February 26, 2014

Psalm 74

Thy foes have roared in the midst of Thy holy place;
 they set up their own signs for signs.

At the upper entrance they hacked
 the wooden trellis with axes and then all its carved wood 
they broke down with hatchets and hammers.

They set Thy sanctuary on fire;
 to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of Thy name.

They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
(Psalm 74:5-8)

When we are comfortably standing or sitting in a warm church freely allowed to worship as we wish it’s hard to imagine an ugly mob storming in with guns and axes and smashing the iconostasis, burning the altar and desecrating all that we count as holy. But such violent experience is what this psalm recounts, probably in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC. This would have been all the more terrible for the Temple musician who composed this meditation ( “The sons of Asaph,” were the Temple singers, Ezra 2:41).

Religious persecution is a staple feature in history. In 1918, when Patriarch Tikhon was asked by a reporter what he was hearing from around Soviet Russia, he replied, “The sound of weeping.” Churches were being raided and destroyed. Priests, monks, nuns and faithful arrested, tortured, killed. Today too there are many places in the world where it is unsafe to be a Christian. The Voice of the Martyrs is one of several groups that monitors persecution of Christians around the world. Here is their map of places where there are restrictions or outright persecution, https://www.persecution.com/public/prayermap.aspx.

Psalm 74 is utterly honest in asking God “Why” and “Where are You?” It doesn’t give an easy answer, only a reaffirmation of trust that the One who was there in the past will be there again, using verses we Orthodox associate with the Cross and Theophany:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.

Thou didst divide the sea by Thy might; Thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters.

Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan,
 Thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Bishop's House
Metropolitan Tikhon, “The Russian Bishop’s House”
Park Superintendent Mary Miller presents plaque to Bishop David
Bishops of Alaska
List of Bishops in Alaska
Bishop's House
Bishops with Mary Miller in chapel of “The Russian Bishop’s House”

Bishops of Alaska

One of the memorable events of this past weekend in Sitka was the visit to “The Russian Bishop’s House,” built by the Russian-American Company in 1842-43 as Saint Innocent’s residence and diocesan offices. It later functioned as an orphanage and school and remained in the hands of the Diocese of Alaska until 1972, when deterioration made it prudent to hand over to the National Park Service for extensive renovation and preservation. The last resident bishop was then Bishop Theodosius, who lived there until 1969. The agreement with the National Park Service allows the Diocese regular access to the Chapel of the Annunciation.

The current Superintendent of the Sitka National Historical Park is Mary A. Miller. Besides being a professional engineer she is part Tlingit and a native of Sitka, where her grandfather, John Ponomarkov, was choir director at Saint Michael’s Cathedral and as a child attended school in the “Russian Bishop’s House.”

At the reception tea, Ms Miller presented a plaque to Bishop David inscribed with the names of all the bishops who had served as bishops in Alaska.

I was impressed with how well the Park Service has cared for this invaluable part of the Orthodox history in America. Not only through the extensive physical renovations, but in the desire “to get it right” as they recount to visitors the story of Saint Innocent and the Orthodox Church’s role in Alaska.