Sermon by Archbishop Savva (Raevsky) of Sydney and Australia and New Zealand on the Fortieth Day of the Death of Archbishop John (Maximovich)
A few days ago was the 40th day after the death of Archbishop John of Western America and San Francisco. One of the eldest hierarchs of our Church Abroad departed to another world, to the Kingdom of eternal glory and blessedness, where there is no sorrow, no tears, no sighs. He was the Vice President of the Synod of Bishops, an ascetic hierarch. On Thursday, June 30th, Vladyka set out with the miracle-working Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign” to the city of Seattle, the residence of Vicar Bishop Nektary. On Saturday, July 2nd, having celebrated Divine Liturgy at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Vladyka went to the altar and prayed for a long time. After his prayers, he visited the widow of the late Priest Danilchik with the Icon.
At 3 pm, Vladyka returned to the church house, and was preparing to take the Icon to the cemetery. He ascended the staircase to the second floor, to his room. The altar boys who remained downstairs heard a noise as though someone fell, quickly ran upstairs, entered the bishop's room and saw him lying on the floor. When he was lifted onto the armchair, he said “It's hard to breathe.” One of the acolytes ran for medical help, but the doctor who soon arrived pronounced him dead. The question immediately arose, how was his body not to be taken to the local mortuary, but in fulfillment of the Synod's directive, be sent to San Francisco? The local authorities were accommodating. It was decided not to “desecrate” the body in the mortuary, but to place it into the church for everyone to bid farewell to him, and then immediately to fly him to San Francisco.
So it was done. On Sunday morning, Archbishop John's remains were placed in a zinc coffin and placed in the church. An enormous crowd over-filled the church and courtyard. After the pannikhida was performed, the coffin was sent to San Francisco. Three hours and forty minutes later, his body arrived. An enormous crowd waited for him at the airport. As an extraordinary exception, the authorities allowed the crowd onto the tarmac. Bishop Nektary held the miracle-working Icon, and was joined by many clergymen and a choir. The coffin emerged from the airplane, then wheeled to a hearse that was waiting nearby. The first litany was served, and the funeral procession headed for the city.
On the way, since there was traffic, they first stopped at the house of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, where Archbishop John had lived, then headed to the new cathedral. An enormous gathering met the funeral procession choking back tears of sorrow. The pannikhida began. People belonging to different jurisdictions and even denominations were present. Entering the church, one Catholic clergyman said “We also came to pray for your holy man.” They also stood with burning candles, concentrated in prayer. The funeral was performed on Thursday, July 7th, the feast day of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, in the new magnificent Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” Performing the service were Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), along with Archbishop Leonty, Archbishop Averky, Bishop Savva, and Bishop Nektary, along with a great many clergyman. There were so many people in the church that it was impossible to kneel. The great sorrow was so palpable that no one will ever forget it. At the same time there was a sense of endearment and a feeling of some sort of celebration. The funeral began at 6 pm and ended at 1 am.
The municipal authorities received a petition signed by a thousand parishioners who asked for permission to bury the hierarch’s body in a crypt under the cathedral. The city needed to change the law for this. Permission was granted. The mayor wrote, “I understand what little I can do to relieve the sorrow for this great man, but I hope that you know that what genuine sympathy I have for you and your congregation.” One person present at the funeral described it this way: “No one who participated in this astounding, profoundly endearing and lofty prayer service will ever forget it.” As many admitted, they never had participated in such a genuine spiritual event, a true spiritual triumph of the late Vladyka.
Despite the profound sorrow, weeping and wailing of the innumerable followers of Archbishop John, there was a general sense shared by all of the worshippers of a certain joyous sensation which reached is apogee during the procession of the body around the cathedral three times. One heard such words as “This does not seem like a funeral, but like the uncovering of holy relics!” “This feels like the procession of the Holy Shroud on Great Saturday,” These were among the expressions of the unusual spirit sensed by the crowd. For 6 days Archbishop John lay in the open coffin, and despite the hot weather, there was not even the hint of odor from the body, and his hand remained soft and supple. This despite the fact that the funeral agency did not treat his body!
It was remarkably touching to see the tender love that his spiritual children had for him, especially the young men, who saw in him a true spiritual guide and teacher. When they finally closed the coffin, some of the young men, subdeacons and acolytes fell upon the coffin kissing it and couldn't tear themselves away. During the entire time that the church was the coffin, and then put into the crypt under the altar, many of these young man spent entire nights there, praying and reading the Psalter, not wishing to go home after services. Is this not clear testimony to the purity and loftiness of the soul of the late archpastor, who attracted the hearts of pure and uncorrupted youth?
On Wednesday, July 6th, an especially solemn pannikhida was performed by Archbishop Leonty, Archbishop Averky (Taushev), Bishop Savva, and Bishop Nektary, before which Vladyka Averky delivered a sermon on the life of the late hierarch. Vladyka Averky remembered how back in 1931, not having known or personally met Bishop John, who was then just a young hieromonk, he came to revere him for his ability to pray and his ascetic life, of which he heard from Carpatho-Russian youth who studied at Bitola Serbian Seminary, where Fr John was a teacher.
At the time, Bishop Averky was serving in Carpathian Russia, where selected youth were sent to Yugoslavia for theological education. When they would come home for vacation, they would tell the bishop that there was a young hieromonk who made a great impression on them, Fr John (Maximovich), who was in constant prayer, serving Divine Liturgy every day, or at very least partaking of the Holy Gifts of Christ, strict at keeping fast, never sleeping or even lying in bed, only dozing in the sitting position. Their faces shone as they recalled the life of Fr John, they would talk about his genuine fatherly love towards them, how he inspired love for the lofty ideals of Holy Rus’ and inspired them towards all that is good and holy with his lofty discussions.
Twenty years later, already serving in New York, Bishop Averky first met and came to know Vladyka John personally, and he became convinced that all that he had heard from the Carpathian youth was completely true. Archbishop John was truly a man of prayer and an ascetic, the likes of which one did not see in the modern world, that he is without a doubt a righteous man of our time.
Of course, righteousness is not sinlessness, for only God has no sin. We know from the lives of saints that even the great saints sometimes committed sins, but whereas sinners commit transgressions from their evil, corrupt hearts, the righteous may commit small sins from the childlike purity of their hearts.
As I said, the funeral was led by the First Hierarch of our Church, Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky). Twice in New York, before the first pannikhida for Bishop John and before the funeral in San Francisco, the Metropolitan described the late Bishop in a brief, powerful way. Metropolitan Anthony of blessed memory in a letter to Archbishop Dimitri, who had invited him to the city of Harbin, wrote: “Instead of me, I am sending you as my very soul, as my own heart, Bishop John. This is a small, weak man, an almost childlike stature, but he has a miraculous ascetic staunchness and strictness rare in our time of general religious weakness. I am sending you a little bit of my heart, a miracle of our day, a young ascetic, Bishop John.” Metropolitan also quoted Hieromonk Methodius (Yogel), who said about Bishop John: “We stood up to pray, but Bishop John did not need to rise to his feet, he was always in a prayerful mood.” “No matter what changes took place around him, whatever the external situation of the life and work of Bishop John,” said the Metropolitan, “the work of prayer and divine services always occupied first place for him, and nothing could tear him away from that.”
During the funeral service in the enormous cathedral, filled beyond capacity, many stood outside who could not bring themselves to enter. These people of the church did not know fatigue, and for the long 6 hours of the funeral and veneration of the late archpastor, there was an unusual prayerful inspiration that gripped everyone so powerfully that even the onetime enemies and opponents of Bishop John approached his coffin to bid farewell, some even loudly repenting of their sins before him, asking for his forgiveness for their madness as they stood before his coffin. It seemed that the veneration would never end. The procession went around the cathedral three times with the coffin, held by various clergyman and altar boys with the singing of the irmos of the Great Canon “Helper and Protector,” as is customary, then ended as the coffin was brought into the crypt under the altar.
I will mention another characteristic of Bishop John, which was recorded in an article published in Orthodox Russia by ND Talberg, a professor of Holy Trinity Seminary, who knew the late hierarch well: “The Lord God deemed fit to end the earthly path of the great righteous man Archbishop John. In today's world, covered in darkness, we sinners are given to behold this fool-for-Christ, who remained such even in his episcopal rank. This form of asceticism, which was so treasured in Old Russia, is misunderstood by many today. His way of life was to a degree an emulation of the great Saint Gregory the Theologian, who was persecuted by his false brethren. One church historian, Sergei Bulgakov, wrote of the last years of his life: ‘Continuing to care for the church and to combat heretics with his writings, Saint Gregory led a strictly ascetic life. He walked barefoot, often wore torn clothing, slept on the bare earth, or on a mat of wood branches, and never lit a fire to warm himself.” The late Archbishop Tikhon (Troitsky) of blessed memory was very close to me over the course of decades, and he had so wished to see Bishop John as his successor to rule the Diocese of San Francisco, confident that he would bring to a conclusion the construction of the new church “Joy of all who Sorrow.” By God's will, Archbishop John fulfilled this legacy, of course enduring many sorrows, which may even have afflicted his heart.
However great is the loss of Bishop John for us, no matter how powerful is our sorrow from his departure to the other world, but his blessed end cannot but embolden us and serve as a source of consolation and even joy for all those who seek the Truth and believe in its victory. We often complain, we grieve and blame the lack of eminent pastors and archpastors in our Church. How often we underestimate our own pastors. How often we mitigate their abilities and ignore their labors, how often we disrespect those who in our terrible times bear the burden of Christ. Even among those it seems who are devoted to our Ñhurch Abroad we see some who are crestfallen and utter words of pessimism. “Look at the clergymen in other jurisdictions,” they say, “and even other Christian denominations. We see clergymen with master's degrees, doctorates, how many theologians they have, how many writers, how many preachers, and what do we have?”
And yet, it turns out that among us lived a hierarch who despite the difficulties of contemporary life, bound himself in asceticism, reminding us of the labors of Saint Seraphim of Sarov the Miracle-worker. We also did not pay heed to him at the time, we spoke of him in ironic tones, with condescension, we refused to listen to him, and even berated him. Latter-day Scribes and Pharisees did not understand his life and what it meant for others. This servant of God Archbishop John endured everything: mockery, debasement, humiliation, even the seat of the accused in court, when his brothers “saw in his righteousness sin,” seeking support from the authority of the civil courts.
When faced with difficult circumstances we seek the mercy of God, requiring boldness before God, then we turned to Vladyka John and we were always convinced that his prayers would reach the Almighty. For this, direct communion with God, contact between the human soul and the Kingdom on High, is without compare the most important quality, a characteristic of the soul of a true pastor. This character is not only granted by God, it is not only innate, but it is obtained through grace, through great prayerful labors. Name a pastor or archpastor that is equal to him in our day? Only if we turn to the past history of our Church do we find that this ascetic archpastor of our day carried forward the flame of ancient piety and continued the tradition of patristic asceticism in the diaspora. He was a link in the golden chain which passed through Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky) to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and to Patriarch Tikhon, and back in time into the entire Russian episcopacy in an unbroken chain of consecrated bishops and metropolitans who were introduced by Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, who in turn traced their succession unbroken to the very Apostles. Within this chain we find many great bishops, true heroes of the spirit.
Such were Holy Metropolitan Philip, Holy Patriarch Germogen, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, the great passion-bearer during the time of the terrible persecution of the Russian Church, Patriarch Tikhon, the profound theologian Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev, who founded the Russian Church Abroad, and the no less eminent Metropolitan Anastassy, whose work Discussions With My Own Heart, is comparable in their profound content and craft only with the works of the great Pascal. And in the person of Bishop John, we had a link of this chain, a hierarch of asceticism and prayer.
The death of Vladyka John must be for us a source of the courage that is demanded by the Russian Church today, especially in the diaspora. Courage is required to face the temptations of modernism and the lures of the devil as we preserve our holy Orthodox Faith in absolute purity of Apostolic succession in the tradition of the ancient Apostolic Church. Orthodox Christianity, as described by the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, is the unchanging preservation of the teachings of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles as they are laid out in the Holy Scripture, Holy Traditions and in the ancient Creeds of the Ecumenical Church. Vladyka John firmly stood on the unshakeable stone of Orthodoxy and left for us a legacy to preserve it in its purity. Finally Vladyka John showed us an example of the greatest humility, meekness and mercy, which flowed from his physical and spiritual purity. May his example always stand before our spiritual gaze.
We will conclude our memories of Bishop John with the words of one archpastor spoke during the funeral of Vladyka John: “Sleep peacefully now, our dear beloved Vladyka, rest from your righteous labors and ascetic deeds, finding peaceful repose before our universal Resurrection. Amen.”
August 12, 1966.