A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE NEWMARTYRS AND CONFESSORS OF RUSSIA

 

About the Newmartyrs’ Triumph of Faith, and Our Own Faith

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        In 1917, as the most terrible war yet to occur on the planet was reaching its climax, the largest country on earth fell into the hands of a small group of leftist extremists, half-idealist and half-criminal.  The war was “The Great War,” or, as it is usually known in America, “World War I”; the country was Russia; and the extremists were the Bolsheviks, who later came to be called Communists.  The Bolsheviks’ immediate purpose was to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”:  a government that would supposedly act exclusively on behalf of the working class.  Its ultimate goal was the creation of a socialist paradise.  Its leaders, however, were not, in the main, factory workers or private soldiers or peasants, but ideologues and often intellectuals.  A disproportionate number of them were people of Jewish ancestry who had become atheists.

        In order to build the socialist paradise, the Bolsheviks considered that it would be necessary to suppress whole classes of society, either by murdering the individuals belonging to those classes or by turning them into slaves of the state.  At first, they reckoned that to achieve their ultimate goal of a world-wide utopia, it would be necessary to exterminate one-tenth of the population of the planet.  Later Lenin, the first head of the Soviet state, recalculated and said that one-third would have to be annihilated.  In the end, Lenin’s Chinese successor Mao Tse-Tung set the figure at ninety percent of the human race:  a goal not even Adolf Hitler imagined in his wildest dreams.

        Among those slated for destruction were the hierarchs, clergy, monastics, and prominent or devoted laity of the Orthodox Church.  Suppression of this class began as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power, and reached a climax during the “Great Terror” of the late 1930’s, when as many as 75,000 Orthodox clergymen perished in a single year.  By the beginning of the Second World War, the Church in open, organized form had largely vanished from the Soviet landscape.  The majority of its servitors had been extirpated, and most of the rest were in the Gulag or underground.

        The sufferings of the holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia are almost beyond our conception.  The better part of them passed through the Soviet slave empire of the Gulag or were held for some time in the prisons of the Communist security forces.  In these they endured hard, forced labor; bitterest cold; extreme hunger; rampant disease; beatings; and other tortures.  The gas chambers of the Nazis would have been too merciful for them.  Yet, very few of the clergy and monastics arrested and punished by the Communists denied Christ, denied their priesthood or monasticism, or agreed to do their tormentors’ bidding.  Truly, this was a great victory of our Orthodox faith!  Many of the New Martyrs and Confessors would have had only to sign here, testifying, “I am not a believer,” or, “I am not a priest,” and they would have been released.  But they were steadfast in the faith and would not betray their convictions or principles.

        In order to accomplish the goal of eradicating all belief in God among the people, the Communists allotted considerable attention and resources to their anti-religious campaign, which involved an element of persuasion as well as terror.  They attempted to marshal science in their support, not comprehending that the truths of science are attained by an entirely different methodology than those of faith, and relate to a level of reality largely distinct.  This is why the Communists, despite all their efforts and the vast resources at their disposal, attained only partial success in uprooting faith among the general populace, and none at all among those who would become the holy Newmartyrs.  While secular knowledge may in some cases pose difficult questions for faith, and in others directly confirm it, for the most part faith is based on the reality of spiritual experience:  on the reality of a person’s having been touched by the finger of God.  This is not auto-suggestion, which can never persuade hundreds of thousands to embrace torture and death willingly, to stand gladly before the firing-squad’s wall.  When so many are given the final choice of preserving their life by renouncing their faith, and yet they choose to lose it, what sort of auto-suggestion can there be here?  At that decisive moment, everything else fades into the background and, having truly experienced the presence of God in his life, a man faces his executioners with dauntless, simple boldness. 

        Christian faith not only unites a person with God; it elevates him, it gives him wings, enabling him to soar above the commonplace, above secular prejudices and preconceptions.  Faith enables a person to transcend conventional limitations of thought and behavior, transporting him not to a realm of fantasy, but of higher reality, a realm not accessible to discursive reasoning or scientific investigation, but only to direct experience.

        The Communists were absolute materialists and understood that, ultimately, the greatest obstacle to their success was not the nobility, nor the middle class, nor the political opposition, but Christian faith.  That is why, although the landlords and capitalists had been swept aside by 1920, the Communists’ war against the believers did not come to an end until almost the last day of the existence of the Soviet regime in Russia.

        True Christian faith frees a man from every form of bondage, be it physical, ideological, or political.  It elevates him to heaven, enabling him to look down with clear vision on everything that occurs in human life, upon all the vanity of this world.  From such a vantage point, it becomes possible to assess properly and truthfully every attempt to build the kingdom of man.  At such a height, there can be only a single slavery:  the all-liberating one of the servant of God and divine grace.  Such servants were the holy Newmartyrs and Confessors of Russia, and all the blessed martyrs and confessors of Christ throughout the centuries.

        By the prayers of His holy martyrs and confessors, may the Lord preserve our land from any sort of trial similar to that which befell the Russian land at the hands of the Bolsheviks, for a trial such as that would almost certainly prove far beyond our strength to endure.  By the prayers of His martyrs, may the Lord avert from us any temptation that might shake our feeble faith and result in the loss of our Christian orientation.  And by their prayers, may He ever strengthen us in Holy Orthodoxy, which alone can enable us to order our sensibilities, priorities, and values fully as we should, and to escape the snares devised for us by enemies visible and invisible.  Amen.