The following sermon was delivered in Moscow by Father Andrei Zuevsky.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
During these days we recall the biblical story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt. The story is well known: – Moses the prophet led the Jews out of captivity to bring them to the Promised Land, in other words, to a certain country, promised to the people by God, where they could live and determine their fate themselves. Actually, most of the Jews didn’t really want this. They preferred a quiet, contented life in slavery to an uncertain existence in an unknown place. And the journey would be a hard one, – desert, heat, little water, and for 40 years. Do you picture it now? They could have kept their heads down, but instead the Chosen People rebelled. One reason was the absence of their favorite foods. They loved fish, which they ate cheaply and in abundance in Egypt, as well as cucumbers, melons, onions, and garlic, and the miraculous manna from heaven with which God sustained them was not quite to their liking. And thus, in part due to this cravenness, their wanderings grew longer, and in the end, God hardly allowed a single Jew born in captivity, including Moses himself, into the Promised Land.
Nonetheless, his intention to settle his people there was steadfast. And so, the children of slaves, born in the desert, finally arrived, settled, and began to live independently, striving for, as they saw it, goodness and justice. Isn’t it true that almost everybody thinks of himself as a basically good person? Actually, they were not quite successful in this endeavor, and if truth be told, rarely so. For this, God punished them, trying to set them on the path of righteousness, forgave them, – in effect, cared for them as if they were very precious and important. Later it became clear why. It turns out that it was the fate of these people to give birth to the noblest expression of all human aspiration. It was inevitable that God’s vision for mankind should reveal itself. And so it did, in the person of Jesus Christ, of whom it is said, that he is love. And although Christ came to earth when the Jews were no longer politically free, they had for a long time thought of themselves as a unified people, with their own goals and values, and they expressed this independence through their religion. Now we can see why God was so insistent in the desert. He needed the Jews to be free, because love cannot thrive in a slave mentality. For God to manifest himself on earth, God’s people had to be free. You may say, a slave can love too. That he may, but a slave who loves is no longer a slave, for he fears neither master nor death.
I should add, from a Christian point of view, liberty is neither a virtue nor an ideal. History is ripe with examples of how liberty may turn to tragedy for individuals as well as for whole peoples and civilizations. Nonetheless, there is, it seems, a stubborn fact: in the soul of one who is not free there can neither be reason, nor beauty, nor love. One could say that a man doesn’t really exist as a man without these, and can’t even begin to comprehend the divine. Shortly before his death Christ told his disciples: “Unless I go the cross, the Holy Spirit will not come to you.” And do you know why? Because as long as there is some higher authority, be it even God personified, from whom men simply take words as facts, as some kind of a command, then they are not acting according to their own free will. And community with the Holy Spirit is reserved for free souls. Without freedom, love is impossible.
I am speaking here, of course, not of political freedom, rather about the simple ability to independently distinguish good from evil, the high from the low, and turning from the low, to strive for the high. The most frightening and dangerous thing in the world for the human soul is when evil succeeds in convincing everyone, or at least most people, that it is, don’t you see, good. Everyone sins, but as long as long as sin is recognized as bad, as a destructive force, repentance and change of heart is possible. When this is not the case, repentance is not possible, and a gangrene of the soul sets in, leading to spiritual death. And so, with all the inadequate humility I can muster, neither supporting nor opposing any political party, to Christians and non-Christians, to those not indifferent to the condition of their own soul, and its ability to see meaning in life, beauty and love, I bear witness that: pride, self-elevation over others, contempt for them – all this is evil. It is a sin against Christ’s commandment to love your neighbor, for love cannot exist without respect.
In spite of this, in our society, a condescending attitude of the government towards the people has become an ugly commonplace. Not only do those in power behave arrogantly, they deny everyone except themselves the ability to decide what is good and bad, and thereby deny the people the possibility of deciding their common fate. In doing so, they deny the people reason and rational thought, which is an insult to God’s vision for his creation. Is it not pride and arrogance if you treat most people, from the lofty heights of your supposed perfect understanding of how everyone else should live, at best like irrational children, and at worst like a crowd of mute and lowly, in other words, inferior, beings?
Secondly, one cannot ignore the fact that our society is stained by dishonesty, which postures, not without success, as truth. What is said is opposite to what, in fact, is. What is said is a lie. It is said that the source of power in Russia is the people, but in fact, in everyday life as well as in situations entailed in the constitution and the law, they cannot, in fact, influence the government at all. If our leaders announced to us that they were in fact tsars or tyrants passing power from one to the next, I would have no quarrel. I remind you again: lying is a sin, and sin maligns life. And if that sin of dishonesty and cheating infiltrates the government, then the lives of millions are maligned. For if you understand what is happening, yet willingly or against your will, quietly look on at evil behavior, and do nothing to resist it, then you are a party to it. And if you don’t realize what is happening, then you are succumbing to foolishness, which, as we know, is also a sin.
And lastly, and by the way, for me personally, this is the most important, the current government tempts and corrupts Christians, especially the young and recent converts. This is because our leaders frequently and publicly cross themselves, reverence icons, and apparently even take communion, in other words, their faith is public. And by doing so, what message do they give? That one can act against one’s conscience, mislead, humiliate people, and that this is perfectly acceptable, even everyday behavior for a Christian. But this isn’t so. Christian life does not consist of attending Easter services, rather of a daily labor of repentance, recognition of sin, and desire to overcome it with that same striving from the low to the high.
And the path to that goal crosses the very same desert, across difficulties and loss, and according to the imperfection of the traveler, the way can be a long one. But as we all know, all journeys, even the longest ones, begin with the first step, and it seems that if a person wants to find himself, he has no other choice. We may also ask: should we limit ourselves to just finding ourselves?
This isn’t only about today’s events. It is just that today these ideas are brought into focus. We again receive the opportunity to become better and purer by encountering adversity. Thanks to this we again see some universal, eternal truths, which we may have temporarily forgotten. One of these is: Follow your conscience, and let be what may be. These days, many people, myself included, are experiencing this beautiful, exemplary, clarity of conscience. This clarity and the ability to act according to it, that is, according to your conscience, are amongst the highest virtues. The emotional symptoms of this clarity are joy, simplicity, and peace of heart. Let God help us keep these feelings as long as possible, and should we lose them, always find the path back, and most importantly, to desire that return. Amen.
Priest Andrei Zuevsky