Lately, there has been much discussion within Orthodox theological circles about the change Western society has undergone within the last 40 years with respect to morality. Many things that were once viewed as being inherently immoral, such as gambling, fornication (sex outside of marriage), homosexuality, and abortion, are now viewed as being acceptable, and in some cases, outright laudable. And many Christian denominations have followed suit by adopting the stance that modern Christians should adopt this “new morality” of secularism lest we be judged by the world as being culturally backward and irrelevant.
As a parish priest, I believe that we as Orthodox Christians must respond to the moral confusion of our age by examining the rich spiritual tradition bequeathed to us in the Church. Contrary to what many people might think, the answer to this problem is not an answer that lies in the uniquely Western dichotomy of conservatism verses liberalism (a dichotomy that is foreign to the mind of Orthodoxy); rather, it has to do with the Church’s understanding and experience of Theosis and beauty.
Theosis is the teaching that as human beings we have been created for a life of perfect and unending communion with God, and that this divine life – revealed to us in Christ – is the very dynamic and substance of salvation itself. By uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who in turn, reconciles us to the Father. This is the New Testament’s fundamental formula of salvation: “in Christ, through the Spirit, to the Father.” Through a life of ongoing repentance and by attaining the virtues, our communion with God is continually perfected from “one degree of glory to another.” According to the Holy Fathers, it must also be said that as human beings we do not become fully human until we have achieved the state of Theosis, the mystery by which we “become by grace everything that God is Himself by nature.”
It is from this view of Theosis that we see how morality cannot be properly understood as a philosophical category that stands on its own, so to speak, irrespective of the spiritual tradition of the Church. Instead, we see morality as a signpost that points beyond itself to something infinitely greater: to the need for us as human beings to share in the beauty of God. When Christ stated to His dumbfounded apostles that “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved,” (for the righteousness of these Scribes and Pharisee was deemed the ultimate righteousness of their day), He was speaking of the ability we have as humans to transcend the simple morality of “having to always be on the opposite side of wrong” by allowing ourselves to vested with the glory of God.
Once again, the point here is that it is not good enough, at least in the eyes of the Church, to be merely moral in the conventional sense of the word; no, we must instead, become transfigured by the beauty of God Himself, which is a beauty that has been revealed to the world once and for all in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ. Conversely, when one loses sight of the high calling of Theosis, morality then becomes an absurdity, for apart from the vision of the God-man Christ Jesus, in Whom, from Whom, and through Whom we enter into Theosis, the very notions of “good” and “bad” become meaningless and vacuous.
Furthermore, this allows us to see the idea of “immorality” in a more proper light, that those immoral thoughts, intents, and actions which are harmful to us as human beings are this way because they stand as obstructions to the goal of Theosis, and not simply because they are a betrayal of some external, civil moral code that demands a fitting punishment. Just as a long distance runner must shed himself of everything that hinders his race, so those who are seeking Theosis must divest themselves of all the sinful passions that hold them in check. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
In the Orthodox East, to reiterate, morality was therefore never seen simply as a “code of behavior” that designated one as being either “righteous” or “unrighteous,” but as a rudimentary guide (i.e., a “pedagogue”) that points towards the divine beauty that has been diffused throughout creation by the One Who first created it and continues to sustain it. This is why, when speaking of discipleship, Jesus uses the word “perfect” instead of the word “moral.” “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). Here, the perfection He speaks of has to do with the “proper end” of human life as being exalted to its proper place in the Kingdom of God by sharing in the holiness of God.
Michelangelo, the greatest artist of the Italian renaissance, offered to the world his greatest gift of beauty by once carving a statue of King David – whom we should remember was a prefiguration of the kingly glory and power of the Messiah. Michelangelo created his statue by using a series of chisels, from the largest down to the smallest, first removing the larger and sizable chunks of stone, then removing smaller shards of stone, and then removing successively smaller and smaller fragments, in order to leave an image that remained “untouched” by human hands. Morality for us as Christians is the first, rough chiseling that eliminates that which is foreign to our nature so that Christ might continue to perfect the “untouched” image that He is creating each of us to be. We thus seek to work along with the grace of God to overcome the passions of pride, selfish-ambition, wrath, lust, sloth, greed, envy and gluttony, so that the “David” that lies in all of us might come to life.
Which leads us to realize, hopefully, that the question morality addresses is not, “How good must we be?” but “How beautiful can we become?” “For Thou, O Lord, art more beautiful Than all the sons of men.” (Lamentations, Great & Holy Friday)
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Holy Evangelist John and Holy Hierarch Tikhon: Why Has God Joined Them in This World?
Archimandrite John Krestiankin Oct 9th, 2011 // No Comment
Sermon on the Feast of John the Theologian and of Hiero-confessor Tikhon
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1Cor 13:1-2,13)
My friends, today is the day when the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian reposed. Today also is the day when we praise the New Hiero-confessor Tikhon, patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.
The Holy Church celebrates the memory of Holy Apostle John three times each year, and this memory brings comfort to our souls.
For a long time, he was the only one demanding our attention and love of this day, the 26th of December. But three years ago another chosen one, the New Hiero-confessor Tikhon, patriarch of Moscow and all Russia was placed together with the Apostle of Love by Divine Providence. The glorification of the Hiero-confessor happened on this day and his memory revived by the recovery of his imperishable relics, flows into the stream of a church history, the history, that preserves, by the will of God, the account of the life of each man who has lived with God, with the Church, and which establishes feast days especially for those have completely fulfilled the will and teachings of God in their lives.
Thus even now two candles are burning in the Church with the light of Tabor, illuminating the way to heaven for us.
Holy Apostle John is the link in the strong chain of the Divine succession from Jesus Christ in the first century of Christianity, while Saint Tikhon the Martyr is a latter link, separate from the days of Christ the Saviour by twenty centuries.
Shall we not raise the question of why God has joined two of His chosen men here, in this world? Did they not have the same heart and the same mind? Did they not perform the same work despite different times and conditions, living in such a way as to be united in heaven as well as on earth, and in the memories of people? Let us look long on their lives, and let us draw from the ever-flowing fount of living waters that gives immortality to the soul.
The Apostle John loved God with his pure and chaste soul, so much that no worldy affection could burden him. He devoted to God his heart, made fragrant with pure and holy love for God alone. He left the house of his father, the fisherman Zebedee, as a very young man and responded to the sermon of the Forerunner of Christ, who called to the people of God to prepare the way for God.
John followed Christ, leaving behind everything – his house, father and mother, and the quiet life of a fisherman; he chose the way in the stormy sea of this world to the unknown Promised Land, to The Kingdom of Heaven.
Twenty centuries after the time of the struggles and labor of John the Theologian, far from Israel, in Russia, young Vasiliy Belavin felt the same desire in his heart. At the age of thirteen Vasiliy left his house to begin his studies in seminary, for while still in his family home, his young heart was bound by love for Christ, to His testaments, to His Church. His classmates gave him the nickname “Bishop,” which proved to be prophetical.
Just as John offer his chaste heart, that inviolable treasure, Vasiliy presented his heart to God. Like a precious holy gift Christ accepted the devotion of their young hearts. In the fullness of His Love, God filled their hearts with the vivid inexhaustible source of love. So when they reached perfection in this love, they could illumine and warm close and distant people. The love of John the Theologian passed through centuries, and love of Saint Tikhon shone from the grave.
In his time, John loved Christ with all his soul; he cleaved to Him completely and didn’t leave Him even until his last His days on the earth. Those three years became a school for him, where the Divine Teacher himself was John’s teacher; where the vivid word of the New Testament was a visible image.
John The Theologian was among those three people who witnessed the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus by Christ. John the Theologian is one the great three who witnessed the glory of transfigured Christ. John stays with Christ during last supper in the hill of Sion, where the Passover lamb of the Old Covenant was replaced by Christ, the New Testament Lamb of God as a New Covenant in His blood.
This was the time, when Christ, the chief cornerstone, was placed at the foundation of the Holy Orthodox Church and His first followers became the first teachers and apostles.
The heart of a disciple full of love unites with heart of the Divine Teacher and there is no mystery hidden from the disciple. The whole life of the Divine Teacher, all his deeds, the profundity of the new teaching was opened to the loving heart. Within three years the young John grew to the stature of Christ, had matured to complete selflessness in order to live with God, to serve God and people; he had matured for the apostle’s way of the Cross, becoming everything for everyone.
Future Patriarch Tikhon, the young man Vasiliy at that time, spent four years in the academy. He grew up at Christ’s feet, in the Holy Orthodox Church and beheld the Lord as if “…at [his] right hand. (Ps 16:8)”. The new nickname of Patriarch given to him by his friends, which proved prophetical, tells us about his way of life those days.
Vasiliy perceived Christ’s love with all his chaste and free soul. And like the Apostle John, had warmed up by its rays and matured to the full commitment to God’s providence. He reached ability to follow Gods wherever He would call to go and drain the cup, which God had prepared for him. The first step that he made at age of twenty-six following God to his Cross was a taking a three vows – vow of chastity, poverty and obedience. The monk Tikhon was born, who started the new life, devoted from its first to the last day to serve God, to serve the Russian Orthodox Church.
After six years he had already became a bishop; and episcopacy became for him “not a power, glory and authority, but deed, work and a feat”.
At age of thirty-three, he became the Father of fathers and his God-loving heart had filled with love and responsiveness to people, unerringly drawing their heart towards love of God. That is the quality of love, according the words of the Apostle John “… for God is love.(1Jn 4:8)”
Let us look at one simple example from the life of Patriarch Tikhon who was carrying on his high archbishop duty just over a year. Only a year passed since his assignment, but when he was due to change the place of his service, the whole town was mourned – the Orthodox Christians cried, the many uniats and Catholics of Kholmschina cried. Everyone came to say good bye to their beloved shepherd, who served there for such a short period of time. People tried to stop their hierarch by disabling the train, and some of them even lay on the rails to keep the train from going and keep the archbishop, their precious pearl from leaving them. And only the warm-hearted appeal of hierarch could soothe them.
All of Orthodox America cried, where nowadays he is called the Apostle of Orthodoxy; ancient Yaroslavl cried, Lithuania cried, saying good bye to the Archbishop, who became for all of them a beloved father.
Both these Holy fathers, the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, the Theologian and Hiero-Confessor Tikhon worked hard in the proclamation of Christ. Their love to the Teacher appeared stronger than fear before enemies. They loved the God so much, that they followed His way to the Cross; they took His Cross and crucified themselves. They lived for the One, who died and arose for them.
John co-sufferd with Christ at His Cross. And John was adopted by the Mother of God, when Christ entrusted His Mother to him. The beloved disciple was chosen by Christ to take care of His beloved Mother till the end of Her life.
Holy hierarch Tikhon was appointed to carry the cross destined for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Bride of Christ in the world, assuming the struggles of Patriarchal service during the years of hard times in Rus. God entrusts his beloved Bride to His beloved disciple for care and keeping.
This was a time, when everyone was worried for the future, when anger and starvation occurred and increased everywhere and frightened the people, when fear of robberies and violence entered penetrated houses and churches.
Beneath the thunder of guns, the noise of machineguns, New Hiero-confessor Tikhon was raised by God’s hand to the Patriarch’s Throne to come to his Golgofa and become the Holy Patriarch-Martyr.
Tearfully the new Patriarch mourns to God for his people, for his Church: “Oh God, sons of Russia abandoned Your testament, ruined Your Altars, shot at cathedrals and kremlins shrines, beat Your priests…” And it was he, who said God’s response with words that were ringing in his sorrowful heart during this time of bearing his cross: “Go and find those, for the sake of whom the Russian Land still exists. But don’t leave the lost sheep, doomed to die, to the slaughter… Find the lost one, return the one who was driven away one, treat the affected one… shepherd them with truth”. God had found a good shepherd.
We won’t have enough time to be able to recount every feat and work of the holy men who are remembered now. They both performed the sermon of Christ’s Gospel in difficult, terrible conditions, one enclosed by the anger of the heathen world, other one – by the terrible evil spite of the new theomachists who had fallen away from the truth.
Nero’s persecution of the new religion gave the Apostle over to many torments, he was poisoned; he was put in a cauldron with boiling oil, but he remained the same. The persecutions of new followers of twentieth century threw the Holy Patriarch Tikhon down to incomparable torments. He suffered spiritual torment every hour and tormented himself with questions of how long it is possible to yield to Godless authorities; where is the limit when you can place prosperity of the Church beyond the wellbeing of your people, beyond human lives — not his own, but of his faithful orthodox children. He didn’t think about his own life and his own future. He was ready to die everyday.
I will repeat the words of the Patriarch, which we have heard many times “Let my name to get lost in history for the sake of benefit of the Church”. This is a measure of a real feat, the measure of a real service. He follows his Divine Teacher to the end.
The life of the Apostle John comes to an end. The last prophetical book about the future destiny of the world and the church has been written already by the exile, who could see the dark visions from the deserted rocks of Patmos. The weak old centenarian, Christ’s laborer, gives his last sermon: “Children, love each other. It is God’s testament, it would be enough if you could perform it!” This is the whole teaching that was shone from the dying luminary of the beloved Christ.
The Feat of the Patriarch, the Martyr comes to an end. Rus was covered with blood of martyrs, and his life comes to an end. His testament proclaims: “My children! Orthodox people of Russia! All Christians! …The unbreakable glory and greatness of our holy Orthodox Church is founded on a stone which is repaying evil with good. The holy name of the Church and purity of the feat its children and clergy will become elusive even for the enemies. Follow Christ! Don’t betray Him! Don’t get seduced! Don’t ruin your souls in the blood of hatred. Don’t let evil overtake you! Overcome evil with good!” Christ’s Love and gentleness to enemies are the Patriarch’s last sermon.
Many days passed, and when the followers of Saint John opened his grave, they couldn’t find his body there. The grave was empty. It was the triumph of love and chastity. The breath of death couldn’t put down the man who was shining with love.
The disciples of John, following his order, buried Him alive. Close disciples of the Patriarch buried their first hierarch and confessor.
Sixty-seven years passed and the grave of the Patriarch, the Martyr was emptied. His Holy Relics were given to Russia by God to strengthen it during difficult times. Just as Saint Tikhon was called by God in difficult times, so God sends Him now to help the Church militant.
Well, my friends! I hope, I have answered your question of why God predetermined to hold two of His chosen sons in remembrance. And today these two examples testify that everything is possible for loving, faithful hearts. Does anyone who has now learned of the lives of these two men of God, who lived in the first and twentieth centuries, dare to say that God’s Testament wasn’t given for everyone and not for all times? As God is the same at all times and forever, it is never stifling for anyone to be at His feet, not in the first century since His coming, nor in the last one.
My dear ones, children of God, let us humble ourselves before God, let us be humble before Him with love and prayers, with faith and hope. And God will not shame our love. He will strengthen our faith and will justify our hope. My dear ones, don’t forget: “…and now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor., :13).
Translated from Russian by Svetlana Tibbs
Edited by Jeremy Boor