St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Canaanite / New Martyrs of Russia, 29 January 2017
This will be a time for you to bear testimony (Luke 21.13).
Switch off the light, if it bothers you. Swaying unsteadily, straining to rise, you grab the edge of the dock. From the jury box, in the bright red scarf and white blouse of the Komsomol, the pitiless face of a Communist youth shoots a stare as you reach toward the nonexistent bulb. Old prison habits die hard. Bald, bloated Party stoics in uniform grey suits and monochrome ties never once blink. That stolid, socialist frown indelibly etched into every immobile muscle. ‘Accused Kresteniuk, do you plead guilty to the charges brought against you?’ A blurry aura of dots on your iris, radiating from where the electrodes attached to your temples. ‘I … I’, you stumble. ‘Accused Kresteniuk’, the voice insists, ‘are you not a reactionary, Trotskyite tool of conspirators against the workers and peasants’ soviets?’ Your dazed, sleep-deprived cornea now sees no Party stooges bored with the ritual. No Comrade Rubin atop his judge’s bench, hungry for a priestly carcass. Only the 100 watt bulb in your prison cell that no one switches off. Day or night. Jerking in, out, back arching, from the first volts passed through your brain in that NKVD hospital, your muscles feel the voltage rip into your cerebral cortex. The yellow stream, leak down your cassock. Finally, your brain breaks. ‘I plead … utterly guilty … of the heinous crime of …’ Your well-drilled, well-rehearsed confession fading, the judge arches his brow. ‘Of undermining … the People’s, people’s …’ But your only crime is being a priest.
You do not hear your last word hobbling off. On feet crippled like yours, where toenails used to be. Are you still the priest, Vasyl Kresteniuk? Sacrificial goat on the altar of the People.
‘Switch it off, if it bothers you’, Fr. Bob tells fifteen-year-old Marcie, watching tortured faces in black and white in the TV documentary. News clips from the 1930s. ‘It’s about Russia’, she explains. ‘Remember’, he hastily grabs the remote, ‘we’re Antiochian Orthodox, not Russian’. ‘But Dad’, Marcie asks, ‘what did those priests do? What were those trials?’ ‘Show trials’, you answer. At age ninety-five, body crippled seven decades ago, your keen mind still unscarred by electric volts of terror, time, and converts’ denial. ‘Uh, uh’, Marcie’s Dad passes the buck. ‘Old Fr. Bill, over there. Ask him. I have that interfaith group with Rabbi Rubin and Reverend West from Seventh Street Methodist. You know, my old buddy before we became Orthodox? It’s all the same God, after all. ‘Sides, Fr. Bill, I think you knew Rabbi Rubin’s grandfather. In Russia or someplace’. You stare. Impassive. The cheery convert beats a hasty retreat. That insipid, bourgeois smile indelibly etched on his lips. ‘Fr. Bill’, Marcie nudges you. ‘Fr. Bill, are you awake?’ Smiling drowsily in your wheelchair, you lean in forward. ‘You know, Marcie. My name was not always Fr. Bill Cross’. ‘But Dad always …’ ‘Your father and I are brother priests but there is much that he does not know. Much that he does not care to …’ ‘The show trials’, a sudden, youthful insight flashes across her mind. ‘You were there, weren’t you?’ Offsetting the tragic smile of age, a tear sinks down deep furrows as you drift off into sleep.
Dreaming of 1945. A young priest in Ukraine, Vasyl Kresteniuk. Suffering all, all for Christ.
Who are you to take your place among them, Fr. Vasyl, alias Fr. Bill? Bishops buried alive in the black soil or strapped to the paddles of steamboats for blades to mangle red. A starving peasant gnawing her own dead baby, since ‘the People’s’ Army confiscated her last grain of buckwheat. A seminarian coughing up tubercular lungs in Magadan, or Yakutsk, rather than simply urinating on the icon of Christ. A novice nun strapped in a chair, losing her virginity to a full dose of electric volts. Who are you but one of the countless, the faceless, ritually tried, while cameras flash, film spins, and juries render a verdict pre-ordained? When your time of testimony came, how did you plead? ‘Utterly guilty of the heinous crime of …’
Your faith? What are you but a yelping dog, eating crumbs falling from holy martyrs’ tables? But they fall from the Master’s table – and as low as you fall, so high he lifts you up.
In the coastal country south of Mount Lebanon, a Palestinian woman bows low. At the feet of the wandering Jew. ‘Son of David’, she shrieks, ‘have mercy!’ Jerking in and out, her muscles in spasm, her fifteen-year-old arches her back. Foaming, growling, rabid as a desert dog. In her face, a face that no mother can love. ‘Send her away, if she bothers you, Rabbi’, pitiless voices advise. ‘A feral Esau, lips wet with pig’s blood. Some dog of a Gentile, nipping at your heel’. Swaying unsteadily, grovelling in the dirt, a yellow, yelping dog falls as low as she can. But will she withstand the trial? Put her to the test. ‘I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’, that first volt crosses her brain. Still, she will not go away. Crank up the voltage. ‘Is it right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs?’ the Master asks. Quivering lips curve into the tragic, sardonic smile of one with nothing left. ‘Even the dogs, my lord, eat the crumbs that fall from the table’. Lifting her up, looking deep into her eye, the Master declares: ‘Great is your faith, woman of Canaan. Greater than all they who hear only what they want to hear and see only what they want to see’. At home, she finds a mind, unscarred. The face that she knows. She has survived the trial that is true faith. Her time of testimony has come.
Beloved in Christ: passing those doors, you find a multitude of lights. Candles dance merrily on the mounted icon prints, on silk meadowy-gold, silvery-white … or martyrs’ red. Switch off the light if it bothers you. Hide behind a blurry aura of converts’ fantasy, the bits and bobs of a cherry-picked gospel, and spin-spiced, Ortho-fancy faith. When your fifteen-year-old asks: ‘Who were those priests? What were those show trials?’ feign forty-something ignorance.
Avert your eyes from an old priest’s wheelchair – and the fifty million martyrs all around it.
Sinking steadily, into soul-tossing, troubled sleep, you sense breath grow ragged and pulse, unearthly slow. A wandering Rabbi stands before you. A gold crown in his hands. ‘Who am I to wear it?’ your arid, parched lips ask. ‘Did I stand in the dock and expose the lies? The lie. Hammer and sickle, swastika, Brioni suit, bright red necktie – and all the senseless evil done in the name of the People? Give me crumbs, Lord, not a crown’. ‘You never once renounced my Name’, says Christ. ‘When your time of testimony comes, you will not be afraid. If all men forget the Cross that you have borne, I, the Testifier, will remember’.
Holy new martyrs and confessors of the Russian lands, pray unto God for us!