ICON OF NEW MARTYRS OF RUSSIA,
as painted by Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov) of Jordanville
A report read at the 15th Diocesan Conference of the Western-European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on June 6, 1981, in Luxemburg.
THE CHURCH IN THE FIRST CENTURIES
THE APOSTLES, the pillars of, the Church who proclaimed the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world, all except for the Apostle John the Theologian, received a martyr's death before the end of the first century. In them were fulfilled the words of Christ: "Ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake" (Matt. 10:22). The blood of the Apostles, and with them of a multitude of martyrs, moistened the Church abundantly from the middle of the first to the beginning of the fourth century. The first martyrs became the glory, the power, and the symbol of victory for the whole Christian world. Many prepared themselves to become martyrs, for there seemed to be no other path for one who believes in Christ, in this world which lies in evil! The ideal of the most powerful and strong was to shed their blood for Him Who was crucified for our sake.
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.
God is with us, understand, O ye nations, and submit yourselves: for God is with us!
These words were sung triumphantly and joyfully at the very beginning of the service on the Eve of Nativity. They were pronounced many centuries before the Nativity of Christ by the great Prophet Isaiah. At that time, the whole world was sunk in the darkness of idolatry. Only in the small Jewish nation in the small country of Palestine was there a flicker of the true knowledge of God, but all the other millions of people were pagan. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Prophet Isaiah saw far into the future through this darkness of idolatry, and what was to take place a long time later to him was already accomplished, and he says, “God is with us, understand, O ye nations”.
Many centuries went by until this wonder of wonders that the Prophet Isaiah foretold came to pass, and the ‘great mystery of piety’ took place. God appeared in the flesh and deigned to lie in a manger. And the Church takes us on the wings of faith and hope to Bethlehem and announces, “Christ is born, give ye glory! Christ cometh from heaven, meet ye Him! Christ is on earth, be ye exalted!”
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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."
If a tree is known by its fruit, and a good tree bears good fruit (Mt. 7:17; Lk. 6:44), then is not the Mother of Goodness Itself, She who bore the Eternal Beauty, incomparably more excellent than every good, whether in this world or the world above? Therefore, the coeternal and identical Image of goodness, Preeternal, transcending all being, He Who is the preexisting and good Word of the Father, moved by His unutterable love for mankind and compassion for us, put on our image, that He might reclaim for Himself our nature which had been dragged down to uttermost Hades, so as to renew this corrupted nature and raise it to the heights of Heaven. For this purpose, He had to assume a flesh that was both new and ours, that He might refashion us from out of ourselves. Now He finds a Handmaiden perfectly suited to these needs, the supplier of Her own unsullied nature, the Ever-Virgin now hymned by us, and Whose miraculous Entrance into the Temple, into the Holy of Holies, we now celebrate. God predestined Her before the ages for the salvation and reclaiming of our kind. She was chosen, not just from the crowd, but from the ranks of the chosen of all ages, renowned for piety and understanding, and for their God-pleasing words and deeds.
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, before creating the visible world the Lord God created the invisible world, i.e. the angels. Among these superior beings there occurred a battle which led to the division of all the angels into good and evil spirits. At the head of the first stood the Archangel Michael, whose feast we are now commemorating, while the second were led by one of the supreme angels who had wrongly understood his perfection. Enticing others to go along with him, he arrogantly rebelled against God. From that time on these tainted forces, having been thrown down from heaven, relentlessly do evil to people, pushing them into the abyss of sin and eternal torture in which they themselves sojourn. They are combated by the good angels, who, on the contrary, restrain man from all bad things and direct him towards salvation in the Heavenly Kingdom. As a loyal host, some of them surround the throne of God, singing continuously: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory, while others announce God’s will to people, which is indicated by the very word “angel,” which means messenger. And, finally, there are still others who are appointed by the Lord to oversee both entire peoples and cities, as well as individuals, and they are therefore called guardian angels. Thus, one of the supreme angels was sent to Joshua in the Old Testament. Angels were sent many times to aid the Israeli judge Gideon, the prophet Elias, the prophet Daniel, and many others. In the New Testament the Archangel Gabriel brought to the Virgin Mary glad tidings of the beginning of salvation, angels announced the nativity of Christ to the shepherds, an angel warned of Herod’s evil intentions, and an angel appeared to the magi, restraining them from going back to Herod. An angel comforted the Saviour before His sufferings, and angels brought glad tidings of Christ’s resurrection to the myrrh-bearing women. Angels appeared to the apostles in prison, to Apostle Philip, to Cornelius the centurion, to Apostle Peter, and to many others. And finally, when the Son of man returns to earth in glory, He will be accompanied by all the holy angels.
As we celebrate the synaxis of the holy Archangel Michael, let us turn our pious attention to the image of the leader of the heavenly host and make use of the instruction which the Church wishes to give to all the faithful through him. On his icon we see Archangel Michael depicted in military dress. What does this mean? Why does a denizen of heaven, where peace and love reign, appear to be fully armed? In heaven, where, according to the Scriptures, nothing unclean can enter, there is undoubtedly no movement of impure passions such as we have on earth, and there is a total absence of the impure desires that cause strife among people, and, therefore, everything in heaven is peaceful and harmonious. But there was once warfare even in that kingdom of peace and love. Who rose up and fought against whom? One of the supreme spirits, who possessed the greatest perfection – Lucifer, rose up with arrogance and pride against his Creator and Master of all; he was followed by many other spirits, who made up a terrible host of disturbers of heavenly order. It was then that from the midst of the angels emerged a fighter for the glory of God – the holy Archangel Michael. Gathering all the angelic ranks and hosts that were loyal to God, he loudly cried out: “Let us stand in good faith before our Creator, and let us not take part in any revolt against God.” Then, standing at the head of the bodiless spirits, he sang the triumphant hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth!” And soon afterwards all the evil spirits were cast down from heaven.