We live in special times, beloved brethren! They are special because when you compare today to how it was in Mother Russia before, we see the almost complete opposite. For example, we now embark on SS Peter and Paul Lent. But many of today’s Orthodox Christians don’t even know it. Before, in old Russia, Russian Orthodox Christians well knew Church laws and regulations and established their lives on how the Church teaches us to live on this earth, this temporal life. But today, I repeat, some don’t know Church laws. This is not only ignorance, but an inadmissible laxity of the Christian, and even a neglectful attitude of the Christian towards the old, good traditions of the Church.
Our Lord Jesus Christ once said: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18), that is, everything that we are taught by our Orthodox law, everything in the Holy Gospel, all is fulfilled, and those who do not fulfill it will be disobedient to the Law of God.
Look how it was in ancient times. The Church, for instance, glorified the Martyrs of Maccabee: all the brothers and their elder, Eleazar, and their mother. Their tormentor, the pagan king, subjected them to terrible torture for their refusal to eat pork, which was forbidden by Mosaic law. In other words, they refused to violate the fast by eating what the Church did not allow them. And for this they met their death.
The Orthodox Church today prayerfully remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which once met in the city of Nicaea in order to investigate and judge the heresy of Arius. We know that in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church endured severe persecution, first from the Jews and then from the pagan Roman imperial power. But despite the fact that the persecution was bloody, despite the fact that thousands of Christians died under torture for their confession of faith, nonetheless, it was not dangerous for the Church.
The Christian of the first centuries remembered well that the Lord Jesus Christ said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the sou: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). And in the Apocalypse He said: “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2:10). In these bloody persecutions Christians were faithful to death, went to martyric death, and received from the Lord Savior the crown of eternal life earned by them.
On the day of the feast of Theophany--the Baptism of the Lord--it is not out of place to remember another baptism: that baptism which was performed over each of us Orthodox Christians, that baptism at which each of us, by the mouth of our godparents, gave a promise to God that he would always renounce Satan and his works and would always unite himself, “join himself” with Christ.
This, I repeat, is especially fitting for this present day. The solemn rite of the Great Sanctification of Water will be performed shortly. Its center, its main part, one could say, is the majestic prayer wherein the Lord is glorified and the grace of the Holy Spirit is called down upon the water being sanctified. This prayer begins with the beautiful words: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and no word sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Whoever has been at a performance of the mystery of Baptism and was present attentively, knows that the prayer at the sanctification of the water in which a man will be baptized begins with these same words, and the first part of this prayer is completely the same, both at the Great Sanctification of Water and at the performance of the mystery of Baptism. And only later, in the last part, does the prayer at the performance of the mystery of Baptism change, as applicable to this mystery, when a new human soul will be baptized.
In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Tonight begins the celebration of the Feast of the holy hierarch and wonderworker St. Nicholas. The Holy Orthodox Church commemorates him with special festivity, and his feast day is reckoned as one of the great feasts of the ecclesiastical year.
As we have said before, St. Nicholas left behind no additions to the Church's sacred literature, to the sublime treasure-chest of the writings of the holy fathers of the Church. Let us recall St. John Chrysostom, let us bring to mind St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian along with the rest of the mighty chorus of those giants of theological thought and word. Each of these surrendered to us a tremendous treasure, and the Church celebrates their feast-days, glorifying them as the ecumenical teachers, as hierarchs who through their spiritual influence and authority crossed the borders of their own dioceses and became in fact bishops of the entire universe. Though the sacred services in their honor are very solemn and festive, still they do not exhibit the touching and jubilant character of the service to St. Nicholas, to him who is called among our Russian people "Nicholas the Merciful." In him, as perhaps in no other saint, are incorporated to an incomparable degree the wondrous virtues of love and compassion. This has moved the pious Russian people to say as a proverb: "Bring your tribulations to Nicholas the Merciful, and he will take them to the All-Merciful Savior."
The Holy Church now celebrates one of her great feasts -- a radiant and joyous event in the life of the Church. This is the entry into the temple of the Most-Blessed Virgin Mary, when her holy and righteous parents brought her into the holy temple when -Vie was still quite a three-year-old little Maid, in order to dedicate Her there to God according to the promise that they had given. Many, of course, know in what the essence of this feast consists.
I will point out some details, which are perhaps not known to all: First, when they brought Her into the temple, there also went with her maidens, little girls, with candles, accompanying Her with the chanting of Psalms, so that there went through the streets of Jerusalem a ceremonial procession, to which doubtless also other people joined. Finally, when they came to the temple of God, the Chief Priest, Zacharias, himself went out to meet them, knowing about the promise of the righteous parents. But here all were struck by the fact that -- while he was still at the top of the steps of the temple, and the steps were many, and they were tall -- the holy and pure Child, without any support, all on her own, climbed up all the steps. And then, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the chief priest Zacharias did that which at [any] other time he never would have done: he brought the maiden Mary into the Holy of Holies. Now one must bear in mind that a person could not approach the Holy of Holies. Even the priests could not enter therein. And only one day a year, on the so-called day of atonement, did the chief priest enter with sacrificial blood, as though offering sacrifice on behalf of the whole people. But this was not the day of atonement; on this day the Chief Priest could not go into the Holy of Holies, but, illumined by the Holy Spirit, he went in -- and he brought therein the Maiden Mary, and She, as tradition says, remaining in the temple continually, stayed in the Holy of Holies and there an Angel brought Her food and conversed with Her. Therefore the holy fathers said that when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her -- an already nearly grown young woman -- in Nazareth with the word of the annunciation, not the very appearance of an angel frightened or disturbed her. She was used to converting with angels -- otherwise it was an unusual greeting with which the heavenly Messenger addressed her.