On the occasion of the centenary of the anniversary of the martyrdom of Elizaveta, Grand Duchess of Russia
There is no place for pride in our Christian faith.
With God it does not matter if this world considers us ‘wise’.
With God it does not matter if you have human power.
Indeed human wisdom and power seem to be a problem.
Paul writes how God chooses the weak and foolish of this world rather than the wise and the strong.
The wise think that they can find salvation through wisdom or knowledge.
The strong think that they can find salvation through their strength.
But those who recognise that they are weak and foolish know that they cannot rely on wisdom or strength and so have to turn to God.
Today we remember Elizaveta Feodorovna, the wife of Grand Duke Sergei, the sister of Empress Alexandria and relative of Prince Philip. It is the centenary of the anniversary of her murder by the Bolsheviks.
She certainly was born into all those things that the wisdom of this world says are important: privilege, beauty, power and wealth. But from her childhood, through the influence of a godly mother, she realised that there are other things that are far more important.
And after the assassination of her husband in 1905, she gave up her privilege, power and wealth.
She went to visit her husband’s murderer, forgave him, begged him to repent and even interceded (unsuccessfully) for him to be pardoned.
She sold her jewels and spent her money on founding a convent, hospital and orphanage.
That convent was re-established in the early 1990s, and now serves both as a place of prayer and as an orphanage for children with cerebral palsy, and a respite centre for children who are critically ill. We went there with the Archbishop of Canterbury last November.
And Elizaveta became a nun, living the life of a nun, wearing the habit of a nun, devoting herself to prayer and working tirelessly - along with the other nuns - among the sick and poor of Moscow. She tried to set up an order of Orthodox deaconesses which combined both prayer and action. That came to nothing.
And she became a martyr.
After the revolution, Lenin ordered the Chekha to arrest her: he is quoted as saying: ‘virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the world revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars’.
And so, 100 years ago, on July 18, 1918 she was executed - beaten then thrown into a disused iron mine, 20 metres deep, together with other relatives of the royal family. Some survived the fall, and the soldiers (and we have a first hand account) heard them singing an Orthodox hymn. So they threw in hand grenades and then burning firewood. Elizaveta survived both of those, and died either of starvation or from her injuries. In October 1918, when the territory was taken by White army soldiers, the remains of their bodies were discovered. And Elizaveta had, even at the very end, found strength to bandage the head of one of her dying companions with her wimple.
By no account, could it be said that Elizaveta was one of the foolish or weak of this world.
Even as a nun she remained a Grand Duchess.
But she used her wealth and her status - not for herself, not to have a comfortable life, not even to save herself at the end. Because of her status she had two opportunities to leave Russia after the revolution. Instead she used it to support churches, monasteries and charitable works.
But her story shows us that it is possible to have status, to be powerful and intellectually gifted and to know that is not about status and power and wealth. It is about a complete dependence on God, a knowledge of God that is a gift of God, and a knowledge that leads to love of God, and a love of God which enables us to love people in Jesus’ name.
Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will’ (Matthew 11.25-26).
There is a story of how, on one occasion, Elizaveta went to visit a orphanage for girls. The children were taught how they should greet her and were told that they were to curtesy and kiss her hand. But when she turned up, the little girls got confused and stretched out their hands to the Grand Duchess saying, ‘Kissing of hands’. Their teachers were horrified. But the Grand Duchess, with tears in her eyes, came up to the girls, bent down, and kissed the hands of each of them.