Zacchaeus Sunday & New Martyrs of Russia
Even though Lent is starting so much later this year, it always seems to strike me when I hear the Gospel story of Zacchaeus – can it really be Zacchaeus Sunday already? Zacchaeus Sunday is the first of the preparatory Sundays leading us toward the Great Fast.
Over the course of the next several Sundays we will be presented with different themes which spiritually prepare us for the season of fasting and repentance… today we hear of Zacchaeus, and then in the following Sundays we shall hear of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Final Judgment of all mankind. Our holy mother Church is guiding us through these Sundays to warm our hearts and set our minds upon the proper context for us to approach the fast in the right spirit, so that we can reap the greatest benefit from the blessing of the Great Fast.
Today we read the Gospel account of Zacchaeus, a despised tax-collector, a man who came to get a glimpse of Jesus as He was passing by, but because of his short stature and the great crowd of people, he could not have a clear view. So Zacchaeus, in his zeal and single-minded thirst for God, climbed into the branches of a sycamore tree to get a view of our Lord as He passed by. When Jesus came along this way, He made a point of stopping and looking up to Zacchaeus, calling out to him to ‘make haste and come down – for I desire to stay in your house this day’.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ… what an image we have set before us today!
Just like Zacchaeus, our sins make us ‘short of stature’ spiritually. Our vision of God is often lost and obscured because we cannot see past the obstacles of the world and our daily concerns. These worries, distractions, and temptations block our view from seeing God. And the world and the devil encourage this blindness… offering before us these endless distractions and concerns and temptations that obscure our vision of how things really are and who we are meant to be.
It takes faith and determination and courage to rise above the distractions and obstacles of this world in order to see God. It takes faith, determination, and courage to swim against the current of the stream of the apostasy of the modern world. But, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is critically important that we have this faith, this determination, and this courage to keep our head above the waters of the worries of this world and to gain and retain a heavenly perspective.
This faith, this determination, this courage, this heavenly perspective and priority set on the things of God are most vividly illustrated in the lives of those whom we celebrate today - the holy new martyrs of Russia.
The 20th century, while being a century of remarkable invention and progress in so many ways, was also the most brutal and bloody century of recorded history. The Christian Church has always been a church of martyrs… our very Lord and Savior Jesus Christ drank the cup of martyrdom, being killed for what He stood for and Who He was.
In many countries, the Christians suffered at the hands of the atheists… who in their maniacal delusion sought to build a paradise without God, but in the end - and all along the way - unleashed a demonic wave of suffering, hatred, and death. The number of martyrs killed under the Soviet regime is estimated between 12 and 20 million!
Think of that! Between 12 and 20 million Christian souls ripped away from their homes and families, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Every Orthodox Christian should familiarize himself with the lives and the sufferings of the new martyrs. So many of these dear Christian souls showed such faith, determination, and courage… facing their persecutors with incredible nobility and with utmost fidelity and love for God. The martyrs for the faith are the true heroes in this world… and that heroism is only magnified by the crowns they receive in heaven.
I remember some 35 years ago helping to do some work on a book being compiled by the St Herman Brotherhood entitled ‘Russia’s Catacomb Saints’. The book recounted the atmosphere of apostasy which was occurring in Russia in the early decades of the 20th century and detailed the lives and martyrdom of so many noble bishops, priests, and pious souls. One of the things that struck me most profoundly when that book was finally published was the dedication page… there one read: ‘This book is dedicated to the Christian martyrs… today in Russia, tomorrow in America.’
That struck such an ominous tone… and, at the time, was certainly a warning to be heeded, but it still seemed somewhat far-fetched and pessimistic. Who could have guessed that in a matter of some few decades the world would change so much? Throughout the early part of my lifetime, the United States proudly stood for the light of Christian values and the Soviet Union stood for the darkness of Godlessness. If I had been sent in a time capsule ahead to this second decade of the 21st century, I would never believe it! For, in so many ways, the tables have been turned. Within Russia there were over 1000 churches opened in 2018. The Gospel is proclaimed and defended within the public square. While here, in this country which I love with all my heart, our culture has gone insane – glorifying the most perverse things, tolerating anything and everything except for one thing - the intrusion of Christian morality, which dares to discriminate between what is good and what is evil.
That dedication to the future martyrs of America no longer seems extreme or absurd.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ… We need to realize that the time of our religious freedom cannot be taken for granted. It is eroding faster than we know. We should be grateful to God and take advantage of the fact that we can gather here in Church and that we still have the freedom to pray and to receive the Sacraments of our Lord. If we could see into the future and we could see how easily this might all be taken away from us… I would hope that we would not take this for granted. That we would treasure our Church and that we would make every effort to support her and to live by her precepts.
I remember being told by a priest who had suffered persecution that I should work to memorize as many prayers as I can… He told me that this would be my consolation and my salvation when our books and our churches would be taken away. It is a sobering and wise bit of advice.
The alarm being sounded is not for us to be fearful or to panic or to lose hope. The alarm being sounded is for us to increase our prayers, for us to treasure and defend our freedom while we have it. Our focus does not need to be in constant reaction to what is happening externally… that can be a distraction and cause for sin and judgment. We will do better to concentrate on proactively transforming what is happening to us internally. As St Seraphim of Sarov advised: ‘Save your own soul and a thousand around you will be saved.’ We should immerse ourselves completely in the life of our Orthodox faith so that it seeps deeply into our soul so that no one and nothing can separate us from it.
Let us indeed take courage, for as the holy Apostle writes in the book of Romans:
‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: For Your sake we are killed all the day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Yet in all things we are more than conquerors, through Him Who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
O holy martyrs, pray to God for us! Amen!