This whole weekend we celebrate the memory of the Royal New Martyrs of Russia. Yesterday we remembered the Royal Family, the Tsar-martyr Nicholas, the Tsaritsa-martyr Alexandra, the Tsarevich-martyr Alexei, and the Grand-duchess martyrs Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Today we remember the Grand-duchess martyr Elizabeth and her companion the nun Barbara and those who were martyred with them (the Princes John, Igor, Constantine, Sergius, Vladimir and the martyr Theodore).
The Grand-duchess Elizabeth is a very special person to remember for she (like her younger sister the Tsarista-martyr Alexandra) was a convert to the Orthodox faith and yet she shone like a bright lamp of the light of Christ throughout all of Russia and the whole world. Upon marrying the Russian Grand-duke Sergei (uncle of the Tsar-martyr Nicholas), Elizabeth embraced her husband’s life and truly left her father and mother, and her homeland to cling to her husband. It was not long before the beauty and spiritual depth of the Orthodox faith spoke to her heart and she began more and more to hunger for the spiritual nourishment provided by our holy Mother Church. Despite the fact that she had grown up in a pious Lutheran family (she was of German heritage), the Orthodox Church began to pull at her with greater and greater force. The spiritual life of the Church transcends national and cultural borders for only within the Orthodox Church, one finds the fullness of Truth and the Life of Christ. At last, the Grand-duchess could no longer resist and she was received into the Orthodox Church, immersing herself in the spiritual life provided by the Church.
Let us pause the narrative of her life here for a moment in order to focus on the value of the Orthodox faith. The Grand-duchess was raised, not only with a formal religion, but in a deeply pious family. She brought with her a soul already filled with the fruits of a firm and strong belief in Jesus Christ. However, when this deeply pious soul came into contact with the Orthodox faith, already she could see the deficits of her heritage and the flame of desire for a deeper and more complete spiritual life was ignited within her. Whether we come to the Orthodox faith from birth, as many in this parish have, or whether we convert later in life, again, as many in this parish have done, it is necessary always to remind ourselves of the great value and depth of this spiritual treasure which has been given to us. It is easy, sometimes, to take all this for granted – the beauty of the Church which only reflects the beauty of God Himself; the spiritual comfort and care which surrounds us at all times; the depth of spiritual truth in which we are immersed; the cool and refreshing fountain of grace which pours out upon us continually (especially in the Sacraments) and so on. It is in our nature as fallen creatures to begin to get a little “blind” to the blessings of God since they are always so close to us. For example, we come to pray at the Divine Liturgy and we stand here in the Church and hear or sing the hymns of praise to God, we hear the instruction in the faith that is given to us and then finally we come to receive the Holy Mysteries. But did we forget (and sometimes we do) that in this process God Himself descends upon the simple bread and wine that we offer and He changes them into His own Body and Blood. This is a major miracle that we see at every liturgy and in which we participate every time we receive the Holy Gifts. But too often it has become “ordinary” and we take it for granted. So it often is with nearly every aspect of the Orthodox life and so we must remind ourselves frequently that the Church is indeed the “pearl of great price” and “a treasure hidden in a field”.
The life and happiness of the Grand-duchess was violently disrupted after nearly 20 years of marriage by the murder of her husband. A revolutionary tossed a bomb into the carriage of the Grand-duke Sergei which exploded as it bounced off his chest. The sudden loss of her husband in such a violent manner marked a significant change in her life. The Grand-duchess responded to this tragedy in such a way that exhibited the deep effect and strength of her spiritual life. Rushing to the scene of the tragedy, she gathered up her husband and had him brought into the Church where immediately the first pannykhida was served. Then, she put aside her mourning clothes and went to visit the coachman who was also mortally injured as he lay in the hospital. There she comforted him as he also died from his wounds. These actions one might expect from a highly compassionate person of any nature, however, her next action was unique to her Orthodox spiritual nature; she went to the jail to visit her husband’s assassin (as he had been arrested almost immediately) and there assured him of her and her husband’s forgiveness. Even though the assassin showed no remorse, she then left with him a Bible and an icon in the hopes that he would repent of his sin. At this moment we see in her the likeness of our Lord Who from the Cross cried out concerning those who had condemned and crucified Him, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
After this tragedy the Grand-duchess began to reorder her life to devote herself to spiritual labors (prayer and asceticism) and to the care of others. She withdrew more and more from the worldly social life of family and friends, devoting herself to prayer. She redoubled her labors for the care of the poor and needy and established hospitals for the care of the wounded where she herself was one of the nurses. She lived no longer for herself but for the care of others. She gave away or used for charitable purposes most of her wealth; she “redecorated” her residence to reflect a more monastic life: ordered, simple and centered on Christ. In fact she later founded a monastery and giving her own monastic vows became the abbess of the sisterhood.
Now most of us, when we suffer a great loss tend to collect up what is left to us and hold onto it more tightly so that we don’t lose more. The Grand-duchess, however, having suffered so great a loss gathered up what remained to her and gave it away to others; to her family, to the poor and needy, to the injured and suffering. In this manner she used her worldly goods to purchase heavenly riches. By letting go of what she had in this world, she was given great grace and spiritual riches in eternity. Here is our example as well. God has given each of us a treasury of both worldly and spiritual goods. It is our responsibility in this life to use that we have been given in this life to increase our spiritual wealth. We are given earthly goods not in order to keep them and use them to our own benefit, or even to hoard them and responsibly “grow” our wealth – rather we are given these things that we might give to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and so on. This is the proper use of worldly possessions. Anything else that we do, no matter how “wise” or “responsible” in the eyes of the world, is an improper use of what God has given to us. Let us follow the example of the Grand-duchess and use our earthly possessions, whether it be wealth or strength or skill or energy or simply time, in such a way that we obtain with them heavenly riches.
During the revolution in Russia, the convent established by the Grand-duchess stood as a fortress of peace amidst the chaos and violence of the world around it. Outside the world was falling apart and the wolves were ravening devouring whomever they might, but a level of respect was granted to the convent and it remained for the time being unmolested by the storm. But eventually even the convent was not able to shelter the saint from the ravages of the spiritual wolf. She did have opportunities to escape, even opportunities to legally depart Russia for the relative safety of Europe, but she did not leave her own spiritual children, her nuns and the Russian people. She was arrested and sent into internal exile in Alapayevsk along with her cell attendant Barbara, Princes John, Igor, Constantine, Sergius, Vladimir and their servant Theodore. During the night of July 17/18 they will all loaded into wagons and driven into the forest, allegedly to be transferred to another village, and they were thrown alive into the open pit of an abandoned mineshaft. Hand grenades were thrown in after them to make sure they died. When the bodies were recovered, it was discovered that only one person, the servant Theodore, died from the explosives while all the rest suffered slow deaths from their injuries, starvation and exposure. As she was dying, the Grand-duchess took the head of Prince John who lay near her and bandaged it with her monastic veil – a final act of self sacrifice and giving to others. As they were dying, the martyrs sang the Cherubic hymn from the Divine liturgy along with other spiritual songs.
The bodies of the martyrs were recovered some months later when the white army overran that area briefly. The bodies of the Grand-duchess Elizabeth and the nun Barbara were transferred with great reverence to the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the Holy Land where they lie to this day on either side of the main iconostasis.
Holy New Martyrs Grand-duchess Elizabeth and nun Barbara, pray to God for us.
Over the course of the last three Sundays, we have celebrated the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Disciples who were gathered together in the upper room. We have celebrated the feast of all the Saints -- known and unknown to us. We remember all those who in faith and piety have been transformed by the descent and operation of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we have celebrated those local Saints, both the Saints of Russia who are the heritage passed down to our Church, and those Saints through whose labors in North America even this parish has been established.
Having remembered all of these Saints, we might be tempted to think that the life, death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, and the great work of the Holy Spirit is for these people, these great saints of the Church, and not for people like us. Surely, we don’t deserve such a great gift on account of our sins, our weaknesses and unbelief.
But Christ didn’t just die for the Saints. Such a thought is blasphemous because Christ’s love is for all of humanity, indeed for all of Creation. He didn’t just die for those who are worthy. Indeed, who could be worthy of such love? In the epistle this morning, Saint Paul says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is an extraordinary statement. Christ didn’t die for the Saints only, He didn’t even die only for those who call themselves Christian, or go to Church, or practice good works. He died for His enemies, for those who mocked Him and reviled Him, for those who struck Him and spit upon Him, for those who crucified Him, for those who don’t believe in Him, for those who outright reject Him. If he did this for his enemies, just think of the wonders that He will do for those who love Him, for those who are His friends.
Christ died for all of us, but He didn’t die so that we could remain in our sins, but rather that we would turn from our wickedness, from our sins, and from the lusts of our flesh and find life in Him. Later in the Epistle to the Romans, we find this statement which we read on the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Forerunner earlier this week: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy.” We must put aside sin, the works of darkness, so that we can put on the armor of light, so that we can put on the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and as Saint Paul says, “make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” Putting on the armor of light, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, means being transformed and doing works of righteousness, virtue, and holiness; it means seeking the Kingdom of God.
We must make no provision for the flesh, both those things that are sinful and even those things which are blameless. This is the message of the gospel this morning, in which our Lord tells us “do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” We must look toward God for the fulfillment of our need. He will provide for us if we seek after Him. If we look only to the needs or, worse yet, the desires of the body, we will almost certainly remain enslaved to the lusts of the flesh.
It is for this reason that we are called to fast. For by controlling what we eat, how much we eat, even when we eat, we constrain the desires and passions of our bodies. We often use food and drink as a comfort or consolation, or as an escape rather than as sustenance. We take what God provides, with which we should be satisfied, and for which we should give thanks, and we add to this what we desire, making our own selves and our gratification the end that we seek.
It is also for this reason that we give alms. We set aside our desires for wealth and material comfort, we take that which has been given to us, and we share God’s blessings with those who are in want. We become the means by which God provides materially for others, and they in turn become God’s means of providing spiritual blessings to us. We show mercy and kindness and receive mercy and kindness from on high. We seek the Kingdom of God by choosing to emulate Christ in our actions on earth, and by doing so we receive that which we need now, and greater reward in the Kingdom.
Our Lord tells us that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.” When we put on the armor of Light, when we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, when we seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, we will be provided for in our needs, but this does not mean that we will be without suffering or hardship. Sometimes this suffering comes to us because of our unbelief, or from our weakness and sinfulness. Glory to God! This suffering is meant to call us to repentance to a return to the path of salvation. Saint Paul tells us this morning that “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
If we have hope in the Lord, the suffering and tribulation that we endure strengthens our faith in God, it confirms us in our love for Him. In enduring suffering, we increase our reward in heaven. But we must learn to not run from suffering in this life, we must examine ourselves and see where we have need for repentance, or how suffering can produce perseverance, character, and hope within us.
Our Lord did not die for those who are Saints, He died that all might become Saints. The work of the Holy Spirit is the making of Saints, not from those who were created worthy, but from those who are willing to set aside their own will and their own desires. We must first put off our sinfulness in Baptism and in confession. We must put on Christ, and make His life our life through keeping His commandments, and walking in His ways. Through the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we must stop serving our flesh as master, and choose instead to serve God as Lord and Master of our lives. If we follow Him, He will provide for us, but often the way He provides for us and for our salvation is through suffering and tribulation which help us to further set aside the comforts and enticements of this life, and to cling to Him for our hope of salvation.
NOTICE: Due to the changes in yahoogroups, I have moved my sermons onto a blog on wordpress called "Pastoral Thoughts: Musings of a Village Priest" https://homilies2020.wordpress.com/ If you would like to get the sermons via email (and other random thoughts I might have), please subscribe to my blog. - Fr. David