Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of All Saints of Rus

[Epistle: Romans 2:10-16; Hebrews 11:33-12:2 Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23; 4:25-5:12]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Fathers, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!

Last Sunday we celebrated the Sunday of All Saints and affirmed the Mystery of sanctification and sainthood which God desires us all to attain. To become who he has created us to be: to become who we truly are. These next two weeks serve as something of a further narrowing and localizing of this universal celebration of sanctity throughout the whole world as we celebrate those saints of the lands to which we belong: first spiritually and then physically. In our Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, on this Second Sunday after Pentecost, the Holy Synod sets down for us to celebrate All the Saints of Russia, or to avoid any misunderstanding: All the Saints of Rus, the ancient land of Russia, the historic united Slavic land whose borders include what is today the separate countries of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Eastern Poland. It is not Muscovite propaganda but a clear historic fact that the disparate Slavic peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia come from a common font and share a common spiritual language, a common spiritual tradition and a common spiritual family of saints that stretch from Kiev to Konergino and from snowy Solovki to sun-drenched Sochi.

This is also above all what makes the current war that is unfolding between Russia and Ukraine all the more tragic and all the more deplorable as it is a fight between spiritual brothers, between Orthodox Christians who commune of the same Body and Blood of Christ. Even so in the midst of such political tension and hostility, where for most people here in the West, Russia has effectively become a pariah state and ‘Russian’ a term expressing subhuman contempt, it is all the more important in the context of the present war that has afflicted the ancient land of Rus, that we never neglect, that we never dare to turn our backs on those saints who laboured in the borders of modern-day Russia. That we should thus ‘give-in’ to the very worst type of rancid Russophobia which surrounds us at this deeply troubled and troubling time. I mention this, as just recently the so-called “Metropolitan” Epiphany Dumenko of the schismatic Orthodox Church of Ukraine famously said to his cruelly deceived flock that anyone who bears the name of a saint who was born and laboured in what is now the territory of modern-day Russia should give up their name saint and exchange it for a Ukrainian one at least any non-“Russian” saint. Apparently Mr Dumenko was also disappointed that the schismatic structure over which he rules was forced to keep the feasts of Russian saints in the calendar due to their popularity amongst the people. However, he was certain that the presence of Russian saints in the OCU was a temporary phenomenon: “It so happened in history that there was a certain period of time when we were united, were in this spiritual occupation, and it takes time to gradually move away from this Russian tradition”.

Dear brothers and sisters: this is nothing other than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and a denial of the Grace of God. How can any Christian deny the sanctity of St Sergius of Radonezh, of St Seraphim of Sarov, St Alexander Nevsky, St Xenia of St Petersburg, of St John of Kronstadt, of the holy elders of Optina down to the myriad of New Martyrs and Confessors? What madness is this? What Mr Dumenko doesn’t seem to understand that to give up venerating the ikon of St Xenia, or kissing the relics of St Sergius of Radnoezh or St Matrona of Moscow is to deny Christ and to deny the Holy Spirit who was and is at work in and through these saints of God. For the Holy Spirit is not limited by our political or geographical borders.

It is so important that we understand that our present feast of All the Saints of the Ancient Russian Land is not a nationalist feast. It is not a feast just for ethnic Russians nor ethnic Ukranians. It has nothing whatsoever to do with nationalism. For the Church and her Saints are above every nationalism and above every worldly politics. They are saints for all the world and for all time as they have been deified, transfigured and made Holy by a God who tell us he is ‘not of this world’. To deny the sanctity of the countless myriads of Russian saints because they are Russian is to forget that in Christ, as St Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek and for that matter there is neither Russian nor Ukrainian. There is neither American nor Belarussian. And indeed, here in the church this morning even though we may be a mix of ages, races, and peoples we stand first and foremost as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

And this finally brings me to our reading today from St Matthew’s Gospel and the calling of the disciples. Each time we read this passage we should marvel at the great sacrifice of these disciples, of these simple fishermen of Galilee and how inadequate our own sacrifice to the Lord is. Earlier that day when those disciples got up to go fishing, they perhaps thought that the day would end as it had every previous day in that safe and reliable routine we all call work. Yet in a moment, in that simple personal encounter by the sea of Galilee something there was something about this Mysterious Person who spoke directly to their hearts and fulfilled and completed something deep within each of them. This Man was the answer and fulfilment to the very question of the whole meaning of their lives and being. Although he uttered only a few words they could not do anything but drop their nets, give up their livelihood, their family relationships and follow this Man wherever he went. As we heard in last week’s Gospel when Peter asks with characteristic boldness when he asked Christ “we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” Christ fully recognized the sacrifice of the disciples and knew that each of them, with the exception of St John, would die a martyr’s death, and so promised to each of them that  ‘in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’.

Whilst in comparison we may not have attained to the sacrifice of the holy Apostles, we can though recognize a dim reflection of how each one of us were also called by Christ into His Church and like the disciples reached a point where we could no longer remain on the metaphorical sea shore mending our nets but also had to follow the Lord. Thus, to refuse to honour these multitude of aforementioned Russian saints because they are Russian is to fail to honour the profound sacrifice and struggle that each one of these saints made in following Christ and being transformed into Christ.

And as our Saviour reminds us through our second Gospel reading today from the Beatitudes, that most powerful and radical of spiritual manifestos of the Kingdom which we hear week in and week out: being maligned, being abused, being persecuted and abused, reviled and slandered for the sake of Christ, and His Righteousness and His Saints, is one of the marks of being a true Christian, of being blessed, of living in the Kingdom. It is what our Saviour told us to expect from a world that does not understand it. It is though the spirit of the Beatitudes, the spirit of Christ that we see manifested and incarnated in all of the saints and in the context of the present war is very much the spirit of meekness and peacefulness that we see exemplified in our dear and saintly Metropolitan Onuphry and his greatly persecuted flock: bombed on the one hand and slandered and persecuted on the other. May God help them!

As we hear in the Service of All the Saints of Rus –

Celebrating the yearly commemoration of our holy kinsmen,  let us call them blessed, as is meet;  for they have truly passed through all the beatitudes of the Lord:  impoverished, they have become rich in spirit;  being meek, they have inherited the land of the meek;  having wept, they have found comfort;  having thirsted after righteousness, they have been filled;  having had mercy upon others, they have found mercy themselves;  pure of heart, they have seen God, as far as such is possible;  peace-makers, they have been counted worthy of adoption by God;  and persecuted and tormented for piety and righteousness’ sake,  they now rejoice and are glad in the heavens;  and they earnestly entreat the Lord,  that He take pity on our homeland.

My dear fathers, brothers and sisters: in the context of this terrible and tragic fratricidal war that has afflicted the homeland of many of you in this church, let us pray more fervently to all the Saints of the Holy Land of Rus, and especially to the countless multitude of New Martyrs and confessors, that through their prayers, and their closeness to Christ, they will bring peace once more to the countries of Ukraine and Russia. Amidst the shrill hysteria that surrounds us, may we never fall into the demonic trap of denying the sanctity of our spiritual heritage and ancestry, the Saints of Rus, rather let us come closer to them, reading their lives, venerating their ikons and relics so that one day we may dwell with them in Heaven our true and eternal home where ‘Christ is All and in all’.

All the Saints of the Ancient Russian Land, pray to God for us!