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Heroes of the Last Days
A Sermon on the New Martyrs & Confessors of Russia
We celebrate today the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church. In the icon in the center of the church we truly behold a host of heroes no less glorious than any who have ever walked upon the earth, though they are men and women of a time neither very far nor very different from our own. Despite the fact that they were born into a world of nearly universal spiritual weakening, when the fires of faith were everywhere growing cold, and despite the fact that they found themselves suddenly thrust into a cataclysm of godlessness and cruelty exceeding that of any persecution ever known, nevertheless the grace of God found even in the midst of such times this mighty array of men and women to raise up as martyrs and confessors, as holy beacons and luminaries to guide us sinners toward salvation and eternal life.
And truly, how many vital and spiritually necessary lessons do these holy men and women have to teach us Christians of the latter days! First of all, they teach us to take nothing for granted in this transitory life. For these Russians were born at a time when their nation, for all of its spiritual corruption and decadence, was nevertheless still the chief defender of Holy Orthodoxy on the international stage, and was nevertheless still home to God-bearing elders and eldresses, to living examples of such sanctity and righteousness as most of us today can scarcely imagine. Yet in the twinkling of an eye, everything was torn apart and turned upside-down; the nation that yesterday had been the defender of Orthodoxy in distant lands suddenly began to flow with rivers of more Christian blood than any nation had ever seen in the entire history of the world. Though the tide has been turning against Christianity in the West for hundreds of years now, nevertheless almost none of us — with the notable exception of the countless massacred hosts of unborn children — have experienced anything even remotely similar to the sufferings endured by the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Bolshevik Yoke. And though it might seem inconceivable to us that such bloodthirsty persecution could come upon our own land in our own time, we ought to understand that it was yet more inconceivable that such a thing could happen in Russia, a land that was far more deeply Christian than anything any of us have ever experienced. So we must learn from the New Martyrs the great truth that absolutely everything in our own lives can change in an instant, that all our hopes and dreams for our existence in this world can quite easily turn out to be no more than fleeting shadows and passing illusions — even if these hopes and dreams are godly. There exists only one firm foundation upon which we can possibly build our lives: unshakable obedience to the Gospel commandments of Christ, as He Himself said: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock” (Matt. 7:24).
But even if unspeakable horrors do come to pass in our lives, the second lesson we must learn from the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is that even the worst sins and most terrible tragedies nevertheless cannot possibly do otherwise than come — in the end — to serve the benevolent providence of our all-good God. For although the God-hating Bolsheviks and their allies all over the world tried absolutely everything in their power to wipe Christianity off the face of the earth, although Nikita Krushchev vowed to show the world the last remaining priest on television, yet only a few short decades later we see that it is rather they themselves who have perished, while the Holy Church remains alive and well according to the word of the Lord: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Although the Soviets massacred untold multitudes of clergy, monastics, and faithful in their demonic, fanatical hatred of Christ and His Church, yet these same martyrs stand now before the throne of God in Heaven, alive and victorious, crowned with glory and honor by the suffering of death (cf. Heb. 2:9); and indeed, there are those who say that it is only through their blood and their prayers that the world still endures to this day.
Not only this, but the very persecution meant to destroy Christianity made missionaries out of those the godless ones scattered across the face of the earth, and so it came to pass that the atheist persecutors themselves caused churches to be erected from one end of the earth to the other, and the ancient monastic traditions of Holy Orthodoxy to spread even to these remote hollers of West Virginia. Had it not been for the Bolsheviks and their bloody persecution of the New Martyrs and Confessors, none of us would be standing here today celebrating the Divine Liturgy as we work out our salvation in the monastic life. And so it becomes clear that even the Bolsheviks and all their innumerable evils were in the end unable to escape becoming unwitting servants of the Providence of God, as St. Paul (himself no stranger to persecution and martyrdom) has written: “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Therefore, my brothers and sisters, we too ought to have firm faith that every tragedy and every sinful horror which comes to pass in our own lives will likewise be unable to escape coming at last to serve the loving Providence of God.
And so the third lesson we must learn from the New Martyrs is not to hate or judge those who fight against God and the Church, knowing that despite all their evil deeds they nevertheless only work — in the last and truest analysis — as unwitting instruments of God’s mercy for us. Like the Protomartyr St. Stephen, like the Lord Himself on the Cross, the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors prayed with true Christian love for the forgiveness and salvation of those who tortured and murdered them. While the Bolsheviks held the Royal Family prisoner (before shooting them in the basement in cold blood), they had to continually replace the guards with yet crueler and more heartless men, as each group of propagandized guards began to soften as they encountered for themselves the deep faith, sincere kindness, and true love of that profoundly Christian family. The great Elder John Krestiankin prayed every single day for the rest of his life for the man sent to torture him during his time in the Gulags, who (amongst other torments) broke every one of his fingers simply for being a faithful priest. And who among us is not moved to tears upon hearing the life of the New Martyr Lydia, and how the love and prayer she offered — in the midst of unbearable torments — for her prison guard Cyril finally transformed even such a man as him into a martyr at her side?
Moreover, it is nothing more than the simple truth when the Holy Fathers tell us that those who wrong us and persecute us are our greatest benefactors and our truest friends on this earth. For it is above all through these people that we have the opportunity to, at long last, become real Christians. The Lord has been very clear. “Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27). “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). There is no more profound way in which we can become like Christ than to become willing to shed — as He Himself did — every last drop of blood in our bodies out of love for those who hate us the most. And if by the grace of God we become able to do this, then it is we ourselves who will have been given the greatest and most incomparable gift in the world by those who took our earthly lives.
Some say that there are three paths to salvation for a Christian: marriage, monasticism, and martyrdom. But perhaps it is not too bold for me to say that really, there is only one path. Every Christian must become a martyr. There is no other path to Heaven than the path of the Cross.
Perhaps, if we are a bit more honest with ourselves than usual, we might think that such a path is beyond our strength. Perhaps we doubt whether we have the faith, the courage, or the love of which martyrs are made. But there is a final lesson that the New Martyrs have to teach us today. And I myself cannot possibly find a better way to say it than to recount one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard, from the wonderful book Everyday Saints by Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov):
SOMEWHERE IN THE depths of Russia before the Revolution there was a monastery that had a bad reputation in the neighborhood. It was said that its monks were all idlers and drunkards. During the Civil War the Bolsheviks arrived in the town that was closest to the monastery. They gathered together its inhabitants in the market square, and then they dragged the monastery’s monks out in a convoy.
The commissar loudly yelled at the people as he pointed to those men in black: “Citizens! Townsfolk! You know these drunkards, gluttons, and idlers better than I do! Now their power has come to an end. But so that you will understand more fully how these vagabonds have fooled the workers and peasants for centuries, we will throw their cross and their Scriptures into the dust before them. Now, before your very eyes, you will see how each of them will stamp upon these tools of deceit and enslavement of the people! And then we will let them go, and let the four winds scatter them!”
The crowd roared. And as the people cheered, up walked the monastery’s abbot, a stout man with a meaty face and nose all red from drinking. And he said as he turned to his fellow monks: “Well, my brothers, we have lived like pigs, but let us at least die like Christians!”
And not a single one of those monks budged. That very day all their heads were chopped off by the sabers of the Bolsheviks.
My brothers and sisters, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). The Lord came for no other reason than to make sinners into saints. He came for no other reason than to make you and me and everyone around us into martyrs for His name. And He will by no means withhold from us the grace needed to accomplish this… if only we ourselves become willing to take up the Cross, and follow Him.
But we do not need to wait — indeed, we cannot afford to wait — for someone else to come and crucify us. We can — we must — begin right now, in this very moment, to take up the cross of love, of humility, of forgiveness, of self-sacrifice. Let each of us direct the gaze of our soul toward the holy icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia standing in the middle of the church, and hear them mystically echo back to us the words of St. Paul: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Through their holy prayers and intercessions, may the Lord grant each one of us to become like them: heroes of the last days, new martyrs and confessors of the Faith. Amen.