“Ministering to God”: A Reflection On the Life of St. Innocent of Alaska
Our scripture readings today (Heb. 7:26-8:2 and Jn. 10:9-16) present a number of names for us of our Lord, the Great High Priest (Heb. 7:26, 8:1), the Door (Jn. 10:9), and the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11, 14). These images heard first in the Law and the Prophets (Ps. 118:19, 20; Ps. 23:1, Is. 40:11, Ez. 34:15) now resonate in the books of the New Testament. As the Great High Priest, Christ, blameless and holy, pure sacrifice and exalted above the heavens, offered himself once for all, both priest and victim. Priests of the old law no longer offer sacrifices, no longer mediate between God and man. No, we the assembly of the first born come no longer to what can be touched, to a blazing fire, to the darkness and gloom. We no longer seek the sound of the trumpet, or shy away from further heavenly messages. We have come to Holy Mount Zion, the city of the Great King and Priest, to the God of Gods, to Jesus, who has mediated this our new relationship with God through the sprinkling of his own blood. Our God stands now ready to receive our worship and consume us all with the all-consuming fire of his love (cf., Heb. 12:18-24, 29).
These other images do not have the same liturgical or cultic context. They do however offer us a different part of the revelation of the mystery our Almighty God. Our Lord tells his disciples that he is the door, through which we can attain salvation by through our association with the shepherd's sheepfold. We enter through the door, which is Christ, to find Christ there again, waiting for us, leading us to pasture. He is the Door, the Gate of Righteousness, the Gate of the Lord, through which the righteous, those redeemed from death, pass to find the "Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20)," who sought the lost, brought back those who strayed, who bound up the cripple, who has strengthened the weak, and who even now keeps watch over the strong (Ez. 34:16). Behold, having heard the scripture, our ears have become our eyes and we can hear and see the Lord, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, coming in might, the gentle shepherd feeding his flock with the food of his own sacrifice. He raises his mighty arm to rule, gathering tenderly his sheep. Our reward, our recompense is with him as he holds us to his bosom(Is. 40:10-11). The Lord is our shepherd; we have no want. We are in the Church beside still water, our soul is restored (Ps. 23:2, Rev. 17:7).
As these words have revealed Christ more deeply, more profoundly to us, they also increase what we know about this great saint, St. Innocent, whom we commemorate today. These words we read today, high priest (which is the translation for ἀρχιερεύς, archpriest, what we translate not so accurately as bishop or hierarch), door, shepherd do not actually narrate the deeds his life, which are fascinating and worthy of consideration, rather they mark him with Christ. St. Innocent is not the Great High Priest or the Door or the Good Shepherd. Christ is. St. Innocent did share in the work of Christ. He desired this noble task (I Tim 3:1). As a bishop he offered the same sacrifice Christ offered, and on his behalf, St. Innocent distributed this same offering to the faithful. As a good shepherd above reproach he tended to God's flock, knowing how to manage them (cf., I Tim 3:5). Consider the testimony of his own words, his record of what he did on this same day—though it was a Sunday that year and was yet still a priest – in 1829:
I celebrated matins and the liturgy, at which was read the appointed sermon.
After the liturgy, I celebrated a prayer service of thanksgiving to the Lord God,
who kindly allowed me to fulfill with blessings my own desires and those
of many others by finishing the translation of the holy gospel. (Journals of
the Priest Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska, 1823 to 1836, (J. Kisslinger, trans; S.A.
Mousalimas, introduction and commentary) (The Rasmuson Library Historical
Translation Series VII, Fairbanks, AK 1993) 114-115.)
This entry highlights for us a typical day in this untypical man's life. As a bishop, he celebrated the services, ministering to God Most High; and as a bishop he worked together with this same God to bring His Word to the Alaskan people. High priest, good pastor, the door to the pasture, these words continue to sound for us today. As a hierarch St. Innocent is their echo, loud and clear, even after long ago they first proclaimed Christ.
Blessed is our God—the Good Shepherd—who has not rejected us as we have rejected him, but works with us and through us, with our weaknesses, our frailty, in these great men, who bring Christ in to the world and the world to Christ. Blessed and worthy of all praise is this man, St. Innocent, who like so many other saintly hierarchs, these co-workers and servants of God, whom God took and worked with and allowed to do his work as high priest and good shepherd. These men brought to God all they were, their diverse skills and talents, their learning and education, together with what they lacked, their ignorances, their failings and he compensated for them all. Where they lacked, he gave. Where they failed, he succeeded. Where they succeeded, he gave more in abundance. They offered to him themselves and he did not reject, but accepted and added more upon more, grace upon grace of is priesthood. Today, we celebrate St. Innocent, but we give thanks to God, who is glorified in his great saint (Ps. 89:7).
The gospel today tells us that we the sheep know our shepherd's voice (Jn. 10:16). We know him as he knows us (Jn. 10:14). He knows our voice. In glory, honor, and thanksgiving to him, let us praise him for his good and faithful servant Innocent. We can ourselves be good and faithful in our festal gathering, standing as we do before the throne of the Living God honoring this righteous men made perfect. To him, let our honor also be given. We can also have great confidence in him, know that he continues his work as a good shepherd and will intercede on our behalf to the Great Shepherd, so that we, like Innocent, will find ourselves amongst the sheep of his fold in the pasture of his elect (Ez. 34:30-31).
The Very Rev. Alexander Rentel offered this homily on Orthodox Education Day, 2012, during the morning Divine Liturgy.