Homily on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and St. Gregory the Theologian

Today three commemorations converge: of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Land, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the repose day of the ever-memorable Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) of the Pskov Caves Monastery.

In honor of Fr. John, we have translated his famous sermon on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and St. Gregory the Theologian—whose feast day falls on Tuesday of this week. Fr. John himself reposed on the eve of the Sunday of Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, and so it is fitting to hear his voice on this day, for he was truly one of the great confessors and sufferers under the communist yoke.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

My dear friends, three events, three commemorations should at once be resurrected today in our hearts and minds. “The doors of repentance open unto me, O Giver of Life…” has once again resounded in God’s churches for all to hear. And the time of the fast breathes with quiet repentance upon us. The Gospel of the Pharisee and publican compels us today to look into our hearts and see there either the pharisaical, I am not like other men…; or, beholding there an abyss of sin, we bow before God with the humility and repentance of the publican (Lk. 18:11).

And the repose day [January 25 / February 7] of the great ecumenical teacher and holy hierarch Gregory the Theologian on January 25, 389, whose memory has survived for sixteen centuries: Doesn’t it remind us of that day known to all yet known by none, awaited by everyone yet desired by few—the hour of our death?

And how will our deceitful conscience justify itself then before the All-inquisitive Judge? And when we compare our lives with the life of St. Gregory the Theologian, and our faith with his, won’t the repentant sigh of the publican promptly break forth from the very depths of our heart: God, have mercy upon me a sinner (Lk. 18:13)?

How can we not remember also on this day the feast of the icon, “Assuage My Sorrow” in memory of the great benefaction of the Mother of God, shown by her many miracles to God’s people in Rus’, in 1771 during a great calamity—the plague; and assuaging our sorrow to this day?

All three events occurred at different times, but all three confirm one thing: Human life goes on in the flow of God’s Providence, and the Creator wondrously takes care of His creation. The Lord teaches and instructs us by His gospel words, by the lives of His chosen ones, and by His decisive intrusion into human life with the miraculous power of divine grace.

We now live in the midst of many cares, we don’t have the attention to see traces of God’s Providence in our lives, we don’t have the wisdom to understand what the Lord wants from us in any given circumstance of life.

And it is all because we forget about the only goal of earthly existence, the only way to eternity. We forget and often become brazen God-fighters, opposing God’s determination for us, not accepting the immutable truth that only through the labor of the cross does man’s life mark his path to salvation—to blessed eternity. Only the straight and narrow gate leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

But the door of divine mercy is always open, from the beginning to the end of the world. Only, how can we open the door of our stony human heart to meet God? This has to be learned; this must be contemplated.

We shall talk about all this in an example of the way of the cross, in the life of the great ecumenical teacher and holy hierarch Gregory the Theologian. And we will be attentive, my dear ones, for I am sure that the riches of the holy hierarch’s life will give each of us what we need.

The future holy hierarch Gregory was born in the year 328 in Greece, to a noble family—to an Orthodox Christian mother, Nonna, and a pagan father, Gregory. His mother, deeply and sincerely dedicated to God’s will, submissively living through the trial sent to her—her spouse’s unbelief—combined a strenuous spiritual life with a life that was practical and active. Praying for her close ones, she strengthened her prayer with the power of her mercy, and the results of her labors were not slow to appear.

The holy hierarch’s father not only came to believe in Christ and receive Holy Baptism, but soon became at first a priest, and then the bishop of Nazianzus. But only God knows what tears and labors this transformation cost the righteous Nonna.

Her son would later remember his mother with tears of gratitude, writing, “My mother, who inherited the holy faith from the fathers, also placed this golden chain upon her own children. Bearing a manly heart in a woman’s body, she only touched the earth… so that through this life she could prepare for heavenly life…” And the crown of Nonna’s life was her spouse who became a bishop, her son Gregory, a great ecumenical teacher, holy hierarch, and theologian, and her other son Caesarius, a doctor who reached great heights in the medical arts but who considered it his ultimate happiness and blessing to be an Orthodox Christian. Nonna’s daughter Gorgonia repeated the life of her pious mother in many ways. Nonna left nothing to the world but these living memorials—her children, who bore in themselves (and St. Gregory to this day bears to the world) a maternal labor unseen to all.

And isn’t this example of the God-loving St. Nonna’s life directed to mothers? After all, the main work of a mother, blessed for her by God from nature, is to be a true Christian mother—because in her children is concealed the future of the world.

When St. Gregory learned to read, from his mother’s hands he received as a gift the book of life—the Holy Scripture. At this his mother revealed to the boy the mystery of his birth, and bestowed her parental inheritance for the rest of his life. “Fulfill my maternal desire,” said Nonna. “Remember that I prayed to the Lord to have you, and now I pray that you would be perfect…”

As a result, Gregory was amazed his whole life at his being chosen. “Christ vouchsafed me an advantageous glory. First, he gave me as a gift a mother who prayed from the depths of her heart, then He (the Lord) Himself received me as a gift from my parents, and finally through a nighttime vision He placed in me love for the chaste life,” wrote St. Gregory.

His mother carefully raised her son, and a divine miracle strengthened his soul as an aid to her labors.

The wondrous dream-vision that shook his young mind remained in the saint’s consciousness as his first tangible contact with sanctity. In a deep sleep it seemed to him that two beautiful maidens stood next to him in white garments. The boy immediately felt that these were not ordinary mortals; and at his question, “Who are they?” he received the answer, “One of them us purity, and the other is chastity. We stand before Christ the King. Son, join your mind to our hearts, so that we would bring you to heaven and place you before the light of the Heavenly Trinity.”

Purity and chastity—this is the path to the Heavenly Fatherland, the path to God.

The boy becomes a youth, already knowing the true value of the virtues. He knows that not gold and riches, not the glamour of scholarliness and secular wisdom comprise the true treasure of life, but rather purity of heart and mind, chastity of thoughts and body—these alone must be preserved like the apple of one’s eye. Gregory received a promise from childhood, bore it and preserved it throughout his youth. Only through purity could Gregory receive from God the gift of being servant of the Word.

But let us return to our days, to us who desire to be with God. Who today can boldly say that he has preserved these treasures so great in God’s eyes—purity and chastity—and has given his children an understanding of them? Well, if he hasn’t preserved them himself or passed them on to his children, then only the publican’s humility, the publican’s repentant voice can cleanse his soul besmirched with impurity and wash clean his leprous body.

God, have mercy on us sinners!

But let us turn unto our own edification to the next period of the future holy hierarch’s life. Gregory’s domestic education ended early. Seeing her son’s steadfastness in piety, the pious mother fearlessly releases the nine-year-old boy to a far country in order to give him a complete and multifaceted education.

Gregory sets off for Caesarea, where he first meets the young Basil—also a future holy hierarch of Christ’s Church. From Caesarea Gregory goes to Alexandria, and then to Athens. The world spread before the youth all its riches, but also all of its temptations.

At the threshold of adult life, before his exit into a new, broad world, while Gregory was sailing at sea a terrible storm broke out, prefiguring the future storm on the sea of life that awaited him. For twenty days, not even hoping to remain alive, the young Gregory lay on the stern praying to God that the “murderous waters of the sea would not deprive him of the purifying waters of Baptism”. He was not yet baptized at the time. It was then that the youth made a vow to God to dedicate himself and all his life to Him alone. And if his initial striving for God was out of obedience to his mother, this vow was his conscious and voluntary choice of the narrow and sorrowful path of following God.

Neither can we be silent about the miraculous revelation God gave to Gregory during that tragic time of his life. It was revealed to the youth that it was his mother’s prayer that prevented the elements from destroying him. One of Gregory’s travelling companions on this voyage with him saw how during the storm, Gregory’s mother came and with an authoritative, firm hand took the ship and led it to a peaceful harbor. Soon afterwards, the elements grew calm.

And Gregory, who had survived the storm in his soul, understood that his life and death are completely in God’s hands. He went into the imperial capital, to the noisy world, a hidden man of the heart.

And he lived there as in the desert. His food was sparse, his clothing no more than necessary. He lived near the emperor’s court, but sought nothing from it. Later the saint recalled, “For me, a piece of bread is pleasant, my sweet spice is salt; and my drink is temperate: water. My greatest wealth is Christ.”

And if the main thing in life is Christ, then all one’s life is in submission to Him. Therefore, while living in the great city filled with temptations, Gregory knew only two roads: the first and most important led to church, the second led to the teachers of secular sciences.

The Lord sent the youth a friend to strengthen him—his like-minded sharer in his secrets, Basil, later called the Great. Thus did the two of them grow from strength to strength, learning to submit their spirit to God, and their flesh to the spirit.

You may protest to me that exceptional times and exceptional circumstances raised these great pillars of the Church. But wasn’t a great apostate and persecutor of the Church also raised under the same conditions, and studied under the same teachers—Julian the apostate?

Yes, all three of them, they say, were in the same class together and were for some time even friends. Why do people’s paths part?

Yes, this is satan’s work. Broad and spacious is the path that leads to death, but narrow is the path that leads to life. Each person chooses for himself.

O Lord! Help us!

Today, just as in the fourth century, sanctity and apostasy exist next to each other in one life. Be vigilant, for danger is all around, and both salvation and death are right next to you.

The young Gregory and Basil, as an example to the youth of our times, through the purity of their lives acquired great profundity of mind. Graduating brilliantly from their studies, they both took yet another important step to God, to sanctity. They died forever to the world, and the world died for them. Having learned secular sciences, they settled in the desert in order to study more perfectly the most important science of life—the science of knowing God—and to establish themselves in their knowledge and choice.

St. Gregory recalled this time with special feeling. He desired to withdraw from all worldly cares, and to rise up to God with a pure heart, far from worldly vanity, all the rest of his life. But God’s Providence had designated an assignment for him. His striving for personal ascetic labors was brought as a sacrifice to the Holy Church, which was being torn apart at that time by numerous heretical and false teachings. And the gift of the word given to Gregory from God was called to serve the Church. “I bring this gift to my God, I dedicate this gift to Him—it is all that is left to me and my only wealth. I have renounced all else according to the commandment of the Spirit.”

At age thirty-three, when he received the priestly rank, Gregory’s time of study ended. And the future holy hierarch went forth to serve and preach, unfailingly following after his beloved Christ the Savior. For ten years he helped his father the bishop in his pastoral service, sharing in all his labors and burdens. At the end of these ten years, St. Basil the Great, who was by then the archbishop of Caesarea, consecrated Priest Gregory as a bishop.

What kind of bishop could Gregory have been? From his infancy he had walked the path of spiritual growth in God even unto desert-dwelling, enriched by all manner of disciplines both external and internal that brought him the light of divine knowledge; he was a holy bishop. A holy bishop, but a sinful world. And the prince of this world cannot endure holiness and applies all his cunning to lay it low. And so a flood of misfortunes broke out upon the ascetic. Another bishop who was possessed with the spirit of competitiveness would not allow Gregory into the cathedra to which he had been consecrated. The holy hierarchs closest to him were one after another stricken by death, and only his penetrating eulogies revealed the sorrow that he bore in his heart. Only the healing balm of solitary prayer strengthened the sufferer. Moreover, the yearning for desert solitude did not abandon St. Gregory all his life; he left the desert only at the call of the Church, out of his debt of obedience to it.

At the age of fifty, the saint’s most strenuous labors began. At that time, the Orthodox Church in Constantinople was experiencing a death agony. The light of truth flickered only in the catacombs. The forty-year reign of Arianism, a terrible heresy in and of itself, gave birth to other numerous sects. The erring people, “sitting in the darkness and shadow of death”, gave themselves over to endless “theological” arguments and sparring. Craftsmen, shopkeepers, and merchants argued about the divinity of Christ, and these arguments engendered such monstrous blasphemy that people perished irretrievably. Those who escaped this attack, the devil held captive to luxury and revolting fleshly passions.

And so, called into that hellish inferno was St. Gregory—a humble elder, bent and gaunt from his ascetic labors of fasting, prayer, and tears. No one took his appearance in Constantinople seriously. St. Gregory had to build a house church in the home of his relatives, naming it “Anastasia”, which means “Resurrection”. The saint’s thoughts were that here the completely withered Orthodox teaching should be resurrected in Constantinople.

His first services and homilies sounded forth in an empty house church. But this did not continue for long. The initial unfavorable impressions of the elder-bishop were soon replaced in the people by awe and respect for him. His words were forceful, convincing, and authoritative.

But the more people gathered around the bishop, at first to listen, and then to pray, the more others’ opposition to him and triumphant evil grew. The enemy of the human race, wounded in its head by the holy man, rose up against him with all its might. Only God preserved His chosen one. Many times the bishop and his flock had stones flung at them, right during the divine services. Many received the Sacrament of Baptism in their own blood. But the sight of death did not frighten God’s holy hierarch. The enemy of all truth prepared other arrows against his heart: slander, hatred, mockery, and betrayal by those whom St. Gregory had pressed to his heart as his own children.

And not once did the bishop change God’s all-powerful armor against the enemy—patience, humility, and meekness. God’s work ripened his zeal and bore fruit. St. Gregory instructed the Orthodox, laid low the heretics with the power of God’s word, and taught all equally with his strict, holy life.

Thus did the holy man fight against the enemy, the devil. He fought for the Church, for his flock, and for every lost soul. He fought and won. God’s people acquired a true pastor, and the work of restoring Orthodoxy in Constantinople was done. In 380 the emperor ratified the decree against heretics.

But the ecumenical hierarch and teacher of the Church won the final, most significant victory in 381 at the Second Ecumenical Council, over which he himself presided. At this Council, God’s truth finally triumphed: The Church received its Creed—inviolable to the end of time, and the guarantee of our salvation. It was at the Second Ecumenical Council that the Holy Spirit through the holy fathers was carried out and composed in Nicaea, and irrevocably defined as our Symbol of Faith. And this Council confirmed St. Gregory as the Patriarch of Constantinople.

But it was precisely at this time that God judged that this lover of the desert should return to the desert. For the sake of peace in the Church, forestalling the disagreement that had arisen at the Council regarding his election as Patriarch, the saint himself desired to conceal himself in solitude, which he had loved from his youth and which his soul also now desired.

For his labors performed, St. Gregory asked the Council to release him for retirement. In his farewell homily he summed up his labors unto the glory of God. The holy hierarch said:

“Forgive me, O ‘Anastasia’, who received your name from piety, for you have resurrected for us the teaching that had been held in contempt!

“Forgive me, O Constantinople, the place of the general victory over heresy, in which we erected a tabernacle (the Orthodox Church), which was borne forty years and wandered in the desert!

“Forgive me, O great and glorious temple, which received true grandeur from the Word, O temple that through me became Jerusalem!

“Forgive me, O cathedra, you enviable and dangerous height.

“Forgive me, O council of bishops, honorable in rank and years.

“Forgive me, you who serve God at the holy table!

“Forgive me, hospitable and Christ-loving homes, helpers in my infirmity!

“Forgive me, lovers of my words, and forgive me, ceremonial confluences…

“Forgive me, O East and West!

“For you and from you do we endure attacks, and witness to this is He Who made peace between us. And above all and most greatly of all I cry:

“Forgive me, O angels, guardians of my abiding here and my departure from here.

“Forgive me, O Trinity, my contemplation and strength.

“My children, preserve your inheritance.”

After this the great holy hierarch and teacher of the Church departed to the desert. Not leaving the desert during the final two years of his life, the godly bishop, zealous for the truth of Christ, confirmed Orthodoxy through his letters and verses. The saint died at the age of sixty-two. After his death, the Church gave St. Gregory the name Theologian, partaker of God’s mysteries, as a brilliant writer and servant of the Holy Trinity.

Here are his verses written just before his repose:

“The final labor of life is at its close; my poor sailing is finished: I see now punishment for hated sin, and I see dark Tartarus, the flames of fire, deep night, the shame of acts revealed that are now hidden. But have mercy on me, O Blessed One, and grant me at least a good evening, looking mercifully down upon what is left of my life!

I have suffered much, and my thoughts are enshrouded in fear; Have not the fearful scales of your righteous judgment already begun their pursuit of me, O King? May I bear my lot myself, having moved away from here and eagerly yielding to the misfortunes that eat away my heart. But to those who shall live after me do I give a commandment: There is no profit in this life, because this life has an end.”

Unfathomable are God’s ways. There are many devices in a man's heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand, says the Scripture (Prov. 19:21). The example of the holy hierarch’s life confirms the truth of these words, and his example astounds us.

The saint’s entire life passed in persecutions, in labors, in great patience. He was persecuted, but he blessed and selflessly labored to the glory of God for the world’s spiritual benefit. How brief was his life! But over those sixty-two years he was able to do so much that the world to this day is still nourished from his words with healthy food for the soul.

Look also, my dear ones, at what a man can achieve through the power of the Spirit, the power of God!

I have told you a little, but this also allows you to understand that there is no justification for standing before God as the Pharisee. Lowering our heads, we should say, “Yeah, Lord! We are not like other men, who knew how to live in God, who knew how to accept with humility and complete trust all the adversities sent to them by You on their life’s path to salvation.”

No, we are not like them, we do not dare to compare ourselves to them. We are unprofitable servants.

The lives of many of us already incline toward the dusk, yet even now we have not yet begun to do any of what God has commanded us to do on this earth. O God, be merciful to us sinners! Amen.

January 25 (February 7), 1993

Archimandrite John (Krestiankin)
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)



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