Sermon of His Eminence, Bishop Parthenius of Antania and Abbot of the Bigorski Monastery, delivered during the Vespers of the feast of St. John the Forerunner, on Friday, 10 September 2021 AD
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!Honourable fathers, Venerable brothers monks and nun sisters, Pious Christians We thank the Lord for granting us that this year, too, His glorious Prophet, The Forerunner and Baptist, St. John, gather us in this ten-century-old sanctuary, to venerate his miraculous icon and his most holy relics. We are gathered to pray for the gift of grace and peace, both for our souls and for the world in which we live. The words which St. John prepared the people with, and which announced in the Jordan desert the coming of the Messiah are equally important and relevant today. He travelled around Jordan, says the Gospel, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3,4-6) Let us pay more attention to the words: let every mountain and every hill be lowered. What could this refer to? Certainly not the physical mountains that surround us, but rather the mountains made of pride in our hearts. The voice of the one who cries out in the wilderness today invites us all with the same force to take down the mountains of egoism and the hills of vanity and pride, and that means to humble ourselves before the Lord God, so that He, the Word of God, may move in and live with us.
Those who humbly accepted the call of St. John and tried to flatten the mountains of sinful selfishness were worthy to recognize and receive the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1,29). The mountains and hills in the heart, created by pride, make a person unfeeling, selfish, lonely, sad. That is why pride is called the mother of all sins and all evils. In fact, because of pride, the first fall occurred, when our forefathers in the Garden of Eden manifested pride before their Heavenly Father and thus, they were the first to build the wall between man and his Creator. How many mountains and hills of human pride have stood as an impenetrable barrier between God and man! However, the impossible for men is possible for God: out of too much love for His creation, the Son of God came to Earth to deliver man from the misery into which he himself had fallen. After the willing sacrifice of the God-man Christ, Whom the ascetic hand of St. John, the last Old Testament prophet, revealed to all of us as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, all men are given the opportunity of salvation and deification. But it takes asceticism on our side, repentance and feat to gain humility, similar to the one of the Baptist. Then the gentle Christ will fill the valleys of our humility with the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. John, therefore, calls us to humility, to humble ourselves in our hearts and souls, so that we can receive communion and be united with Christ God.
The life of St. John is a great miracle from his very birth. But what captivates and astonishes us most is his miraculous humility. Namely, the humility made him a friend of the Lord, a friend of the Savior Christ, Who expressed the greatest praise for him: Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11). The whole life of St. John was a sign of great humility. After all, everything he did, all his struggle, his entire life-long feat was for the sake of Christ. We are deeply moved by his words about the appearance of the Savior in the world: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3: 29-30) Who is He? Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church, before Whom St. John was sent, to proclaim Him and to reveal Him to us. That is why he said to them: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire (Matthew 3:11). That is, with life-giving grace, with the uncreated energies of God, through which we are sanctified and united with God.
Saint John conveyed in his humbleness even his disciples to Christ, without any objection, without the slightest possessiveness. In the Gospel, we read how John’s disciples, Andrew the First-Called and John, doubted at first that Jesus of Nazareth was the true Messiah because he looked very different from their teacher. St. John encouraged them to go with Christ, but they were filled with suspicion. Therefore, the Baptist, knowing their thoughts, sent the disciples to Christ to ask Him if he was the Savior who should come to Earth, or if they should wait for someone else. Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matthew 11: 4-5). By this, in fact, the disciples of St. John were convinced that the Lord Jesus was the promised and long-awaited Messiah, so they obeyed their teacher and joined Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church.
The prophecy of the prophet Isaiah, uttered by the mouth of St. John in the Gospel ends with: Let the uneven roads be levelled, and everybody will see the salvation of God! If we strive, therefore, to humble ourselves, in repentance and prayer, nourishing a quiet spirit and good deeds, our bodies will be visited by God and become temples of the Holy Spirit. It is, in fact, God’s predestination for a man – to become the temple of the Triune God, through whom every human being is saved.
Let us pray to this great Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, who is tireless in prayer and constantly stands on the right side of the Throne of God, interceding for the whole world, to give us the graceful strength, so that we may find peace in these difficult times. Undoubtedly, today we live in a strange and perverted epoch. We see that all kinds of influences from other Christian and unbelieving denominations are spread within the Church of God and among the Orthodox Christians. These are teachings which are not in accordance with the spirit and ethos of Orthodoxy. Such influences come especially through the social networks – a virtual space where people simply forget themselves, trample on their principles, neglect the ethical norms, and even their humanity. Affected by the various negative, destructive, and false stories, people addicted to social networks, start to relativize any authority, become disobedient, arrogant, considering themselves competent to comment on anything and everything, to preach, to impose themselves as leaders. As a result, there is no longer respect for any authority in society. Even the ecclesiastical authorities, which are especially important for human salvation, are being relativized. Let us pray to Saint John to enlighten our thoughts and open our spiritual eyes so that we understand that without obedience in the Church one cannot live. The Church cannot exist without Bishops and without clergy. All of us in the Church, being the Body of Christ, are one, God’s people, but still, through the Holy Spirit, He has chosen and appointed some individuals as pastors and teachers. He has ordained a holy clergy without which the sacramental life cannot function. And today, unfortunately, we see so many Christians who have the audacity, without the slightest fear of God, to criticize priests, monks, bishops… Such Christians should know that anyone who stands against and dares to criticize the clergy of the Church, appointed and ordained in that place by God Himself, he actually stands against the catholicity of the Church and unconsciously falls into the heresy of Protestantism. Ever, since apostolic times, there has always been a rule in the Church which says that not everyone can teach and preach in the communion of the faithful. For that reason, the Bishop always selected certain individuals who were blessed to teach and preach in public. Even though someone might have been an educated theologian, if the bishop did not oblige him to speak, he was not allowed to do so. In our time, on the other hand, we see that through the means of the Internet and social networks, various self-proclaimed theologians, teachers, preachers, prophets, etc. take upon themselves to comment on everything. As if they were directly chosen by God and know everything. But, of course, there are no such people who know everything. God is the only One Who knows everything and sees everything, and this omniscient God has taught us not to judge anyone, because what judgement you impose on others, the same judgement will befall you, too.
Some of those critics of the clergy claim that since the Bishop or the priest has done something wrong, he should be publicly exposed. However, we are not the ones to judge someone’s mistake, because the clergy is judged by an especial Ecclesiastical court, which is the only authority competent to consider and decide on such issues. The priest is responsible before his Bishop, and the Bishop answers to his Holy Synod, that is, to the catholicity of the Church. The faithful can renounce their Bishop only in case he has fallen into a heresy, but in that case, his fault should be carefully examined and confirmed by the Holy Synod. Only the highest authorities of the Church are competent to judge whether someone has fallen into heresy or not. So, you can see for yourself what a harmful delusion all those self-proclaimed preachers and “purifiers” of the Church spread. They constantly manipulate with the sacred canons of the Church, interpreting them inappropriately, and in the end prove to be the greatest underminers of those canons, becoming victims of their own willfulness and of the Protestantism. Thus, they undermine the very foundation of the Holy Church and become guilty of a great sin. Therefore, please be especially careful. Such willfulness and heresy have occurred many times throughout history. The Bogomils in the East and Protestantism in the West are striking examples of this. But they are also present in recent times, among Orthodox Christians. In Russia, for example, at the end of the 17th century, some faithful fell under the influence of Western Protestantism, stood up against the clergy of the Church and were therefore called “bespopovci”. To this day there are several municipalities of them in Russia. They mistakenly think that the Church can exist without Bishops and without priests. Of course, this is impossible, but look just how far a person can go. Today, due to the easy access to public opinion and the social networks, such delusions can easily find ways to spread and infect many souls.
We are indeed condemned to live in a difficult and confusing time. Therefore, let us stand right in the truth, in the true faith and in the Orthodoxy, and that’s possible only if we overcome our own pride, if we learn to humble and tell ourselves: “No, I have no right to judge, especially, not someone from the holy clergy of the Church. Instead, I should repent, correct myself and strive to overcome the old sinful man within me, through the spiritual feat of humility and obedience”.
In this regard, I must mention that there are also priests who dare to speak on every subject and call on Christians to stand up against their Bishop. Let these priests know that tomorrow those same Christians will rise up against them. Because there are, unfortunately, some clerics in the Church who, driven by their envy, engage their spiritual children to write against other members of the clergy. It is a very terrible and sad phenomenon in the Church. I will not talk about what happens to people outside the Church, because the greatest responsibility for the evil in this world, for the lack of love in the world, lies not in the others, but in us, in the people of the Church. Remember what the Lord Christ says about the end-times: And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. (Matthew 24: 10-12). When, therefore, love wax cold among Christians, then the end of the world will come. However, we know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13: 8), and He will remain our Savior to the end of the world. All who humbly pray and incessantly call on His holy name will be saved, or as the prophecy of Isaiah says and as St. John the Baptist put it eloquently – everybody will see the salvation of God.
Let us thank once again our dear St. John and stand up straight, according to the cry of the Holy Archangel Michael, who during the heavenly battle with the fallen Satan and his angels, warned his heavenly army: “Let us stand straight, stand with fear, beware!” Thus, every Christian is obliged to stand straight, in obedience to the Church and in love for one another, not judging anyone, but humbly asking for the prayers of St. John the Baptist and all the Saints. They are all the voice of God who cries out in the desert. The desert, on the other hand, are our cold hearts, the old sinful man within us, who needs the cure of humility. Saint Apostle Paul advises us to reject the old man, who is falling apart in deceptive desires, in order to be renewed in our spirit and mind and to be clothed in the new man, created according to God in true righteousness and holiness (cf. Ephesians 4, 22-24). We as Christians are clothed in Christ and should follow Him in everything, in order to keep the garment of baptism holy and immaculate, while rushing to holy deification.
May St. John the Baptist help us all! For many years!