Homily for All Saints of Alaska

by Dcn. Irenaios Anderson

Text: Hebrews 11:33—12:2; Matt. 4:25-5:12

Date delivered: Sept. 27, 2010

Location: All Saints Chapel, Kodiak, AK

+In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

“How long until we get there?”

Those of us who have driven children any distance are familiar with that question. However, it is no doubt one that was heard on that year-long journey from European Russia to Kodiak Island. It had been a difficult trip but one that would have eternal consequences.

On this day we commemorate the modern apostles who have brought and nurtured the Orthodox faith in Alaska. This day marks the anniversary of the arrival of the original missionaries from Valaam Monastery at Kodiak; they travelled around the world on the longest missionary journey in Christian history out of love for Christ. Among them we remember our holy father Herman, who provides us with an example of living a loving, Christian life. With them we remember St. Innocent—who nurtured the Orthodox faith among the Aleuts, Tlingits, and the Yakut people of Kamchatka—and St. Yakov, who preached the Gospel not only among his own native Aleut people on Atka but also spent his life bringing the Yupi’k, Athabaskan, and Tlingit peoples to the faith. Although our Church in this land is relatively young, she has provided us with the martyrs the priest Juvenaly and Peter the Aleut, who proclaimed the Orthodox faith not merely with words, but with their lives.

These saints provide us not only with a story of their lives of faithful service but also as examples of obedience to Jesus Christ, no matter the cost. In the end, they point not to the holiness of their own lives or the people they touched with the Gospel, but to Jesus Christ. Only in obedience to Christ will we discover the blessedness these saints experienced.

In the most quoted sermon ever given, we discover the life in Christ—revealed in the saints—as a guide to our own lives.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The saints of Alaska didn’t have earthly wealth, but even more importantly were “poor in spirit,” being rich in humility and the virtues. While there are many examples of being humble, our chief example is our Lord Jesus Christ who,

“being in the form of God did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Instead of weeping tears over what they had left behind in Russia, or—in the case of St. Yakov—the loss of his home and the death of his beloved wife and father within one year, the saints of Alaska mourned over their own sins and lived a life of repentance.

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Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Meekness indicates patience in the face of wrongs suffered. While we in Kodiak are more familiar with the difficulties the missionaries of the Valaam mission suffered at the hands of Baranov and the Russian-American Company, we must remember that St. Yakov lost his wife and father during his selfless ministry while enduring the physical suffering of ministering in a tent-church on the Yukon and Kuskokwim for 34 years, baptizing over 1300 people, and finally suffering the indignity of being summoned to Sitka to defend himself against false accusations. In the midst of this mistreatment, there was no sign of complaint, rather saying these personal losses were a call from God to even greater struggles.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. In a world ravenous for anything that feeds self-indulgent—and often self-destructive—appetites, the Saints’ desire was for God and his Kingdom. Because of their love for God, they left their homes and all that was familiar and comfortable to share that love with the people of Alaska. In doing so, a hymn from the Vigil of the feast declares:

“The saints are like comely trees in the paradise of Eden, their teachings like fragrant flowers, their acts like fruit on which our souls are fed and our spiritual hunger satisfied. Come, let us take refuge under their shadow; let us bless them, the crown and adornment of their land, an example and image of how to live.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. What greater way is there to show mercy than to bring people without the Gospel to the knowledge of Christ and His heavenly kingdom? These faithful servants of Christ showed people the power of the Gospel by their transformed lives. Here at St. Herman Seminary we are committed to training God’s people to serve the Church in Alaska in her continuation of the apostolic ministry begun by these saints. Again, the hymns of the feast call to us:

“Remembering their loving sacrifice, let us Orthodox believers in America and throughout the world dedicate ourselves again to the task they so nobly began, offering our lives in the service of Christ, as servants and laborers in the new vineyard entrusted to us. For indeed the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Let us beseech the Lord of the harvest to send into his Church worthy successors to these holy laborers.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Although St. Herman spoke with the angels on Spruce Island, all the saints of Alaska achieved the vision of God in this life. They purified their hearts through ascetic struggle and love of God, giving us an example of what it means to walk with God in all purity and piety, worshiping and serving him in holiness all the days of our lives. Our Lord calls us to this singleness of vision:

“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matt. 6:22).

Although one may think that this is primarily descriptive of the saints, but the Apostle John disagreed:

“Now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as He is pure (1 Jn. 3:2–3).

St. Isaac the Syrian notes that when the Holy Spirit makes the human heart pure, it is enables one to recognize the image of God in others. Then a person can reach his or her purpose in life: to see God.

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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. The great example of this beatitude is St. Yakov. By preaching the Gospel he brought peace to the Alaskan interior. Traditionally warring peoples became brothers in Christ, leading the Church to call St. Yakov the “true example of Christian piety, love, and unity” due to his living and preaching the Gospel of Christ. His ministry of bringing peace extends to this day, where many visitors to Sitka are drawn to humble grave of St. Yakov, where they say they experience a spirit of peace.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. While there were several attempts on St. Herman’s life, he shared the divine peace that was within his soul—that same peace that drew wild animals to him on Spruce Island, as the animals in paradise walked with Adam before the Fall. St. Yakov was a victim of slander, yet did not revile those who bore false witness against him. The missionary priest St. Juvenaly was killed while bringing the Orthodox faith to Alaska, and the Kodiak youth St. Peter the Aleut died defending his personal faith, his words being a clarion call to us today:

“I am a Christian, and I will not deny my faith.”

This commitment sprouted from the seed of the love of God, for truly, as we sing in the troparion of the feast of the martyrs of Alaska,

“in their devotion and love for the Lord, they willingly endured persecution and death for the truth.”

From those who died for our faith we learn how to live our faith!

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Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Like the righteous of the Old Testament and those listed in today’s epistle reading, the saints of Alaska bore up under false accusations, open hostility, and the threat of death. They encourage us to follow in their footsteps. While we may not face physical persecution or martyrdom, we are called to die to this world with its values and priorities. Our elder fathers and brothers in the faith truly were those

“of whom the world was not worthy.”

May we strive to follow their example!

While the Saints of Alaska—the holy Hierarch Innocent, Apostle to America; our Venerable Father Herman; Yakov, Enlightener of the Native Peoples of Alaska; and the Martyrs the Priest Juvenaly and Peter the Aleut—provide us with examples of fulfilling the Beatitudes in their lives, they also call us to follow in their footsteps.

But what are they calling us to do?

The Saints of Alaska encourage us to follow Christ, even as they did. This obedience will result in our lives being transformed as theirs were, being an example to those around us. By living a life out of love for God, we are called to express that love by loving our neighbor.

“Remembering the faith and love of the saints of Alaska, let us embrace one another, that with one heart and one mind we may confess and proclaim our faith.”

We also can emulate them by answering the command of Christ to “go and make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you,” being new apostles by re-evangelizing Alaska, answering the social problems of our communities—abuse, despair, suicide, etc.—with the only answer there is: our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

This primarily means being faithful Orthodox Christians, loving the Lord above all, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is the core of the lesson of the Saints of Alaska for us. They echo our Lord Jesus Christ: “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.” Amen.

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