Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“For whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, . . . .” (Rm. 8:28-39).
We heard a couple of Sundays ago that in these days denoted on the liturgical calendar as being those “after Great and Holy Pentecost,” that our lives – the life we have and live in Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Son of God – is life in and under the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. All of life is lived providentially be it “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” In short, we celebrate the abiding and eternal Truth that it is wholly in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that “’we live and move and have our being’” (Ac. 17:28). We are thus exhorted by the blessed and holy Apostle Paul that as the sacramentally crucified and risen children of God, we are to set our minds and our hearts, our thoughts and our devotion, on things above where our Lord and Master dwells. “For you died,” says the Apostle, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ Who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Co. 3:1-4). We take note that the Christian is truly dead: dead to sin, dead to this world’s passions, dead to self, dead to death itself! And, totally alive to Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ (Rm. 6:1-23; Ep. 2:1-10)!
It is for this reason I have chosen to ponder a spell on the most holy death of the Royal Passion-bearers, Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, despite the fact that today we commemorate the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. These Fathers, too, have their blessed place amongst the confessors of the Faith, some even suffering martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ and for the sake of His Gospel. Today the Church also commemorates the Great-martyr Marina (Margaret) of Antioch. Today, then, beloved, is a day rich in the fertile blood of the martyrs which is, as Tertullian once noted, “the seed of the Church.” Their blood is our enrichment because it has been mixed in the chalice of the Passion of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ of which we partake in His Holy Eucharist.
The title Passion-bearer is attributed to just over a handful of Orthodox saints. One definition of a Passion-bearer is that he or she
faces death in a Christ-like manner. Unlike martyrs, Passion-bearers are not necessarily or explicitly killed for their Orthodox Faith, though they hold to that Faith with piety and true love of God (Orthodoxwiki.org).
Having said that, although all the saints commemorated are not officially Passion-bearers, all are, however, partakers of and participants in the saving and sanctifying Great and Holy Passion of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. There is no Christian who does not participate in the Passion of our Lord. His Passion – and our sharing with Him in it – is what sets us apart and makes us who we are as the elect of God who are being conformed to the image of the Son of God (Rm. 8:28-39). To share with Jesus Christ in His Great and Holy Passion has been – and is – the hope of the Church since her divine and glorious inception: to be in Christ, to be like Christ, to be one with Christ God, to be united with Him. This has also been the assurance of our Lord to all those who have responded in faith to His call. “’Whoever desires to come after Me,’” says our Lord,
‘let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it’ (Mt. 16:24-25; Mk. 8:34-35; Lk. 9:23-24).
What His Passion fleshed out in us looks like is not identical for each soul, but it is nonetheless the soul’s reality: there is self-emptying, there is a filling up with Christ and a shouldering of His Cross, and there is the daily obedience of faith, that is, to love Jesus and His commandments which are inseparably bound up together. For we cannot love Jesus and not keep His Word (Jn. 14:15; 15:7, 10, 14; 1 Jn. 5:3). St. Paul, himself a martyr along with St. Peter in Rome, captures well this hope of the Church and the Lord’s baptized called and elect:
[T]hat I may know Him and the power of His Resurrection, and the fellowship [communion] of His Sufferings, being conformed to His Death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Pp. 3:10-11).
The only way we can share in the power of Jesus’ Life-giving Resurrection is to commune in His Sufferings and be conformed to His Death. Only the dead can attain to the resurrection from the dead.
There is in the Holy Gospel read today some curious but ominous thoughts offered by our Lord to those who dare to follow Him like sheep a shepherd. He reminds us that a servant is not greater than the master. If the world has persecuted Jesus because it truly does not know Him (ultimately, He says, the world doesn’t know His Father despite their claims), then the world will likewise persecute those who follow Jesus and who bear the mark of His seal upon their brows and their hearts because the world fails to honor Jesus in them. Whatever of the world’s wrath is felt by the Church and her baptized, that wrath has first been poured out upon and felt by our Lord. The world in its blindness projects its bitterness and hatred of Jesus and His teachings upon those who abide in the Word and in whom the Word of God made flesh abides. However, Jesus says, if there is no distinction between the world and the Church so that they both look the same, which is to say that Christians are indistinguishable from the world and the world from the Church, the world would love you, says our Lord.
But, as it is, Jesus tells us, this is not the case. The Church is not of the world – its disposition, its mindset, its benightedness, its morals and faith. The Church is in the world – she doesn’t abandon the world out of divine love – but she does not partake of the world, its ways and its means. She partakes of Jesus Christ – His ways, His means, because He is “’the Way, the Truth, and the Life’” (Jn. 14:6). The Church is the “elect Lady” who has been summoned by Jesus to come out of the world, to be apart for the sake of Him and His Gospel, and then she is sent back into the world to bear Him witness (2 Jn. 1:1). Those who are being drawn from out of the world to Jesus Christ will gladly hear the Word of Jesus in the midst of His Church and believe, that is, they too will submit to Jesus and be conformed to the image of the Son of God.
Beloved, the Church is under incredible pressure nowadays to ignore Jesus and His commandments – His eternal Truth – and to be conformed instead to the opinions and wisdom of the world that allegedly knows better because the world fancies itself enlightened by science and modernity. The world has jettisoned long ago in the name of enlightened reason all that it deems to be antiquated, unscientific, backwards, and behind the times. And, it is calling the Church to join it in its newfound “wisdom” based on everything except God and His divinely revealed Truth that reflects Him Who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hb. 13:8).
And, the Royal Passion-bearers bear witness to the timeless Truth here spoken by our Lord. Jesus says, “’These things I have spoken unto you, that ye should not lose faith.’” This is the perpetual danger hidden in the murkiness of flirtation with the world: that we would lose faith in Christ and His Truth, Christ and His Church, the preserver of the Truth and our Mother in the Faith (Ga. 4:26; 1 Tm. 3:15). The Royal Passion-bearers – like all Christians should be – were confident in their faith, confident of Jesus Christ despite all things endured by them. They could confess with St. Paul,
For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know Whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day (2 Tm. 1:12).
Beloved, the Church isn’t naïve regarding the ways of Jesus Christ nor of evil. Her history is an ancient and venerable one chocked full of confessors and martyrs who were direct recipients of evil perpetrated against them all because of their faith in Jesus Christ. And the Royal Passion-bearers are no exception, although they were not slaughtered explicitly because of their faith.
Tsar Nicholas was a pious and deeply devout Orthodox Christian who sought to apply the Faith of the Church to the problems of his country. His wife, Tsarina Alexandra, was a convert from the Lutheran church and was likewise deeply pious and devout. They raised their five children in the Faith who shared their parents’ love for the Lord and compassion for others. Instead of afflicting Russia with incessant political turmoil intensified by the Bolshevik Revolution, he emptied himself of his throne, voluntarily stepping down and aside, just as our Lord emptied Himself for the life of the world (Pp. 2:5-11).
However, the Communists were not satisfied and placed the Tsar and his family under house arrest, subjecting the family to deprivations and humiliation, which they willingly endured for the sake of their Lord. Finally, after 16 months of imprisonment, the royal family was summoned under cover of darkness to get dressed and to wait together in a room downstairs where they were being held captive. They anticipated being moved yet again to another undisclosed place. The executioners, however, entered the room, read out the charges against them along with the execution order, and began the wholesale slaughter of the innocent lambs of Christ, cutting mother and father and their five children down in a hail of bullets. The parents died instantly, but the children did not. They were clubbed to death and stabbed repeatedly. The family was then taken to an abandoned mine where they were dismembered and piled together. The Communists poured on their remains gas and Sulphur and set them ablaze. After two days, the burnt and dismembered bodies were thrown into the abandoned mine and hand grenades were lobbed into it. The mine was then plowed under (OCA and Holy Transfiguration Monastery websites).
The Church, beloved, totally gets it that to be Christian – to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord alone to the glory of God the Father (Pp. 2:11) – is to be like Christ, it is to be so wholly identified with Him Who was both beloved by the multitudes and hated by others. To be Christian is to invite the devil’s bitter envy, to experience demonic wrath (WS 2:23). There is, chillingly, a diabolical delight in the martyring of Christians by the world vehemently opposed to Christ and His Church. Jesus says, ominously, “’the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service’”! That the atheistic Communists who executed the royal family thought they were doing God a favor is highly suspect. But, that they believed they were ridding the world of detested vermin, most certainly! Not too long ago, we remember those spine-chilling photos of ISIS dressed in black, knives in hand, standing behind orange clad prisoners about to be beheaded because of their faith, especially so the 21 Libyan martyrs. ISIS thought they were offering God – Allah – worship, that is, service. Today, even, Christian pregnancy centers and churches are being targeted for violence and death threats are being received all because the world has gone insane, consumed with hatred that it accuses Christians of! And the world does not see the glaring incongruity of it all because the world prefers darkness to the expose’ of the Light (Jn. 3:19-21).
And yet, we know because of the Great and Holy Passion of our Lord and His most glorious Resurrection from the dead, all of this purifies the Church and her baptized. In it we are being conformed to the image of the crucified and risen Son of God and through it we are being more closely united with Him, drawn deeper into His saving and sanctifying wounds. “Yet in all these things,” says the Apostle-martyr, “we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us.” Why? How can that be? Because of Jesus Christ. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” “Who is he who condemns?” “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And Paul replies in trial-tested, battle-hardened faith, “No one! Absolutely nothing can pry us loose from the love of God and the victory of His crucified and risen Son!” (Rm. 8:28-39).
In the Holy Eucharist the priest signifies this absolute assurance in the breaking apart of the Body of the Lamb of God, placing each part cross-wise on the paten, and proclaims, “ICXC! NIKA!” [Jesus Christ! Conqueror!]. Indeed!
Through the prayers of the Royal Passion-bearers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!