The Martyrdom of Boris and Gleb

Sts. Boris and Gleb

St. Vladimir Prince of the Rus is noted of course for his choosing to become a Christian in 988AD and thus bringing the Christian Faith to the people of Rus (both Ukrainians and Russians claim this is how Orthodox Christianity came to them).  His decision to embrace Christianity proved fateful to his own children as well.  When Vladimir died, there was a question as to which of his sons would succeed him to the throne.  One of his sons, Svyatopolk, was determined to use lethal force to attain the throne.  Two of St. Vladimir’s sons however, influenced by their new Christian faith decided that it would not be right to take up arms against their brothers to gain the throne.  They were not only filial brothers, they were now through baptism brothers in Christ.  Svyatopolk however lusted for power and sent his men to kill Boris first.  Fr. Sergei Hackel tells the story this way:

Martyr Boris

“The murderers arrived when it was still dark: but Boris, as they could hear, was already up and at prayer. “O Lord Jesus Christ, who in this form didst come down to us on earth” (he was praying before an icon) ‘and who of thine own free will didst deign to be nailed upon the cross and endure suffering for our sins: vouchsafe me also to end suffering.’”

Boris decides to imitate Christ and accept martyrdom rather than even defend himself from those sent to murder him.  Gleb the other brother also decides not to retaliate or defend himself, but accepting his role as a martyr for Christ, lays down his life rather than kill another.  Fr. Hackel concludes the account of these martyred saints of the Orthodox Church:

We see them facing death. Are not we, with them, awaiting death? How do they face it? At first, alone and — like us — afraid. There is no one at hand to help them. They are not immediately willing to submit. There is no cheap victory when it comes. The agony of Gethsemane precedes the submission of Gethsemane.

Martyr Gleb

Yet no sooner have they submitted than they find they are no longer alone in their agony, they are under Christ’s yoke, he is lifting the weight off their shoulders. He is their partner under the yoke; they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and they fear no evil: His rod and His staff comfort them.  …   But Svyatopolk is evil, says the world. Oppose him; you have the force, use it, your cause is just. You will live and rule your people wisely. Even the justice of their cause does not provoke them: was not the most just of causes defended by Peter in Gethsemane, and was he not rebuked? Could not the Son of God have called down more than twelve legions of angels to His defense? Yet He submitted.

Boris and Gleb, in these last moments, link their lives with Christ’s, and, with Thomas the Apostle, they are able to say: “Let us also go with Him, that we may die with Him”

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Orthodoxy in America

“The Church is in the world, in order to convert and redirect all the realms of natural, personal and social life. Her task is to make people aware of their true destiny and to make history constantly eschatological by illuminating, renewing and transforming the culture of people. This mission obligates every local Church to take root in the nation in which she enacts her life of faith.” (Alkiviadas C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy Volume Two: Challenges and Opportunities – The Church in Her Mission to the World, pg.60)

26 June 2011, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, is recognized by the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Archdiocese as the Sunday of All Saints of North America.   Most of the canonized Orthodox Saints in America were involved in mission work – helping to establish Orthodoxy in America so that it could be a viable witness to following Christ in the Orthodox way.  Today, we Orthodox enjoy the benefits of the missionary work and accomplishment of our saintly fore-bearers.  It is our turn to take up the cross of Christ and help root this life-giving tree in America.  We are to bear witness to all Americans about Christ, and we are to create a church which welcomes visitors and converts into our communities.  We are to become the saints who are fishers of men.

Holy = Saint

While in English we use separate words – holy and saint – in Greek these worlds both translate to the one word “agios”. We should remember that saint and holy are the same word.  Saint John = Holy John.  Holy Spirit = Saint Spirit.  Holy Ones = Saints.  The saint receives holiness from the Holy Spirit.  Without the Holy Spirit, there are no holy ones (saints).

“‘The patriarch Enoch was a shoemaker; with every stitch by which he joined the lower leather of a shoe to the upper leather, he united the Glory that is below with the Glory that is above.’ This ancient rabbinical Jewish saying represents a vision in which holiness is a matter of connecting the ordinary matter of earth with its depths in the life of God. This saint is not primarily the high achiever of the moral life, the honors graduate in discipleship, but the person in whom the depths of the ordinary become visible. The face of the saint is just as the tradition of Orthodox icon painting conceives it – a face that is unmistakably distinctive and human, yet ‘thinned out’ so as to let the light through, the light that is found in the deep background of the picture.”  (Rowan Williams in Hidden Holiness by Michael Plekon, pg. vii)

The Saints: Examples of the Gospel

“Perhaps more than anything else the lives of the Saints (and of the elders in this book) provide an ‘interpretation’ of Christ’s Gospel, ‘written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in table of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart’ (2 Cor. 3:3). That which is of greatest importance in these lives are not so much the details of each llife, but rather the spirit that breathes in them, which shaped them into precious vessels of the Holy Spirt. These lives bear witness to the transformation of man that is possible, when the Christian gives himself wholly over to the will of God. As Elder Sophrony of Essex has written, it is not arbitrary asceticism or the possession of supernatural gifts that constitute genuine Christian spiritual life, but rather obedience to the will of God. Each person has his own capabilities and his own path to tread; the keeping of Christ’s commandments, however, remains a constant.”   (Herman A. Middleton, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, pg.22)

Saints of the 20th Century

Saint God, Saint Mighty, Saint Immortal

What makes a person “a saint”?  The word “saint” in English is one way we translate the Greek word “agios” which literally means “the holy one.”  The word “saint” thus is the same word “holy” as in “Holy Spirit” or “Holy God, Holy PaulPentecostMighty, Holy Immortal…”   When we use the word “saint” to talk about God’s holy people, we English speakers lose the sense of connection between the holiness of God and the holy saint.   In the Orthodox Church the Feast of Pentecost – God’s pouring forth His Holy Spirit upon the disciples first and then all the Church is followed a week later by All Saints Day or the Day of ALL the Holy Ones of God.    The giving of the Holy Spirit by God results in abundance of Holy Ones in the Church.   To be consistent if we are going to refer to Saints instead of Holy Ones, we should then also say Saint Spirit and Saint God.  It sounds wrong to our ears but it would help us remember the connection between the Holy God and His Holy Ones.

A saint is a person who is holy in the eyes of God.  We strive as Christians to be holy, not just moral.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo wrote in FREEDOM TO BELIEVE

Morality becomes a substitute for our life in Christ when we reduce religion to a moral code, when we reduce the faith to a system of correct behavior instead of an existential struggle to purify the conscience and acquire the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We cannot acquire the Holy Spirit by means of correct behavior, which is just a matter of human works and legalistic words at that. Such an approach fills us with so much judgment and condemnation and arrogance and self-righteousness that the Holy Spirit remains alien to us. We begin to think ourselves to be moral and everyone who is not like us somehow immoral. We set ourselves as the criterion of morality, but there can be no true morality without the inner transformation of our person. Perfect holiness consists only in perfect love, not in correct behavior. Righteousness does not consist in correct behavior, but in genuine co-suffering love and pure faith. No deed has any moral value unless it proceeds from the heart motivated by love”.

St. Paul the Apostle expresed it this way:  

I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I have no love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.   I may have the gift of prophecy and the knowledge of every hidden truth; I may have faith enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.  I may give all I posses to the needy, I may give my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I gain nothing by it.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast Day for a Saint

‏FriendBridegroomWiseThiefIn any Orthodox Calendar, the feast day of any saint is the date on which they died. It is not their birthday. Why do we honor saints on the date of their death?  Orthodox Theologian Sergius Bulgakov writes in his The Friend of the Bridgroom:

For every human being, life is a pathof salvation, a possibility of liberation from sin, of finding the grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the essential and decisive moment of a life can only be its conclusion, the death of a righteous one: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15). The death of a saint is a victorious liberation from sin, the fulfillment of a feat. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Therefore, the Church does not generally celebrate the birth of saints, for it represents the initial state of their captivity, their subjugation by sin…Secular biographers may characterize the birthdays of eminent people as joyous and festive, but the Church celebrates only the victory over sin, the realized feat.

That the day of the saint’s death is viewed as also the day of their victory over the power of sin is interesting, because the date of one’s baptism is viewed as the date of one’s death as well.  It is the day we die to sin, die with Christ, and are raised victoriously with him.   The “old man” (the man of flesh, the man of sin) dies and the newly created human is born again.

A question for the readers of this blog:  I am told that in Roman Catholic  the Wise Thief is named St. Dismas (or Dimas or some variation thereof).  The name comes from the 6th Century apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel.   Does anyone know in Orthodox tradition if he is ever officially named?

St. Nicholas – A Saint Not a Savior

nicholasSermon Notes from 6 December 1997 St. Nicholas of Myra

To have an adequate understanding of salvation one has to have a sense of catastrophe, for salvation is God’s action in dealing with catastrophe. Sin is a tsunami, devastating earthquake or hurricane – a catastrophe that has struck the earth and devastated humankind – causing massive death.

The moral optimist thinks that generous doses of goodwill or even education when applied to the great mounds of injustice, wickedness and corruption in the world will put the world aright. We just need St. Nicholas to correct what ails the world, or maybe like the television shows we just need a couple of angels to improve the world.

The technological optimist thinks scientific intelligence can solve the world’s problems of poverty, pollution, hunger and neorosis. Albert Einstein will save the world or Microsoft or Jean Lupicard.

But St. Nicholas only professed to be a servant of God, not the Savior of the world.  Saints are not saviors, but holy people who connect the Holy God to the world.

He did not try to keep God out of what is needed in the world. It is only if we fail to see sin as catastrophe or if we believe the world is in not too bad of shape that we think humanity itself can “fix” the world.* If humanity can fix the world, we don’t really need God. Only if we don’t understand the catastrophe which has inundated the world can we deny the need for God’s salvation.

God’s answer to the catastrophe of the world – of human sin and suffering, of poverty and pollution, of wickedness and war, of selfishness and anger – is to send His Son into the world – to take on suffering, not to fix it, but to make even this broken world a means to communion with Him. Even pain, suffering and death are shown not to have the final world, and not capable of separating us from the love of God.
* A note from 2008. The cover of the 8 December 2008 NEWSWEEK is “HOW TO FIX THE WORLD”!  featuring President elect Barack Obama.   See my Presidentolatry about electing a president not a savior.

Blessed are the Peacemakers: Sts. Wenceslaus & Gorazd

One of the saints that I particularly revere is St. Wenceslaus of the Czechs.   (Also variously called St. Vaclav, or St. Vyacheslav).   He is known as a peace loving saint, whose peaceful ways led to his brutal murder by his own brother on 28 September 935AD.    St. Wenceslaus was 32 years old when murdered on the steps of a church. 

I’ve had the blessing of being able to visit the tomb of St. Wenceslaus on several occasions and to see his relics.  The first time was in 1979 when the then Czechoslovak Republic was under communism.  Visitors were able to enter the room where his relics were kept, but veneration of the relics was not permitted.  Today, the room is sealed off and one can only view the relics from the door of the room.

The room is the same one that Reinhard Heydrich, the WWII Nazi governor of the puppet Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia entered and took the crown of Wenceslaus and placed it upon his own head seeing himself and the Nazis as the conquerors of the Czechs.   An old Czech legend says that any usurper who places the crown on his head is doomed to die within a year.  Heydrich was assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance.  A detailed report with many photographs about the Heydrich assassination and the Nazi reprisals which followed can be viewed here.  You can view a  You Tube film re-enacting the assault on Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Cathedral where the Nazis trapped and killed the resistance members involved in the assassination.  The Cathedral now houses a national museum about the Nazi terror.

The Nazi reprisals for the assassination of Heydrich were severe, especially against the Orthodox population in Czechoslovakia whom they blamed for suporting the resistance.  The Orthodox bishop of Prague, St. Gorazd, showed himself to be a true shepherd of his flock and took complete blame for the activities of the resistance in order to spare his people.   The Nazis executed Gorazd on September 4, 1942.   He has since been canonized as a saint and martyr by the Orthodox Church. 

To the left the relics of St. Wenceslaus.

To the right a photo of the Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague.

Like St. Wenceslaus, St. Gorazd was a true peacemaker, and he laid down his life for his friends rather than taking up arms to save himself.