The Memorial Day Pilgrimage
And Canonization of Father Alexis Toth
In The Bicentennial Year:
" . . who once were not a people but are now the People of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (I Peter 2:10)
God reveals Himself to us not so much as the God Who Speaks, but as the God Who Acts. God acts through people in time and place, making sacred the holy lives and holy events of His people, the "People of God." This is why the recitation of "salvation history" is such an integral part of Orthodox worship. Our Church history is "sacred" because it is filled with times and places and people through whom God acts and reveals Himself. It is in this context that we understand the celebration or our Bicentennial in this year's Memorial Day Pilgrimage and the Glorification ("canonization") of Father Alexis Toth whose relics repose at Saint Tikhon's Monastery.
Twenty-four years ago this summer, our blessed Father Herman was canonized in Kodiak. We see in Saint Herman the realization of a local Orthodox Church in America - that two hundred years ago the Native Americans "who once were not a people but are now the People of God" are baptized into the Holy Orthodox Faith, taking on an American Orthodox identity, becoming part of sacred Orthodox history in America.
The Bicentennial celebration of the Orthodox Church in North America will culminate later this year with the canonization of the first Creole Native-American priest, the Father Jacob Netsvetov. But in a very special way, it is the canonization of Father Alexis Toth at Saint Tikhon's on Memorial Day that strikes closer to the most personal history of you and me.
Most of America is from someplace else- we Americans are all children of one diaspora or another, whether we be cradle Orthodox or converts. We are not Native American in the sense of an Aleut priest, Father Jacob, baptizing thousands of Eskimo peoples living in the Yukon for a thousand years. America is also a land of immigrants. So it is that for an important part of her history, the Orthodox Church in America was a mission and ministry to immigrants. No one better exemplifies this mission and ministry than Father Alexis Toth.
To this day, the bulk of our parishes in the United States and Canada were established by immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the last century. These peoples-there were more than one group of people - were generally known as "Little Russians," although they spoke diverse slavic dialects and represent more specific groups of Ruthenians, Galicians, Carpatho and Sub-Carpathians. Slavonians, Belorussians, and Buchovinians, and those known to us as Ukrainians. These peoples came to North America by the tens of thousands in the 1890s through the 1920s, driven by the promise of America, mercifully led by God out of their poverty and persecution to the "promised" ]land. They were bound by a common humiliation of a second-class citizenship in Central Europe, living in lands occupied through Latin conquests, subjected for hundreds of years to a "Unia" with Rome that made them neither Roman Catholic nor Orthodox.
And so the "Little Russians," filled with hope, came to America- only to be subjected to the same rejection by Westernizers who refused to allow either their venerable customs or their "Greek Catholic" Byzantine Rite.
Broken and disunited, who would unite these peoples "who were not a people" either in their occupied homeland or in America? Who would go out to these abandoned thousands, tell them of God's love for them, show them God' s love by his own caring, gather them together and bring them back to their Orthodox Faith?
By the turn of the last century, the sainted Father Alexis brought back some thirty thousand souls, making of them the Orthodox foundation for the spread of Orthodoxy in America in the twentieth century.
Speaking personally, without Father Alexis, there would have been little basis for my mission to the stranded Orthodox in the sprawling Southern California suburbs in the 1950s. Without Father Alexis, there would have been no network for an Orthodox outreach to Americans. Without Father Alexis, there would be no groundwork for uniting the disunited peoples into one Orthodox people living in the Americas.
You may be non-Slavonic or purely an "American" even as I am historically "Great Russian." But let me make this perfectly clear: neither the "Americans" nor the "Great Russians" have brought us into our present-day promise. Rather, it was this remarkable "little" man of no report who led these remarkable "little" peoples into a return to Orthodoxy that is the basis of our mission and ministry in the Americas into the next century. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
And when God gave blessed repose to His faithful servant Father Alexis in 1907, in what blessed place was he laid to rest? Even in blessed repose, Saint Alexis gathers the Orthodox Faithful together, bringing them back to Saint Tikhon's where his holy relics are glorified, there to celebrate his solemn canonization on Memorial Day in the Bicentennial Year of the Orthodox Church in North America.
Here, on Memorial Day, all the sacred elements of our salvation history come together. The God Who Acts through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in God's love for us as "Our Father" and the communion of the Holy Spirit, would be with us all as we gather in the sacred synaxis of time, place, event, and persons that is the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox in God's Presence.
The Time is the Pilgrimage to Saint Tikhon's on Memorial Day. The Place is Saint Tikhon's Monastery where generations of Orthodox Pilgrims have gathered each and every year on holy ground made yet more holy this year by the glorification of Father Alexis Toth who has made Saint Tikhon's his precious abode. The Event is the very first canonization ever of an Orthodox saint in the continental United States (outside of Alaska), bringing the Bicentennial of Orthodoxy in America centered in Alaska right into America's heartland at Saint Tikhon's.
Who are the "persons" who complete the elements of our salvation history? May God act through in this saving event! On Memorial Day, the committed holy life of Father Alexis Toth is to be glorified without end. Is it an exaggeration to say that God is calling you to raise your own voice in the festal shout at Saint Tikhon's on Memorial Day, forevermore proclaiming with all God's American Saints: "Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land" (Psalm 85:9).
--Archpriest Sergei Glagolev
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