St John of San Francisco on Theologians

In commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia, who was born on this day in 1863 (and named Alexis in Baptism, in honor of St. Alexis the Man of God, whose memory we celebrate today), we offer the following sermon given by St. John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia, who was born on this day in 1863 (and named Alexis in Baptism, in honor of St. Alexis the Man of God, whose memory we celebrate today), we offer the following sermon given by St. John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, on September 21, 1936. A reflection on the qualities that characterize the true theologian, he speaks first of the three saints to whom the Church has given the title of “Theologian” – the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Symeon the New Theologian – before turning to a discussion of his own Abba, Metropolitan Anthony.

Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia.

In the Gospel that was just read, we heard how two of Christ’s disciples went to the Lord’s grave, but returned from it with different feelings. John saw, and believed (Jn 20:8), but Peter, as it says in another Gospel, departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass (Lk 24:12). Whence such a difference in disposition? Why does Peter, who always tries to surpass the others in expressing his devotion to Christ, the first of all the apostles to confess Christ as the Son of the Living God, now not try to be the first in proclaiming the Resurrection, but instead marvels and doubts, when John already believes? The reason for relating so differently to what they had just seen is found in the different feelings that arose in them when remembering Christ and their own behavior during the time of His Passion. Peter is tortured by the recognition that he had denied Christ. The denial that he had uttered stood between him and Christ; the weight of the sin is crushing, darkening the mind, and not allowing the spiritual eyes to look on high. Peter remained in doubt and difficult thoughts until Christ Himself comforted him by His appearance and forgiveness.

The matter was entirely different with John. He did not sin before Christ. A pure youth, loving Christ with the flame of pure love, and beloved by Christ more than any of the apostles for the purity of his heart, he remained faithful to Christ in his love. He did not leave Christ when they seized Him in Gethsemane, but followed Him to the High Priest’s palace and stood at the Lord’s Cross on Golgotha, when everyone else had already left Christ, except for him and the women who had followed Christ from Galilee. John did not leave Christ before His last breath, he did not doubt in Christ, his conscience was pure before Christ. His conscience did not waver in any other actions or thoughts that would have separated him from Christ. The pure one loved the All-Pure One, he gave Him his heart and remained faithful to Him. That is why John, still during the days of Christ’s earthly life, lay on His breast at suppers, was adopted at the Cross by His All-Pure Mother, the Virgin Mary, and after the Resurrection immediately received into his heart the mystery of the Resurrection. He awaits a meeting with the Resurrected One not with doubt, but with joy, and is found worthy of this. Receiving along with the others knowledge of the mysteries of God through talks between Christ and the apostles before His Ascension to heaven, and confirmed in these through the sending down on him of the Holy Spirit, John even afterwards continues to receive revelation from God. The other apostles received illumination from the Holy Spirit, and mysteries were revealed to them, but the highest of mysteries were revealed to John. All the apostles preached to the people of the Incarnation of the Son of God, all the Evangelists described for all time the days of His earthly life among men, the revelation of His Divine power, His Passion, and His conquering of death. But only John openly reveals Christ’s divine genealogy. The other Evangelists begin their Gospels by recounting events that took place on earth, while John raises us immediately to heaven.

The other apostles, who came to Christ already in mature years, or who did not immediately and decisively follow Him in the days of their youth, were more strongly tried by the weight of the spiritual flesh, and only by many labors did they attain to the ascension to the third heaven. John, who from his earliest youth strove diligently towards purity of heart, gave his heart to Christ as soon as he saw Him, although he himself was not free from the attacks of sinful thoughts and temptations, but easily deflected and conquered them. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Mt 5:8). With a clean heart, John, while still in the flesh on earth, was raised in his spirit to the very Throne of God and, seeing His beloved Lord Jesus sitting on it with the Father, proclaimed with a loud voice to all the word: In the beginning with the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Jn 1:1). In his Gospel he lays the foundation for the dogmatic teachings of the Church, and discloses the primary foundation of Christian life: the commandment of love. Being filled with love for the Creator of all, the Word, he is full of love for His creation, and thereby comes to know the Divine Nature and Divine Providence, to the extent that this is possible for man. Thus John, “full of this love, and being full of this theology,” and proclaiming the universal and most-elevated doctrine of the Word of God, was made the “founder of our pure faith” (verse on “Glory”), or the foundation-layer of Orthodox Christian theology.

John is called the Theologian, inasmuch as it is he who chiefly uncovers and proclaims the doctrine of the Word of God, and along with it all the lofty Christian doctrine of God.

Besides John, the Church has given the title of Theologian only to the great Church Father, St Gregory the Theologian, and also recognizes St Symeon the New Theologian. What distinguishes St Gregory the Theologian? Again, the same qualities as John the Theologian: purity of heart, a striving for God from earliest youth, and a complete giving-over of himself to Him. Similar to him were other great holy hierarchs who opened for us true Orthodox doctrine. Saints Athanasius the Great and Basil the Great also strove for God from their earliest years and, preserving themselves in purity, and with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, laid out in their works the dogmas of Christ’s Church. But the depths and heights of Christian teaching are opened up with special clarity in the works of the compiler of remarkable works on the Word of God, St Gregory the Theologian. Even as a youth he betrothed himself to spiritual and bodily purity, vigilantly watching every movement of his heart and reacting strictly to the appearance of the weakness of human nature in him. He suffered from the observation in himself of inadequacies and zealously studied the way to the perfection of the human spirit, in order to make himself a habitation of the Holy Spirit. “For having searched the depths of the Spirit, eloquence was also bestowed upon him” (troparion). Having by his spirit-bearing words elevated the mind of man to the very loftiest truths, St Gregory has received from the Church the name Theologian and “supreme mind of theology” (kontakion), and he now contemplates the Holy Trinity, Whom he loved from his youth.

St Symeon, who was subsequently called the New Theologian, also distinguished himself by the special purity of his heart, which raised him to the knowledge of the mysterious spiritual life of man and the activity thereon of the grace of God, about which he proclaims in his edifying works. The Holy Fathers explained “in words of reason” the teaching that was spread through the power of the Spirit by the fishermen, who were called from the catching of fish to the catching of people – Christ’s apostles.

The works of the Holy Fathers led the Church’s children to the understanding of Divine truths and instructed them in the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments, educating a large assembly of holy God-pleasers. Over the course of centuries, however, these sacred works, written by divinely-illuminated men, began little by little to be forgotten, and in later times were known by only a very few. Even those who studied the theological sciences drew wisdom not so much from these pure sources, as from mines dug by human reason alone. But in our days a luminary of the Church has shown forth, who has opened wide the gates of true theology anew. Striving from his youth towards God, and at the age of seven decisively dedicating himself to the service of Christ’s Church, the young Alexei preserved the purity of his heart and strove not only to learn, but also to fulfill Christ’s teachings in all things. Hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, he desired to see the same purity of heart among those around him. While still a youth, he directed his peers on the good path. When he, decisively renouncing the world, became the monk Anthony, he completely cast away from his heart all passionate attachment to everything wordly. His mind was always striving for the eternal, and he purified his heart through unceasing compunction and deep humility. He desired salvation above all, and only that which led him to it was of value to him. But he did not wish salvation only for himself. He suffered in spirit when he saw the vices of others, and zealously tried to correct every sinner. Being himself pure of heart, he did not fear defiling himself by being with sinners. He, as it were, entered their souls, illuminating and purifying them, leaving them clean, as a ray of light illumines dark and defiled places. Everyone was dear to him: both the old and the young, both the righteous man and the sinner. His all-loving heart embraced everyone. He was zealous for bringing to Christ those who did not know Him, for the correction of the erring. Saving his own flock, he did not forget about other sheep. Placed on the lamp-stand of the bishopric, he showed himself to be a universal hierarch, not only carrying on his shoulders the weaknesses of his own flock, but also looking after the entire world. Like Paul, he had “concern for all the Churches,” and like this apostle who labored more than any other, he could say: Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? (2 Cor 11:29).

Studying all the questions of human life, he, being a spiritual man, judged everything spiritually. He evaluated everything from the point of view of the highest truth and, being filled with veneration for the entire world, he himself remained in spirit outside this world. He deemed it a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; he deemed it a loss that he might win Christ, in order that he might know Him and the power of His Resurrection, to partake of His suffering and be conformed to His death (cf., Phil 3: 7-8, 10).  Humbly regarding himself as nothing, he never considered himself to have attained it and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3: 13-14). He was filled with desire to depart, and to be with Christ (Phil 1:23), considering that to be much better for him. Realizing, however, that he was needed in the flesh for the sake of his flock, he patiently waited for the end of his course, although while still living on earth he could say: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me(Gal 2: 20). He spiritual vision was set on the Throne of the Holy Trinity, for Whom he prepared himself as a dwelling-place, to Whom he gave all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength. With a pure heart the holy hieararch Anthony contemplated the Holy Trinity purely and, full of love, was “filled with theology.”

Being not only a successor to the throne and a rightful communicant of the holy apostles, he was one with the great Holy Fathers of the Church, he was spiritually born of them and was a continuer of their preaching. With his mind illumined by the Holy Spirit, he understood the profound meaning of their writings and the loftiness of their teaching, and his spiritual experience opened before him the path to active knowledge of God. Metropolitan Anthony showed himself to be a new great Theologian. He extols the Holy Trinity, explaining not only how to believe in the Trinity, but also why this is essential for our salvation. He explains why the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is named the Word of God and, after the Incarnation, the Son of Man. He indicates the path to induction into His suffering and Resurrection, and explains the grace-filled action of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Most Blessed Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev opens for us the understanding of the Holy Scriptures and the commentary of the Holy Fathers with a new power.

The peculiarity of his work is that he always shows the connection between dogma and life, and from doctrine deduces moral teaching. He himself having striven to study the truths of faith not through cold thinking, but rather through spiritual rebirth and communion with the Divine nature, he calls all those who desire to know the mysteries of God to do the same. Especially loving and commenting on the God-inspired writings of the beloved disciple of Christ, John the Theologian, he, like him, received the gift of theology for the purity of his heart and his limitless love for God and His creation. By his life and work he showed us the path to God’s glory, alight with which he now approaches the Holy Trinity, praying that the darkness that is now above our peoples be dispelled, and that his flock be given great and abundant mercy.


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