Every beginning and every ending in this life is significant. At times, a beginning can be a great manifestation and happen suddenly. Others may be gentler and more nuanced. Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia is to be laid to rest at Epiphany Cathedral. This cathedral served as the patriarchal church during most of the Soviet period when the other larger and grander churches of Moscow were closed for services or had been dismantled or blown up by the communists. Epiphany Cathedral is also where he was enthroned and began his patriarchal ministry. Epiphany Cathedral marks the beginning and the end of the work he was appointed to undertake in this world. Historic and important was this work in the lives of millions upon millions of people. There are no words fitting enough to express the impact, though I am thankful many who are more capable will try.
If the reader will indulge my self-centeredness for a moment, Epiphany Cathedral has a particularly special place in my life. The first full day I ever spent in Russia began at Epiphany. The prior day we had arrived at the airport and went straight off to Christ the Savior Cathedral. I had longed to see the great phoenix of Christendom, having risen from the ashes after being blown up by Stalin. My memories of the great church are with me now, especially with the scenes we are now seeing from Moscow of the Patriarch’s funeral service there.
It was the next morning though, at Epiphany, that the sense of awe from Christ the Savior was replaced by a sudden realization of sadness about faith in the modern West. It was an overcast, cool weekday morning when we arrived at about 8:30.
Epiphany Cathedral is bounded by busy streets and located in a Moscow neighborhood. The setting of Epiphany is not majestic, it is among the people. And this seems fitting now. The turquoise and white structure capped by gold domes is sharply set apart from the grey buildings that surround it. Stepping inside for the first time I was surprised with the beauty of a service taking place in a side chapel with a small crowd of retirees. Moving further in I was struck by an oddly beautiful dichotomy. The main church at Epiphany is in some ways a large, dark cavern – almost a tomb; but this is offset by the incredible gold interior that ITAR-TASS describes as “riotous opulence.” As we were admiring the church and praying, I could hear the service in the side chapel and watched men and women wearing business suits come in to venerate the icons and to pray before they headed off to work.
Weekday morning at Epiphany Cathedral – July 2006.
It was this last thought that made the strongest impression on me and one that I have told people about ever since – and it was also the source of my sadness. Standing outside Epiphany afterwards, I turned to a friend of mine from Washington, D.C. who was with me on the trip and said, “We don’t have this back home.” She replied in a sad voice, “I know.” On a weekday morning in Moscow we saw people singing to God and stopping to pray on their way to work. On this trip to Russia and two more within the space of that one year I would see the same thing over and again. Churches open…every day, services being conducted…every day, people in churches…every day. Churches open and accessible by the people. After eight decades of religious oppression, where religious observance or sympathy could cost someone their education, job, or even their life, the churches are open again. Songs are being sung, prayers are being said, and bells are ringing out. Years ago I felt sorry for them; but on that first full day in Russia I felt sorry for us, because “we don’t have this.”
The reopening of the churches, monasteries and seminaries is in large part due to Patriarch Aleksy and his leadership. His consistent vision for a reinvigorated Russian Orthodox Church led to the rehabilitation of churches, the establishment of new parishes, and the reopening of monasteries and seminaries. Patriarch Aleksy died on the anniversary of the destruction of Christ the Savior Cathedral. We know there are no coincidences in life, and so this timing is appropriate. The jewel in the crown of his achievements was the rebuilding of Christ the Savior and the historic reunification of the Russian Church that took place there last year. Two of the deepest wounds from the communist war against Christendom he helped heal in the place where his funeral service is taking place. To the world, these acts demonstrated the victory of Faith over unbelief, hope over despair, and love over hate.
Must it only be through deprivation and oppression that we come to value that which we should treasure? The Russian Church teaches us: that which seemed invincible at the beginning of the 20th century could be decimated by raw power in the hands of men driven by a dangerous philosophy. How much more should we care for and celebrate that which we have in the free air of liberty?
On the last night on my last trip to Russia, I was walking somewhat randomly through the Moscow streets in early evening before sunset. That day had also seen the funeral service of Boris Yeltsin at Christ the Savior. I crossed over a bridge into a neighborhood and found myself again at Epiphany. It was quiet at the church, including the surrounding neighborhood. It felt both good and strange to be back, remembering that first morning, and ending where I felt I had begun. When we come back to where we started, we hope that our journey has led the person within to a better place. I walked down the street to a small park still dedicated to some communist and sat down on a bench. Looking back at the Epiphany bell tower showing through the trees and overshadowing one of the honored dictators of the proletariat, I wondered at the providence of God. Through the atrocities of mankind – murder, hate, and the defilement of that which is holy – the Good which is unbelievable can still shine through and miracles still do happen, despite our unbelief. That is the message of this man, and that is the message of Epiphany.
Epiphany Cathedral belltower – April 2007.
On a final personal note, thank you Fr. Ilya and Fr. George for making those pilgrimages possible. How can one properly thank someone for changing their life?
Rdr. Timothy, a sinner.