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Monday
Aug052019

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Deacon Bill Finnegan

Diane and I just returned from a trip to Russia.  It was a riverboat cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Following many rivers and lakes, we went as far north as the latitude for Anchorage, Alaska, they kept telling us.  I am telling you this story not out of the vanity that we heard about in the first reading, but because I learned a lesson that relates to the second reading, and I would like to share it with you, as a cautionary tale. 

Russia as you know is vast - almost 2x the USA & 70x the UK!  We saw just a very small part of the country, but what we saw was beautiful, if you overlook some crumbling buildings in the big cities.  The major cities we visited seemed just like major US cities, with traffic jams, large shopping areas, hustle & bustle, and lots of nightlife, we were told. 

I like to take pictures of churches and religious art, and there was an overabundance of both, everywhere.  In every little hamlet along the way there were always churches to be seen from the boat, some big, some small - all beautiful with their “Onion Domes”.  It seems that during the Imperial times, Russia was the most religious country in the world. 

In one city the tour guide told us that the city once had over 300 churches, all Russian Orthodox.  At the time of the Revolution, most of the churches were destroyed, leaving only 60 in the city, 30 of which are “operating churches”, as he said.  The rest are museums and tourist sites to view the religious artwork.  Another guide told us that 70% of the Russian people claim to be “believers”, as he put it, but only 7% actually practice their faith. 

I could see the movement from the religious to the secular in the way two different tour guides explained the “Onion Domes” on their churches, that we in Alaska are familiar with.  Those domes, as I said, are everywhere.  We saw gold ones, green ones, black one, blue ones, multicolored ones, and even one church made completely out of carved unpainted wood, including the many domes.  Both guides told us that the onion shape had nothing to do with vegetables!  (That was their little joke.)  One, clearly with a religious sense, told us that they represented flames reaching up to God, to Heaven.  There can be a single dome, representing Jesus; or three domes, representing the Trinity; or five domes for Jesus and the four evangelists.  The wooden church had 22 domes, but that guide did not say who they represented.  The more secular guide, on the other hand, never mentioning Jesus or Trinity or heaven, simply said the onion shape of the dome was to prevent a snow buildup! 

Which brings me to the point I want to make.  Over the course of time, merely a hundred years, Russia has gone from the most religious country in the world to a place where even the religious aspect of the domes of their sacred places is all but forgotten.  You could blame it on the influence of Communism,  but you would only be partially right.  Consider how the Polish people suffered under the domination of Communist Russia following WWII, and yet they held tight to their beliefs and Poland is the most Catholic country I have ever visited.  We here in the USA are slowly loosing our faith, as we seem to drift from religious practice to secularism, and perhaps even to socialism or communism.  We alone have the power to stop this slide. 

As we heard in the reading from St. Paul to the Colossians, we are called to “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”.  (We saw some beautiful icons of that heavenly scene.)  St. Paul goes on to urge us to “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly”, followed by a long list of our failings. 

We need to keep the faith, no matter the secular governing system we are under.  That’s what the Polish people did; that’s what the Russian people failed to do.  What will we do in times of oppression?  Will we cling to our faith?  Or will - what can I compare to the onion dome snow removal analogy?  Or will the Cross - the Holy Cross - be viewed as just two interesting pieces of wood, devoid of the story of what happened on that Holy Cross? 

The Gospel today does not match the theme on which I have chosen to preach.  However, I would like to take one word from the Gospel, somewhat out of context, and apply it to my theme.  That word is “inheritance”.  This deposit of faith that we have as Catholics is our inheritance, as it was passed on to us by our parents.  We, in turn, must pass that inheritance on to our children; and they to their children, and so on, so that no future generation will lose their faith, as the Russian people seem to have. 

In one small unique village on a lake, they had an enormous, beautifully carved, wooden slide, about half the size of the ski jump at hilltop.  In the winter, children of all ages slide down it on the snow and out on to the frozen lake.  Sounds like fun, but it reminds me of the “slippery slope” to secularism on which we find ourselves.  If we are to “Keep the Faith” and pass on our “inheritance”, instead of picturing yourself sliding down that beautiful slide, envision yourself trying to climb up the steep curving snowy slope as it reaches up to heaven!  Adhere to the admonition of St. Paul, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above … .”  Christ won our salvation by His death on those two “interesting pieces of wood” behind me.  Don’t let His sacrifice be in vane!  “Oh vanity of vanities!”

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