Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on Sunday of All Saints of Rus | Nativity of St John the Baptist |St John the Wonderworker

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

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

This Sunday we are making not one, not two but three commemorations. First, in the liturgical practice of our Church Abroad it is traditional on the second Sunday after Pentecost to honour All the Saints of Russia, or to avoid any misunderstanding at this very politically sensitive time: All the Saints of Holy Rus, the ancient land of Russia, according to its historic borders which united the common Slavic peoples of now the separate countries of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Eastern Poland. Of course, according to the shrill voices of this world Ukraine and Russia have no common spiritual connection or unity. However, we Orthodox know this to be false as indeed all Orthodox Christians are united into One family, into One Body, through One Faith, One Lord and One Baptism. At this truly dreadful and desperate time where Orthodox brothers from Russia and Ukraine are currently killing one another, it is all the more important for us to remind the world of their spiritual unity and common brotherhood, that this might turn their hatred and suspicion of one another into love.

On this day we also celebrate, according to the Church Calendar on Sunday 24th June, according to the Old Church Calendar, the Great Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. And finally, our third commemoration is a rare transference that I have had to make this year due to our holiday falling upon the Feast of the Great Abba of our Church Abroad – another John, St John the Wonderworker of London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Vladyka St John’s feast actually fell earlier in the week on Tuesday, though there is an established tradition of celebrating it on the first Saturday closest to this day. This year, 2024, marks the 30th Anniversary since the glorification of St John on 2nd July 1994, and this past Saturday there was a huge celebration at the Cathedral of the Joy of All Who Sorrow in San Francisco where our Vladyka Irenei was present to represent our diocese. For my homily today I would like to meditate on the significance of the Feast of St John the Forerunner and turn to Vladyka St John’s own sermon as a commentary for present Feast before considering his own mystical relationship with St John the Baptist throughout his life and ministry as well as considering his own understanding of the special significance of the Saints of Rus and the diaspora of the Russian people within salvation history.

Vladyka St John begins his own sermon on the Feast of the Nativity by indicating its significance within the whole of the church year –

Among the Church’s feasts, there are three in honor of God’s saints which in their significance stand out from the others devoted to the saints and are numbered among the great feasts of the Church of Christ. These feasts glorify the economy of God for our salvation. These three feasts are: the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner, his Beheading, and the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

We are thus deeply blessed that in the course of the next week we celebrate two of these three outstanding feasts, the Nativity of St John today and this coming Friday the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul. To understand why this Feast of the Lord’s Forerunner is so important we need to listen carefully to our Gospel reading from St Luke. As St Vladyka St John notes, it is this beautiful story we have heard of the coming of the Archangel Gabriel to Zacharias which ‘are the first of the events related by the Evangelists’. This represents the start of what goes on to become a beautiful entwined symmetry and parallelism between the life and death of the Forerunner and the life and death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Thus, in the same way that the miraculous birth of the Forerunner is announced by the Archangel Gabriel in the Temple, so too, some six months later, the same Archangel would also appear to our Lady the Theotokos to announce the far greater miraculous birth of our Lord. The miracle of the conception of St John from barren elderly parents, prepares us and acts as a type of the still greater conception of our Lord in the Virginal womb of the Theotokos. St John’s function was precisely to act as the pointer, pointing away from himself to Christ, the lesser giving way to the Greater, the Type to its fulfilment.

In his homily, Vladyka St John also sees Zacharias’ song, known in the West as the Benedictus after its opening word: “Blessed” as itself an inspired prefigurement of the angels’ hymn at Christ’s birth –

Zacharias, in the magnificent hymn, which he sang after the birth of the child, John and the restoration to him of the gift of speech (Luke 1:67-79), is the forerunner of the angelic hymn: “Glory to God in the highest;” which was sung in Bethlehem by the angels when they announced to the shepherds the Nativity of Christ.

St John also opens up the beautiful way in which the respective Feasts of St John’s Nativity and our Lord’s Nativity mystically compliment and intersect, so that the very cosmos itself reflects something of this profound relationship and shadowing of the Logos and the Prodromos, the Word and His Forerunner.

Being born exactly half a year before Christ, John the Forerunner by the exact time of his birth depicted his mission of preparing the way for the Lord. He was born at the time of the year (June 24) when the day begins to grow shorter after the summer solstice, whereas the Nativity of Christ occurs (December 25) when the day begins to grow longer after the winter solstice. These facts are an embodiment of the words spoken later, by the Forerunner, after the beginning of Christ’s preaching: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

Again, there is something so deep in this phrase from St John – ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. What perfect humility, and what height of grace and virtue what a model of meekness and sanctity. How different to the pride and hubris of the Scribes and Pharisees: who would rather say, you my brother, my sister must decrease, and I must increase. In this way, St John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Prophets acts as a prelude, a prologue and beginning to the Grace, Goodnews and Joy of the Gospel –

The Nativity of John the Baptist is the first joy sent down by God to the human race, the beginning of its deliverance from the power of the devil, sin and eternal death … the preparation of the human race begins for meeting the Son of God on earth. 

In a beautiful phrase of Vladyka, St John the Forerunner is the morning star that announces the rising of the Sun of Righteousness in the East.

Let us now turn and say something about the mystical relationship between our own Vladyka St John and St John the Baptist. Today especially we remember the miraculous birth of St John the Baptist from his godly parents, the High Priest Zacharias and his Righteous wife Elizabeth, despite their advanced age and previous barrenness. Although, as far as I am aware, there was nothing especially miraculous about Vladyka St John’s conception or birth, like the Forerunner, he came from righteous stock; his parents Boris Ivanovich and Glaphira Mikhailovna Maximovitch were both pious lay Orthodox Christians amongst the nobility. He also had an ancestor who was a saint, so that in our Church calendar we thus have two St John Maximovitch, the most recent being our own Vladyka St John of Shanghai and San Francisco and some two hundred years before him St John Maximovitch Bishop of Tobolsk, who reposed in 1715 and whose glorification was the last ordered by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas. Vladyka St John had a great veneration for his saintly episcopal ancestor and emulated him in many respects, particularly in his pastoral work and concern. Throughout his life, St John carried a pouch with relics of St John of Tobolsk that he wore underneath his cassock to maintain his close connection to his spiritual name-sake and patron.

St John the Baptist is of course renowned for his great asceticism as being ‘an earthly angel and a heavenly man’ who spent his whole life in the Judean wilderness, dressed in skins and eating honey and locusts, dedicating his whole life to the Lord in prayer, repentance and fasting. As we heard in our Gospel reading in the words of the Archangel Gabriel – ‘For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.’ Just so our own Vladyka St John was also a great ascetic of our modern age and latter times. As is well known, from the moment of his monastic tonsure he never slept in a bed and instead would catch a few hours of sleep in an armchair. Most mornings his cell attendant would often find him slumped over on the floor huddled beneath his ikon corner where he had been all night praying. As well as his own private prayer and vigil which St John kept in his monastic cell, St John loved the church services and celebrated the Divine Liturgy each and every day in his orphanage chapel or in his Cathedral in San Francisco. During the first week of Great Lent and in Holy Week he would only eat a little prosphora and water beside partaking of the Holy Gifts. Outside of Lent, and besides his reception of Communion he would only allow himself one small meal each day that he would eat late at night usually after a long and exhausting day ministering to his flock wherever they were to be found, whether in the hospitals, the prisons, the streets or their homes.

St John the Forerunner was the last and greatest of the long line of the Prophets and the first preacher of the New Testament. In Ikos 12 of the Akathist to St John the Wonderworker, written by Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) we sing – Rejoice, new Baptist drawing all to a life of prayer and repentance. Like the Lord’s Forerunner, Vladyka St John was also an inspired preacher who wrote beautiful and profound homilies. He was also given the grace of clairvoyance, the ability to discern hearts and to know the will of God. There are countless examples of his miraculous foreknowledge, for example people writing a letter to St John only to find, before posting their letter, a letter from Vladyka St John already answering their heartfelt question or concern. As we also see in the preaching of St John the Forerunner, he was not afraid to reproach and chastise the ungodliness and impiety of the Pharisees or the immorality of Herod. Just so our Vladyka St John was also a staunch upholder of Church Tradition and piety, and in his sermons would also criticize the laziness and impiety of his Russian flock. Who can forget the time when he found out that his spiritual children had been out celebrating and drinking at a Halloween party rather than attending the Vigil service for St John of Kronstadt and so he went round straight after the end of Vigil and with his Episcopal staff in his hand walked slowly round the hall where they were all gathered and looked deep and searchingly into their eyes? How silently did this righteous and holy man shame all those dressed as demons and witches.  

Finally, St John the Baptist was also persecuted for righteousness sake and suffered a matyric death after condemning the union of Herod and Herodias. St John accepted his imprisonment and punishment without murmuring or protesting and so went onto preach to those in Hades to announce the imminence of the Lord’s coming Resurrection. Like the Forerunner, our own Vladyka St John was also persecuted by bishops and priests and laypeople who were jealous and envious of him. They even brought legal charges against him in a court of law. Yet, Vladyka St John bore all this with great love and patience and never condemned those who condemned him, attributing it all to the devil.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters, during the clergy communion you will hear St John’s own sermon for the today’s feast of All Saints of Russia, but in brief – St John saw that there was a special vocation given to the Saints of Rus, which he summarized as ‘a search for righteousness’ a desire for the ‘kingdom of God’. Of course, St John knew all too well that the Russian people do not always manifest this righteousness, and particularly in these dreadful times, St John born in Adamovka in Kharkov in what is today Ukraine, would be heartbroken at the current bloodshed betweeen the fraternal peoples of Ukraine and Russia. Yet he also saw that despite the sin, the impiety and immorality of the peoples of Rus, they had the great potential for holiness, even if in the most unlikely of circumstances. Vladyka St John thus saw that it was exactly through the horror of the Russian Revolution, through the deaths of all those thousands and millions of monks, laymen, priests and bishops that the Light of Orthodoxy was taken throughout the whole world, throughout the West and even here to Mettingham, where the daughter of an Émigré, Mary our Foundress, built an Orthodox church where many of us who have no connection to Russia or Ukraine first learnt about the Ancient Orthodox Faith. Let us, therefore, dear brothers and sisters turn to the great Saints of Rus that they will bring peace to the lands of Russia and Ukraine. May they help bring good out of the evil and unspeakable sins which are being committed at this very moment from the raw suffering of grieving wives and children, to the destroyed shrines and churches to the persecuted and imprisoned hierarchs. Let us turn to our own Abba, Vladyka St John, as a Forerunner of our own Church Abroad, the first saint of our Russian Church Abroad, may he go before us and pray for us all in these dark, latter times. May he continue to call us to lives of holiness, lives of sanctity lives worthy of the Kingdom of God.

All Saints of Rus! Holy Prophet Forerunner and Baptist John! Holy Vladyka St John pray to God for us!