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Of Vikings and Paralytics
A Sermon on St. Vladimir & the 6th Sunday After Pentecost
In the introduction to the life of St. Boniface of Tarsus, we hear the following words:
When we praise the saints it is not fitting to keep silence concerning their early transgressions: it should be known that not all of them were righteous from their youth. Like other men, many saints defiled their bodies, but by true repentance and sincere self-amendment they acquired lofty virtues and a marvelous degree of holiness, attaining the summit of perfection. Knowing this, we should not let our sins cast us into despair, but awake quickly and rise, for it is certain that, whatever our iniquities, we can ourselves attain holiness with God’s help, if only this be our desire.
Today we celebrate the memory of just such a saint — the holy Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of All Russia, Saint Vladimir the Grand Prince of Kiev. And although — as we have just heard — many among the saints once lived very sinful lives, I dare say that few ever lived such lives of exceeding filth and depravity as did St. Vladimir before his conversion to Christianity.
In his former life he was a Viking king, famed far and wide for both his debauchery and his bloodthirstiness. His many wives not being enough to satiate his desire for pleasure, he also took to himself an unheard-of eight hundred concubines. Nor were his frequent wars enough to slake his Viking thirst for blood, and so his frenzied love for demon-worship reached its culmination in spilling his own people’s blood in human sacrifice to the foul idols which he erected everywhere throughout his land.
And yet, my dear brothers and sisters, today we nevertheless honor his memory with devotion and gratitude and love, naming him an equal to the very Apostles themselves. How can such a thing be? Yes, St. Peter denied his Lord, and St. Paul was once great a persecutor of the faithful — yet never did St. Peter or St. Paul so much as contemplate spilling the blood of their brothers at the idols’ feet, as St. Vladimir did with so much demonic zeal and devilish pride! We might well wonder how such a benighted man, so wholly given over to the devil, could become even a faithful Christian — let alone an equal to the Apostles! After all, what room was left in such a darkened heart for the light of Christ to enter in and shine forth?
For the answer to this question, let us turn to the Sunday Gospel passage which we have providentially heard on this day. In it, we hear of the paralytic who was carried by his friends on a mat to meet the Lord Jesus Christ. And we hear then an exceedingly marvelous thing: the Lord forgives the man’s sins — not on his account, but rather on account of the faith of his friends! On his own the man could do nothing, he could not even approach Christ and ask forgiveness and healing for himself. No, it was the love of his friends that saved the man’s soul and restored his paralyzed limbs to health.
We hear also in the life of St. Boniface: “Even while still in bondage to passions of the flesh, Boniface was not devoid of praiseworthy characteristics.” And in the case of St. Vladimir, we see that the same was true even of this frenzied devotee of the demons. For St. Vladimir truly loved his people. Despite his debauchery, despite his bloodthirstiness, despite even his zeal for the worship of devils, he nevertheless desired to be a good father to his people. Though undoubtedly he was a very sinful man, yet he also possessed a truly kingly soul.
And through the virtue of this kingly love, Christ the King of Kings was able to reach into the heart of this savage Viking. Such was St. Vladimir’s love for his people that he desired to give them not only an earthly kingdom, but even more so the Heavenly Kingdom. And so he sent his emissaries to every corner of the world in order to seek for the True Faith. Once they returned, having discovered the transcendent beauty and power of Holy Orthodoxy, St. Vladimir himself repented, changed his entire life, and carried his nation — lying paralyzed by idolatry — on his own shoulders to the banks of the river Dnieper, to the waters of Holy Baptism, where the king became also the godfather to all of his people.
And as for us, my dear brothers and sisters: are we lying paralyzed by our sins? Are we unable to escape the strictures of our passion-loving lives? Have we waged savage warfare against those who possess what we envy? Have we whored ourselves out to a myriad of desires? Do we find ourselves enthralled to the idols we have erected? Have we even — God forbid — made a sacrifice of those around us to the demons we have served?
If this is so — and truly, for whom among us is this not so? — then we have before us today the icon of St. Vladimir, a sinner just like us, who brought not only himself but also entire nations and countless generations unto Christ. And it is no exaggeration to say that he has also brought every single one of us standing here to Christ, because were it not for him, there would be no Russian Orthodox monastery out here in the hills of West Virginia, where we have gathered today to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, to meet and to receive into our sinful bodies and souls the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just as surely as the men in today’s Gospel carried their paralyzed friend to be healed and forgiven by Christ, so too has St. Vladimir carried the entire Russian people throughout all these past ten centuries — and countless other peoples through them as well — to be healed and forgiven by Christ. And today he has brought us also here together, to be healed and forgiven by Christ. No matter how terrible our sins, no matter how overwhelming our paralysis, St. Vladimir has brought us here today, in this very moment, to the feet of the Savior, Who alone has the power to both heal and to forgive.
Through this great act of love for his people, the many and terrible sins of St. Vladimir himself were also washed away. And herein he has shown us the path to forgiveness, and the way to be healed of our own spiritual paralysis: to labor tireless, selflessly, and unstintingly not for ourselves, but for the salvation of those around us. To carry as many as possible of those around us to the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.
After his conversion, St. Vladimir fulfilled in very truth the words of the prayer we read each morning: “Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for Thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan.” St. Vladimir immediately set to work tearing down the idols, mocking the false gods, repudiating his pagan wives, living in chastity, reigning in peace, abolishing the death penalty, building Christian churches, establishing schools for religious education, feeding with his own hand the poor and widows and orphans. Such a transformation has never been surpassed in all the annals of history, and we stand here today in a monastery that bears witness, over a thousand years thence, to the profound Christian repentance of that Viking king.
And, my brothers and sisters, thanks to the tireless labors of St. Vladimir, this same depth of profound Christian repentance is available to every single one of us, at this very moment… “if only this be our desire.”
Therefore, let us take heed to the exhortation of St. Paul which we have just heard read in today’s Epistle lesson, and let us no longer hesitate to put it into practice in our own lives, from this very moment on:
Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you.
And through both the prayers and the living example of the Equal-to-the-Apostles, the Holy Great Prince Vladimir, may the Lord Jesus Christ bring each and every one of us into His Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.