The Shining Mission of Orthodoxy in America

The following homily was offered by the visiting Dcn. David Shephard on the Sunday of All Saints of North America

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today, on the second Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate all the saints who have shone forth in the land of North America. I want you to remember how that phrase is worded, shone forth, s-h-o-n- e, because we’re going to come back to that!

This Sunday is traditionally observed by every Church (Greeks, Russians, Serbs, etc.) to remember the saints, both known and unknown, in their land who were instrumental in preaching the Gospel and witnessing the Christian life. For North America, this list of known saints is relatively short compared to the more ancient patriarchates, but the story of their witness for Christ is nonetheless a treasury of wisdom. 

Orthodoxy came to America in the late 18th century when a group of clergy and monastics sent from the Valaam monastery landed on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Notable among this group was the future St. Herman, who over the course of his life, performed many miracles and helped to bring over 7,000 native people into the Church. The Church in Alaska thrives to this day! Seeing a recent video of a parish singing “Christ is Risen” in their native language is so inspiring, because it shows the enduring impact missionaries can have in bringing people and entire cultures to Christ!

On our iconostasis here at St. Mary Magdalene, we can see another missionary saint, John Maximovitch. St. John worked tirelessly to bring Orthodoxy to people in France and China and finished his earthly ministry as Archbishop of San Francisco!

I could of course elaborate on the lives of these saints and the others in North America, and I encourage you all to study them, but there is one common trait among them that unite their legacy and enduring influence in the church in America today. More evident than anything else in the lives of these saints is their commitment to mission.

It is a happy coincidence on the calendar this year that just yesterday, we observed the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, who were two of the greatest, if not the greatest missionaries of the Church. And this close overlap is significant because the story of Orthodoxy in America is a story of mission. Paul was an apostle not because he knew Christ personally throughout His earthly ministry, nor was Paul one of the original apostles. He nonetheless carried the Gospel of Christ as far as he could, and witnessed Him in all things. That is exactly what the apostles and enlighteners of North America did, and what we must do today.

Now, you might say “Fr. David, this is 21st century America. We have the internet. There are churches on every corner. Do we really need to evangelize? Is there anyone left who doesn’t know Christ?” And I would unequivocally answer: yes, we must engage the world. In his final message to the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew, the newly-risen Christ tells them they must “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you”. This is not a passive instruction from our Savior; it is a call to action. Go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

There are many Christians, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, who feel that once you’ve opened up a church, the job is done. People can check it out if they want and if they don’t, well, we’re still here. But this is not what our Savior has instructed. It is not enough to sit idly by and “exist”. It is not enough to leave the lost sheep to wander in the darkness. We must continue to grow in our faith, as individuals and communities, to act as a beacon of light to those who are shrouded in darkness, searching for everlasting life where it doesn’t exist. We must think about how we reach the people around us, how we engage our communities and draw people to Christ, not simply to pad our numbers and bring in more donations, but to rescue them from the darkness by bringing the light of Christ into their lives. 

This is exactly what the saints in North America, those great missionaries, accomplished. So how do we continue that legacy? What must we do in order to have, as you’ll hear me pray in the litany, “a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ”? The answer is quite simple (at least in theory) and I’ve alluded to it already a couple times. The easiest way to be a missionary, is to be a witness, a constant witness, a martyr for Christ. I don’t mean we all need to physically die as many martyrs have through the centuries, but we must die to our own will and to the cares of the world, crucifying our passions and allowing the light and love of Christ to enter our hearts. It is this light that shines forth and reveals to others the salvation granted by our Lord Jesus Christ.

So now we return to the first thing I said: the saints who have shone forth. Why do we say it that way? Not shown like an object, but shone like a light, like a beacon, like the Son of Righteousness. The references to light in the life of the Church are so numerous that you can fill books talking about them and many have. But you don’t need to be well-educated or versed in theology to understand what the Church teaches. A well-known saying from the church fathers is “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian”. This might sound like some circular nonsense, but it shows that what we pray reveals what we believe; our worship leads to our theology. So I’ll let the hymnography of the Church speak for itself. During vespers yesterday we sang: 

As the brightest sun, as the brilliance of the Morning Star, the precious feast of the saints of North America has dawned for us, to illumine us and to set our hearts on fire, to imitate their godly lives,// and to follow their example of zeal for God. 

So the Church has given us the example, and all we have to do is emulate it. Easy, right? Obviously it isn’t always easy to carry our crosses. It is easy to say we don’t need to go to church again this week or I’m too tired to pray before bed or someone else will feed the hungry and comfort the sick. But each time we stumble, that light within us grows weaker and our witness is diminished. We must therefore be vigilant and keep our lamps trimmed, so to speak. And we do this by prayer (in church and at home), by fasting, by almsgiving, and by being the witness Christ has called us to be: to our children, our family, our friends, our coworkers, and even strangers. Only by doing so can we emulate the zeal the North American saints before us had for Christ. And only in this manner can we shine the light on those in darkness and bring all men to the knowledge of the Truth.