“The abode and resting-place of the Holy Spirit is humility, love, gentleness and the other holy commandments of Christ. If, therefore, a person desires to grow and to attain perfection by acquiring all these virtues, he must initially force himself to acquire and must establish himself in the first — that is to say, in prayer—wrestling and striving with his heart to make it receptive and obedient to God.”
Earlier this month we were reminded of the popularity of St. Nicholas in the Orthodox Church around the world. If you took a vote for the favorite saint, he would win. Another, more modern saint, who lived in the 19th century, is also remembered in December: St. John of Kronstadt. I see that he had some of the same qualities as St. Nicholas. This article tells how generous he was to the poor. Here is a small excerpt:
He would shop for food, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, to the doctor for help, many times giving the poor his last few coins. The inhabitants of Kronstadt would see him returning home barefoot and without his cassock. Often parishioners would bring shoes to his wife, saying to her, “Your husband has given away his shoes to someone, and will come home barefoot.”
He seems to have had the gift of exhortation; he truly loved people, whether the upper classes or the criminals who were exiled to Kronstadt at the time, and would spend hours at a time in the shacks of the latter, “talking, encouraging, comforting, crying, and rejoicing together with them.”
His popularity has not waned, judging from the fact that between 1990 and 2016, “more than 60 new churches or altars in Russia alone were dedicated to him,” his flat in Kronstadt became a registered museum, his biography was published in a highly respected series, and monuments to St. John have been placed in cities not only in Russia and gifted to Orthodox communities around the world, including in Washington, D.C., in 2019.
This monument to him was installed last year in his home village of Sura, Arkhangelsk Province, in northwestern Russia, which in 2010 had a population of 727:
Because of his zealous love and spirit of encouragment, one can find many helpful quotes from the saint, and I have posted a few in the past. Here I pass on an exhortation from St. John that is a good reminder to us in the current era, of ultimate reality:
“There is nothing impossible unto those who believe; lively and unshaken faith can accomplish great miracles in the twinkling of an eye. Besides, even without our sincere and firm faith, miracles are accomplished, such as the miracles of the sacraments; for God’s Mystery is always accomplished, even though we were incredulous or unbelieving at the time of its celebration. ‘Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?’ (Rom. 3:3). Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence.”
In December we Orthodox commemorate the repose in 1837 of Saint Herman of Alaska, who came as an Orthodox Christian missionary to America in 1793. When he was glorified as a saint in 1970, Fr. Alexander Schmemann was present for the ceremonies. He wrote a non-official account of the event, seemingly from an overflow of joy that compelled his “weak attempt to express to those who were not there that which I cannot call anything other than a miracle of the mercy of God.” You can read it here: Days of Light and Joy.
Of the last of the three days of services and celebrations, Fr. Alexander writes:
“… very early in the morning, five priests with Archbishop Kiprian go to Spruce Island where for almost thirty years the Elder Herman lived as a hermit. And I know that we have never in our lives experienced anything better, purer, more joyful than what we’ve experienced there that morning: the walk through the wooded paths along the towering evergreens keeping their eternal vigil before their Creator, to the little chapel over the cave of the elder, and the liturgy in that chapel. I served the liturgy; but to say this is totally inaccurate. The liturgy served itself. It was only necessary for us to give ourselves to it completely, to immerse ourselves in it, to enter into the thanksgiving without reservation. I know as well that we did not deserve this at all but that it was given to us as a gift. I can only pray that it will also be given to us to preserve but the smallest portion of this gift of grace.”
This was in August of 1970, and since then a steady stream of pilgrims from across the globe has visited St. Herman’s grave, including descendants of the Aleuts who knew and loved him before his repose. In 2020 for the 50th anniversary of his glorification there were many festivities and pilgrims there in Kodiak and on Spruce Island.
Father Herman’s repose was in December, so we commemorate him at this time of year as well. I leave you with the closing paragraph of Fr. Alexander’s report:
“In this light and in this joy, all of our human disagreements, accusations and condemnations become so petty, so human, so sinful. The whole time it seemed: If only we could give ourselves humbly to this joy we would understand without words in what and for what the Church exists, and the scales of our wickedness and suspicions and divisions would fall from us. There, at the tomb of Saint Herman, in the splendor of his humility, it was given to us to see that reality which alone gives authentic life to the Church, that reality which is indeed the only thing which the Church has to reveal to this world, that reality by which alone the Church will be able to overcome every power of evil in this world.
Today is the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ, His ancestors according to the flesh. We remember these who lived “before the Law and under the Law,” especially the Patriarch Abraham, to whom God said, “In thy seed shall all of the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3, 22:18).
I brought an icon of the Prophet David to stand up on the table in my church school class, and we talked about David as a shepherd boy, his killing of a lion who was threatening the sheep, his composing songs, and his anointing by the Prophet Samuel. (But first, we must chat about St. Nicholas and Santa, because he was strongly on the minds of the four- and five-year-olds.)
When I took the icon out of my bag again at home, I set it up downstairs, and lit a candle to help me keep remembering for the remainder of today. Maybe I will leave it here through next Sunday, when we remember more of these saints; the next church school lesson will focus on the Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace.
One thing I didn’t discuss with the children, but would be fun to teach older students about, is the Tree of Jesse, a visual depiction of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Jesse was the father of King David; his roots extend down and back to his own forefathers including Abraham, the Father of the Faithful; and Jesse was himself the root, or progenitor, of David’s line, which culminated in Christ the Messiah.
Jesse Tree icons must necessarily include so much information, they somewhat overwhelm me. When looking at them I tend to concentrate on Jesse himself, lying at the base of the tree, with its trunk growing out his very body.
Stained glass windows portraying the Jesse tree, which abound in Britain, are also a bit much for me to take in. Often they are in tall cathedrals and extend up a whole wall, the figures distant and their names unreadable. As I was looking at some online I was happy to find Val Stevens talking about the Jesse Window at Wells Cathedral, which I no doubt saw when I visited there with daughter Pippin, but I don’t remember.
It’s a very short video (which ends with a request for contributions which are no longer needed, because the repairs have been completed), and she speaks for only two minutes, but she made me laugh with joy when she began to speak about the rare crucifixion scene that is in that window, which dates from the 14th century. The stem turns green, and takes the form of a cross, on which the Savior hangs. When she got to the part about the meaning of the green wood, or what it meant to the medieval mind, my heart leapt to hear it, and to see the change in her body language as she moved from purely artistic ideas, to the more compelling realities of the heart: Jesse Window of Wells Cathedral
Also I want to share a quote I have posted before, more than once, because it pulls together several of these images, metaphors, and real people in our salvation history, in our cultural tradition. This is about a different sort of tree, the more familiar and ubiquitous Christmas tree! From Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos:
“I suspect that the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas time is not simply a custom which came to us from the West and which we should replace with other more Orthodox customs. To be sure, I have not gone into the history of the Christmas tree and where it originated, but I think that it is connected with the Christmas feast and its true meaning.
“First, it is not unrelated to the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Is. 11:1). St. Cosmas the poet had this prophecy in mind when he wrote of Christ as the blossom which rose up out of the Virgin stem from the stump of Jesse. The root is Jesse, David’s father, the rod is King David, the flower which came from the root and the rod is Theotokos. And the fruit which came forth from the flower of the Panagia is Christ. Holy Scripture presents this wonderfully.
“Thus the Christmas tree can remind us of the genealogical tree of Christ as Man, the love of God, but also the successive purifications of the Forefathers of Christ. At the top is the star which is the God-Man (Theanthropos) Christ. Then, the Christmas tree reminds us of the tree of knowledge as well as the tree of life, but especially the latter. It underlines clearly the truth that Christ is the tree of life and that we cannot live or fulfill the purpose of our existence unless we taste of this tree, ‘the producer of life.’
“Christmas cannot be conceived without Holy Communion. And of course as for Holy Communion it is not possible to partake of deification in Christ without having conquered the devil, when we found ourselves faced with temptation relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where our freedom is tried. We rejoice and celebrate, because ‘the tree of life blossomed from the Virgin in the cave’.”
-Excerpt from: “The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the 12 Feasts and Orthodox Christology” by Metropolitan of Nafpatkos Hierotheos Vlachos – November 1993.
I’ve known families who used a Jesse Tree along with their Advent wreath as helps in Advent. But oh, my, out of curiosity I just looked at some current Pinterest-era examples, and had to abort that browsing quick; it was plenty for a Sunday afternoon to look at stained glass windows.
My daughters and I have been sharing memories this month, from our homes scattered across the country; posting photos of past and current Christmas trees, reminiscing about Christmas caroling, and recalling their father’s voice and his Christmas joy. This year I will have neither a Jesse nor a Christmas tree, but I feel rich with history and symbols and family. There’s my earthly family, and there is the heavenly family into which I’ve been adopted by the Father. Today I’m especially grateful for all those patriarchs and prophets who have gone before and who encourage me by their lives of faith.
By faith You justified the Forefathers, when through them You betrothed Yourself beforehand to the Church of the Gentiles. The saints boast in glory, that from their seed there is a glorious fruit: she who bore You without seed. By their prayers, O Christ God, save our souls.