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Rejoice, intercessor for the Russian land!

From the Service to St Alexander.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris was built in 1861 on the initiative of Fr Joseph Vasiliev, the chaplain at the Russian Embassy. Thanks to generous donations from the Russian community and a personal contribution from Tsar Alexander II, plans were drawn up for a church to be built in the eighth arrondissement of Paris on Rue Daru. It was dedicated to St Alexander of the Neva, known as St Alexander Nevsky. Who is this saint and what is the spiritual significance of this dedication in Paris?

Alexander was born of pious royal parents in 1219. His father was Grand-Prince Yaroslav, the great-grandson of Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh, his mother was Princess Theodosia. He was brought up in and around Novgorod and in 1233, at the age of only fourteen, he began to rule in Novgorod. Such were his maturity, experience and the help he gave those who had suffered natural disasters that he soon came to be loved by his subjects. From 1236 he ruled as the independent Prince of Novgorod the Great. However, storm clouds were looming on the horizon.

First of all, in 1237, Russia was invaded by the Tartars and Mongols under Baty, the grandson of Genghis Khan. It seemed as though all Russia was to be laid waste by them, but in 1238 the forces under Baty, miraculously, turned south and Novgorod at least was spared destruction. At the same time, however, Russia was under threat from the West by the crusading Swedes, Lithuanians and Teutonic Knights. On 9 December 1237 Gregory IX, Pope of Rome, ordered the Swedish Archbishop of Uppsala to launch a crusade against the Russian ‘schismatics’. Pope Gregory IX promised forgiveness of sins to all who took part and eternal blessedness to those who died in their slaughter.

If Novgorod were to fall to the Crusaders, who had been sent out by the Pope of Rome against the Orthodox, then Russia would be finished. Physically, it would be destroyed under the Tartar-Mongol yoke, and spiritually it would be destroyed under the yoke of the Latin Crusaders. Russia was caught in a vice from east and west, crushed from both sides. All eyes looked to the young ruler, Alexander of Novgorod, for salvation. If Novgorod could fight off Latin spiritual enslavement, only then could there be hope in more distant times for freedom for the whole of Russia from the physical enslavement of the Tartars.

More disasters came in 1240, when the Tartars reached Poland, Moravia, Hungary and Dalmatia. If only the Latins had combined forces with the Orthodox, together they could have fought off the Tartars. Instead of this, following the call of 1237, in 1240 the Latins treacherously attacked the Russian Christians, in order to enslave them, both physically and spiritually. Russia was attacked from the north by the Swedes, who together with Norwegians and Finns were led by Count Folkung Birger, the son-in-law of King Erik of Sweden. Alexander went to pray in the Cathedral of St Sophia, the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, in Novgorod, proclaiming his famous words: ‘God is not in force, but in truth’. On St Vladimir’s Day, 15 July 1240, Alexander and his small force won a miraculous victory against a much larger force on the River Neva, traditionally where St Petersburg now stands. Composed of arrogant Swedes, this force had had Latin priests prepared to baptise the ‘schismatics’

This was not to be the only great victory of Alexander, for free Russia was still threatened by the Teutonic Knights further south. In 1240, these had taken the town of Pskov and in the winter of that year they had advanced to within twenty miles of Novgorod. However, having freed Pskov, on 5 April 1242, Alexander defeated these Knights too on Lake Peipus (Lake Chud) in the famous ‘Battle of the Ice’. In this way he saved Russia and the Russian Church. Rome was forced to sue for peace, while Alexander advanced westwards to Lithuania, freeing those oppressed by the Teutonic yoke.

At the same time as rebuilding the north of Russia, Alexander was still forced to pay tribute to the Tartars. But he preferred to accept humiliation from them, rather than suffer spiritual destruction from the West. Thus, he showed great courage against the Latins, but great humility with the Tartars. Never for a minute was he tempted to yield to Latin cunning, which promised help against the Tartars, providing that Alexander became a Latin himself.

At his end Alexander became a monk, taking the name Alexis. Soon after, exhausted by his sufferings at the hands of the Tartars and the Latins, he reposed on 14 November 1263. His funeral was an occasion of miracles and St Alexander was at once considered a saint, even though he was not formally canonized by the whole Church until 1547. His miracles include the healing of the deaf and blind and of those who suffer illnesses with their legs and arms.

After the foundation of St Petersburg at the turn of the eighteenth century, Peter I founded the Laura of St Alexander Nevsky in St Petersburg on the reputed site of St Alexander’s victory. This great Monastery was completed on 30 August/12 September 1724 and St Alexander’s relics were enshrined there. It is on account of this that the Paris Russian Cathedral was dedicated to St Alexander, linking it to the then Russian Capital St Petersburg and also to Tsar Alexander II. However, it should not be forgotten that beyond this, there lies the real significance of St Alexander and the reason why he is a saint and guardian-angel of the Russian Orthodox Tradition.

At a time when Russia was under attack, Alexander chose to follow the Gospel: Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10, 28). Today, when the Russian Church is often attacked, it would be fitting if St Alexander Nevsky were remembered again in Paris and elsewhere, not only as the imperial symbol of St Petersburg, but also as the actual reality of the triumph of truth over lies. May it be understood that the real enemy of all Orthodox is hardly the Russian Church, whose martyric survival is based on the Sermon on the Mount.

Our real enemy is Western secularism, the ideology which preaches the primacy of this world over the Kingdom of God, the primacy of the material over the spirit, the primacy of that which kills souls over that which saves souls. Since atheistic Communism was merely a variant form of Western secularism, it is the Russian Church that is in the very vanguard of the battle against secularism. She leads the struggle in a way which the Non-Orthodox world cannot, for by its very origin and essence it is compromised by secularism. On this day, when plans have been announced to open another 200 Orthodox churches in Kiev (unthinkable in any Western capital), we must understand that if Orthodoxy is to survive in Western Europe, it will be through the Russian Church leading the way. It is for all Orthodox to work with, and not against, the Russian Church, uniting with her spiritual forces.

Holy Right-Believing Prince Alexander, pray to God for us!

Fr Andrew

30 August/12 September 2007
Translation of the Relics of St Alexander Nevsky (1724)

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