Tuesday marked an important church holiday: 'The Exaltation of the Cross', which celebrates the victory and power of the cross, and the symbol of the cross, over evil. On this day, Russian sermons are full of reflections on how just making the sign of the cross on oneself can drive away evil. Here is a good example from a revered contemporary Russian elder (holy man), Monk Kirill Pavlov, who passed away in 2017, at the age of 97.
One thing which immediately strikes Westerners when they see Russian Christians worshipping is how often they cross themselves, especially during a service, but also throughout the day. This is more than a quaint cultural habit - the Russian church teaches that doing this literally fends off evil as it encroaches on a person as he goes about his daily life.
At the end of the liturgy at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church, gave a long sermon (full text below) which addressed the meaning of the cross, and connected it to the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine. He again emphasized that this conflict is in fact a civil war between Russians, and exhorted Russians to turn to God, to pray, to attend church, and to make Christian sacrifices towards each other in their daily life, preaching that Russia will only be saved from calamity if her people turn to God.
Full sermon. English captions can be turned on in the video settings. Full text below. At the end of this video, Kirill awards church medals to various individuals including the Dmitry Rogozin, the recently retired head of Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of NASA.
At one point the Patriarch held up the horrific experience of the WW2 siege of Leningrad, which his parent lived through, as an example. The siege was by far the most brutal episode in the war. The German army was able to block most supply routes to the city for 2.5 years, and Stalin refused to allow the city to surrender, resulting in death by starvation and bombardment of an estimated 1.5 million civilians. It was the most lethal siege in world history, with deaths far exceeding any other major bombings or battles, i.e., Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Stalingrad, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.
From the sermon:
Information flows to me that does not fall into the public space, and therefore I cannot disclose any names, but you are really amazed at the sacrifice shown by many, many of our fellow citizens. Especially now, when such a difficult situation is in Ukraine, when, defending our entire historical Fatherland - both Russia and Ukraine - our soldiers sacrifice their health and life, how important it is that our entire people be able to sacrifice in the name of Christ for all those in need ...
In this excerpt the Patriarch again emphasized that Russians see Ukraine as part of Russia, see no difference between the Ukrainian people and the Russian people, see Russia and Ukraine as one 'historical Fatherland.'
The words of the Patriarch reflect a very real phenomenon in Russian society which is a direct result of the conflict in Ukraine. For Russians, the war is much more real than for people in Europe and the US, and this growing realization that Russia is in an existential struggle is increasing Christian faith across the country, just as it did in WW2. Churches are fuller, more people are tuning in to Christian TV and radio, more people are taking part in Christian marches, and most likely, people are praying more.
On the previous evening, the Patriarch performed the Rite of the Exaltation of the Cross. It is a good example of the elaborate rituals which are a standard part of Orthodox worship:
Here are some images from the ceremony. There are many more on the Patriarchate's excellent photo archive which capture very well the elaborate and colorful pageantry of these services. We highly recommend visiting the photo archive as it is extremely well done, containing remarkable photos of Christian life in Russia.
Here is the full text of his sermon. (Machine translated, so there may be inaccuracies.) Link to Russian original.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
"The cross for the lost is foolishness, but for the saved it is the power of God," is what the Holy Scriptures teach us today. Yurodstvo is a Slavic word, and the Russian word that corresponds to it is "madness. And what is the result, if we translate it into our modern language? "The cross for the lost is madness, but for the saved it is the power of God."
And so it is. What is the cross? The cross is a symbol of suffering, torment, and death. And how can these terrible phenomena be attractive to man, how can they determine in a positive direction man's life? And those who do not understand the meaning of the Lord's suffering on the Cross-who did not in ancient times, and still do not today-are simply brushing aside this greatest revelation of the New Testament.
Why do we not dismiss it? Why do we accept that the cross not only brought suffering, but through suffering brought salvation? Because on the cross the greatest human feelings were revealed, and on a global scale that cannot be realized in any human person. What are these feelings, what are the manifestations of the human soul? They are sacrifice and love. And if we define the apogee of human capacity for sacrifice and love, this apogee will be the Calvary Sacrifice.
Of course, the human experience of sacrifice and love cannot reach the very saving climax that was revealed on Calvary. But the Sacrifice of Christ the Savior marks a point of reference, a certain direction of travel. Through the Cross of Christ we realize that sacrifice and love are the greatest values for man, for the fullness of his life. And at the same time, they are the greatest virtues that justify man before God, through which man atones for his sins.
We know that the Sacrifice of Calvary was a sacrifice of atonement. God accepted this terrible agony in order to atone for all the sins of the world before divine justice. Our crosses, our sacrifices, cannot be compared to what the Savior did. But on the scale of our human capacity, on the scale of each person, sacrifice and love are truly the apogee of spiritual life.
And what happens when we turn away from these values? Indeed, why should I sacrifice anything for another person? A person who denies the value of sacrifice can make many such utilitarian arguments. Why should I sacrifice something for what? But today can teach everyone, even those who fundamentally deny the possibility of sacrificing not only themselves, which is out of the question! - but at least a part of his life, his time, his material possibilities. Today may convince the one who denies the necessity of sacrifice that sacrifice brings salvation to man. And synonymous with salvation in our ordinary language is the word "happiness.
If we are able to match sacrifice with happiness, then human relationships will change, radically change. Because man always wants to get something. If you do your work, you get money; if you work well, you get a promotion; there are very few other values that attract us, so we are ready to work and even sacrifice for them! And this is what happens in our lives. Those who work well, lose their time, sometimes even risking their health, but in return for this receives and financial rewards, and promotions.
So, what about the spiritual life? Today helps us to understand that when we sacrifice ourselves, when we share our time, our material possessions, and our love with others - sincerely, not opportunistically, not out of necessity, but from the heart - then we gain a great gift from God. We become closer to God. God forgives us our sins. After all, even the law that governs human society assumes that the criminal has to atone for his guilt, and that atonement is most often imprisonment. And how can we atone for our guilt during our earthly life, lest we stand before God with our guilt? Our atonement here is sacrifice, sacrificial love, helping those who suffer. And not to be noticed by the TV cameras or to be written about in the newspapers, but to come quietly and help ...
I must tell you that a lot of people do that today. Information flows to me that doesn't get into the public domain, so I can't reveal any names, but what really amazes me is the sacrifice shown by many and many of our fellow citizens. Especially now, when such a difficult situation in Ukraine, when, in defense of our historic homeland - both Russia and Ukraine - our soldiers sacrifice their health and lives, how important it is that all our people be able to sacrifice in the name of Christ for all those who need help, who ask for it not verbally, but with their very being!
Sometimes people ask, "Well, who should I help? I look to the right and to the left - I don't see...". And here we need to pray that the Lord would open our spiritual eyes, so that we would see whom to help. In answer to prayer the Lord always opens in the most unexpected way and gives us the opportunity to show our love, our sacrifice, so that we can offer a sacrifice first of all to Him, and through this sacrifice we can receive forgiveness of sins and spiritual joy.
Once again, I want to say that today is a time when we must especially ask ourselves this life-changing question: "What am I doing?" Because what is happening today in the expanses of Holy Russia certainly darkens the hearts of many. I will not speak about myself, but with these thoughts, with this suffering, I lie down, get up, and spend the whole day, because I am the Patriarch not only of Moscow, but also of all Russia. But at the same time I believe that by the grace of God this affliction will pass, that it will not undermine the deep foundations of our coexistence, which keep the people of Holy Russia, living in Russia and Ukraine, united. I believe that the Lord will bow to mercy and the internecine strife will cease. And there, where today bewilderment, sufferings and grief, our human love to each other should appear. And in response to this love - the love of the Lord for our united people, for those who live in Russia and Ukraine, for those who live in different corners of the earth.
May the Lord strengthen all of us in faith and godliness in this very difficult time. First of all, I now appeal to those Orthodox people who believe that it is enough to visit the church once a year. And others say: visit the church, receive Holy Communion during the Lent, and that is enough. Others say: once a month is enough. Both are wrong! Sunday is given to us so that we dedicate it to God. Whoever does not want to give God a portion of Sunday, thinking that he will do something better for himself - watch TV, go for a walk, go out to visit - is deeply mistaken. "The seventh day is to the Lord your God," says God's commandment. This means that Sunday should begin with prayer. But if for some reason a person cannot go to temple (although most often these circumstances are far-fetched), then at least in the morning hours one should pray together with his family and ask the Lord for forgiveness for not coming to temple on that day. All of this is so important right now, my dear ones!
My parents survived the Leningrad blockade, and they told me about how God's churches in Leningrad were filled, how people, hungry and almost dying, flocked to the churches despite the shelling, despite the weakening of all physical strength. The temples of Leningrad were overflowing during the siege, and perhaps this prayer saved the city. I do not want to compare present times with what the people of Leningrad went through during the hardest years of the siege, but in a sense even today is a fateful time! Because many rebel against Russia, and many have turned their heads in a desire to destroy Russia, its identity, its independence, its freedom. And today we must especially strengthen ourselves in the faith, fill our churches, pray for the authorities, for the army, for our relatives and loved ones, and pray for the Orthodox Church, which in these most difficult circumstances preserves the spiritual unity of Holy Russia.
And may the Lord help us! Once again I want to say that we have lived with you until a momentous time, and in a momentous time it is necessary to renew our faith, to sharpen our consciousness and our memory, to look differently at much of what we looked at yesterday without much attention or special concern. Then our spiritual mobilization, to which I now call everyone, will also help to mobilize all the forces of our Fatherland. And it will undoubtedly help in the end to the full reconciliation of Russia and Ukraine, which constitute the common space of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Can you imagine my condition as Patriarch of All Russia, when today a brother kills his brother. Perhaps some of the bearers of extreme political views will say: here, preaching pacifism at a time when... Not pacifism, but with these words I simply testify to our common duty before God - to pray for the end of internecine strife, to do everything possible to restore fraternal relations between the two parts of united Russia, and pray also for God to deliver, especially our youth, from their lives being cut short in this internecine strife. And for that to be so, it is necessary that the fighting would cease.
And may God help us, the holy benefactors of united Russia, the venerable Kievo-Pechersk ones and the venerable fathers of numerous monasteries, including the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, in the expanses of great Russia! Let us trust in their prayers, for even their souls today are grieving and suffering for what is happening. And let us hope that through our joint efforts, without going down the road of dangerous compromises that can harm a united Russia, we will all at once move toward reconciliation and the restoration of that spiritual unity which was forged in the bosom of the united Russian Orthodox Church.
May the blessing of God abide over all of Holy Russia, over the rulers, over the spiritual leaders, over the soldiers, and over all those upon whom the peaceful and safe outcome of the present very dangerous clash between the two brotherly peoples may depend. May the Lord protect us all and strengthen us in faith, love, and single-mindedness.