of beliefs, it is difficult to offer a blanket definition of it. New Agers can hold to any number of neo-pagan beliefs, from pantheism, monism, reincarnation, and karma, to a belief in a world-soul and in Mother Earth (Gaia) as a goddess or living entity. Various psycho-technologies (e.g. guided imagery, hypnoses, “past-life regression,” Yoga, Tantra, and hallucinogenic drugs), divination (tarot, astrology), and spiristic practices (now usually referred to as “channeling”) are undertaken in order to raise practitioners to new levels of consciousness, to develop new “mind-body-spirit” potentials, to effect “inner healing,” or to attain psychic powers.
Chiliastic at its core, the New Age movement is commonly associated with what popular author Joseph Campbell has called a “new planetary mythology”: a mythology which maintains that man is not fallen, that he is ultimately perfectible through the process of evolution, and that through leaps of consciousness he can realize that he is God and thus actualize the Kingdom of God on earth.
According to New Age thinking, since man and everything else is God, only one reality exists; and therefore all religions are only different paths to that reality. There is no one correct path, for all paths reach the Divine. New Agers anticipate that a new universal religion which contains elements of all current faiths will evolve and become generally accepted worldwide.
2. The Revival of Paganism
As the New Age “religion of the future” takes shape, we see in our Western, post-Christian society the continued rise of neo-paganism in every possible form. The Eastern religions that Fr. Seraphim wrote about – especially Hinduism and Buddhism – continue to gain followers, receiving endorsements from high-profile celebrities and being publicized through television talk shows, news magazines, and other media outlets.
Yoga, Vedic medicine, and other such Hindu practices have now been accepted into mainstream society. New Age self-help gurus such as Deepak Chopra (formerly a spokesman for the TM movement) promote them exclusively as a means towards “mind-body” health. However, as Fr. Seraphim observed and as every true Hindu knows, these practices cannot be divorced from their religious content, for they were devised precisely in order to dispose the practitioner towards Hindu religious attitudes and experiences. This fact is now playing itself out in the Western Yoga community, which, having arisen largely out of a quest for “mind-body” health, is steadily introducing the ritual worship of Hindu deities, together with a study of the Hindu Vedas and astrology.
Tibetan Buddhism has also seen a considerable gain in popularity among Westerners; it is now much more visible than Zen, which was the leading form of Buddhism among Westerners during Fr. Seraphim’s time. Combining Buddhism with the form of shamanism indigenous to Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism contains more overtly occult elements than does Zen, including temporary spirit-possession by Tibetan deities.
As Eastern religions continue to grow in the West, we see today an equal if not greater interest in Western forms of paganism. Witchcraft, Druidical magic, Gnosticism, and Native American shamanism have gained enormous popularity among Westerners who find them closer to their own roots than Eastern religions. Kabbalah, the Jewish system of occultism developed after the time of Christ, has also attracted widespread interest; its adherents now include many celebrities from the movie and rock music industries.
While many people merely dabble in the various forms of paganism that are readily available in today’s spiritual supermarket, a growing number have entered deeply into their practice, thus taking part in the pagan “initiation experience” that Fr. Seraphim said would characterize the religion of the future.
3. The Rise of Witchcraft
In the youth culture of America and England, witchcraft has become an extremely popular theme. The phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books – with over 250 million copies sold around the world since 1997, and over half the children in the U.S. having read at least one of his books – has been a catalyst in this trend. Under the cloak of innocent fantasy, these books introduce the young to real occult practices and real figures in the history of witchcraft. The seven projected books in the series trace Harry Potter’s seven-year training in witchcraft, the curriculum of which closely resembles the seven-year program of the Ordo Anno Mundi, an occult group based in London. While author J.K. Rowling disavows any personal involvement in the occult, she admits to having done much research into witchcraft in order to make her books more realistic, and acknowledges that more than one third of her books are based on actual occult practices. Intentionally or not, her books – together with the movies and franchise based on them – are a portal into the occult for those wishing to take the next step.
The Harry Potter phenomenon represents only one of many vehicles by which witchcraft is being popularized in the youth culture. Movies and television shows target young audiences with the allure of how powerful and “hip” one can be through occult practices, and a plethora of books and websites offer detailed instruction and guidance in how one can become a witch.
The youth are taking the bait. Since 1996 there has been a dramatic rise in the number of young people contacting neo-pagan groups and websites. The Witch’s Voice Website, which claims to be “the busiest religious website in the world,” has had over 100 million hits since its inception in 1996; according to a survey conducted in 1999, 60% of the respondents have been under 30, and 62% have been female. In acknowledgment of this trend, the youth magazine Spin has ranked witchcraft as the top interest among teenage girls in America.
The same phenomenon is occurring in England as it is in America. In 2001, the Pagan Federation of England appointed its first youth officer to deal with the increased number of queries from young people. The Federation’s media officer, Andy Norfolk, attributed the youth’s increasing interest in witchcraft to the Harry Potter books and to the other books, articles, and television shows that make witchcraft look attractive. He further stated that, after every article on witchcraft or paganism appears, “we have a huge surge of calls, mostly from young girls.” A survey in the year 2000 of secondary-school children in England found that over half were “interested” in the occult, and over a quarter were “very interested.”
Today in America, the most popular form of witchcraft is Wicca. Its founder, British occultist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), was a personal friend of the notorious Satanist Aleister Crowley, a member of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientalis, and a member of the Fellowship of Crotona, a co-Masonic organization. In the Fellowship of Crotona, Gardner was supposedly initiated into a coven of witches who claimed to belong to a lineage going back hundreds of years, and who worshipped the “goddess” and the “horned god.” In 1951 the law against witchcraft was repealed in England, and shortly thereafter Gardner began to publicly promote witchcraft under the old British name “Wicca.” Gardnerian Wicca combined the practices and ideas of his coven together with those of the Ordo Templi Orientalis, Eastern philosophy, and Freemasonry. Today, having been impacted by various spiritual and cultural trends, Wicca has become an amalgam of medieval witchcraft, feminism, goddess worship, pantheism, “deep ecology,” and worship of the earth.
In terms of percentage, Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the United States and Canada. The number of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. With adherents being inducted from among the old and young alike, it is estimated that the number of Wiccans in the U.S. and Canada is doubling every thirty months. According to polls taken by the Covenant of the Goddess, the total number of self-styled pagans in the United States, including witches, is now nearing a million and a half.
Tragically, the phenomenal increase in the number of witches coincides with a decrease in the number of Christians in America. A poll conducted in 2001 found that, during the previous eleven years, the number of Christians in the U.S. had been decreasing by two million every year.
Wicca is but one of the varied expressions of New Age spirituality. As Wiccan author Carol LeMasters explains: “The impact of New Age spirituality on the goddess community has also been incalculable. Emerging approximately at the same time, the two movements have now become so intertwined as to appear indistinguishable.”
(To be continued)
THY BRIDAL CHAMBER
Thy Bridal Chamber I do see adorned, O Saviour,
But lack the vestments for to enter such a sanctum,
And to partake of sacred heavenly communion,
And see the blessed path of rapturous salvation.
There hosts of angels can be found and mighty cherubim,
The Throne of Majesty and the unsetting Light.
There martyrs stand before the ever-glorious Throne
And sing the rising dawn of the unsetting day…
Lo! Comes the Bridegroom unexpectedly at midnight,
Now go out all and welcome Him with open arms!
But we are in the dark, a nebulous abyss,
No light disperses here the blackness of the night.
The oil is burned out, the lamps are all extinguished,
And who will guide us, who will lead us on our way?
We see before us both our cradle and our grave,
And we know not what in that darkness does await.
Hark, O my soul, awake and open thee thine eyes,
And do not let the chamber’s door be closed before thee,
But take fresh heart in all the shining of new hope,
And thou willst see the light and enter into joy!
– V. Utrenev
Translated by Natalia Sheniloff