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The Rehearsals

Author: Vladimir Sharov

Translator: Oliver Ready   Cover design: Marie Lane  

In 1939 Isaiah Trifonovich Kobylin ceased to be a Jew, and
the Jewish nation, of which he was the last, ended with him.
For two thousand years Kobylin’s ‘stiff-necked’ people, as the
Lord had called them, did not want to repent and turn to the
true faith, for two thousand years, indulging the impious, they
obstructed the Second Coming of the Saviour for whom all
believers were praying and waiting, and now, when the life of
Jews on earth had ended, the time was at hand. Time for Him
to appear in His glory.
I learnt the story of the Jews’ extinction from Kobylin
himself in Tomsk in 1965, but I’ll begin seven years earlier
and on a different topic. In 1958 I began my studies at the
University of Kuibyshev (Samara), in the Faculty of History
and Literature. That same autumn I got to know a man who was
trying to understand God. His name was Sergei Nikolayevich
Ilyin. We met every evening all winter and spring, taking
strolls in the little park by Freedom Street. He preached to
me, then disappeared from my life when he saw that I had
understood his teachings. Ilyin was seven years older than me,
and at the time of our acquaintance he was working as a guide
at the Alexander Radishchev House Museum.
I myself was baptised when I was three months old, with my parents’ tacit consent, though ostensibly without their
knowledge. The ceremony was carried out by my nanny in
the church of her native village, Trinity, six miles south of
Kuibyshev on the banks of the Volga. She was dismissed soon
after: she turned out to have a rather unpleasant skin condition
– probably psoriasis – and my religious education went no
Ilyin was half-Russian, half-Jewish. His mother, who hailed
from an old rabbinic family, was a baptised Jew, while his
paternal ancestors were no less illustrious: they were merchants
who helped found the famous Old Believer settlements on the
Irgiz River. The nation to which a promise had been made and
the Son of Man had been sent, but which had not accepted
Him and had not followed Him, was combined in Ilyin with
the nation to which nothing had been granted or promised, but
which had believed in Christ and would be saved. Their bloods
had not mixed well, and Ilyin’s face was asymmetrical. He
was fond of saying that in medieval times he would have been
burned at the stake as a succubus or incubus who had been
branded with the devil’s seal. Now, casting my mind back to
Ilyin, I realise with some astonishment that during our strolls I
always walked to his left, and it is only his left, Jewish side –
dark and sad – that I remember clearly.
There was a particular rhythm to Ilyin’s speech and even
to his train of thought. Just as, during a tour of the museum,
he would single out the crucial, stress-bearing words, deeds
and objects in Radishchev’s life and skim over everything in
between, merely sketching the general outline of events with
his rapid stride, so too with Christ: as he tried to elucidate
what it was that had come with Him into the world, that had
been proclaimed by Him to the Jews and other nations, Ilyin
consciously avoided dividing the temple of his understanding into side chapels and altars, and merely laid the cornerstones
of his faith; he built the frame but not the walls or the roof,
keeping everything as it might be in the desert – open to the
four winds.
That November, the trees on the path were bare and heavy,
like pillars, and our progress between them seemed less like
a stroll than a set itinerary; we had a topic, a purpose, and a
pace to match. As he selected the stone he needed, found a
spot for it and placed it, Ilyin would slow right down, almost
emphatically dragging his feet, but once he had completed this
part of the task he would effortlessly make up for lost time, as
if with a single brushstroke. The evenly planted trees set off
the unevenness of his own progress, but he took no notice: for
him the trees were just a scale by which to visualise the size
and proportions of his own construction.
He would say to me: ‘Seryozha, put your trust in God,
love Him, remember Him; do not hide from Him, tell Him
everything, let neither joy nor grief bring you shame; believe,
ask, pray. He is there for you; His face is turned towards you.
He will understand and He will help.’ Prayers reach God,
Ilyin would say; prayers work and prayers matter, not least to
Him; they are a connection between Him and us, a connection
that binds us together and makes us His – God’s – creatures,
without which we would be nothing to Him and He to us, and
we would know nothing about Him and would not believe in
In the Bible, Ilyin would say, God creates and God rests,
He suffers and grieves, feels sadness and remorse, He walks,
sees, speaks, looks, hears, remembers, smells, He loves and
envies, rejoices and rages, punishes and forgives; He has eyes
and ears and strong hands in which He holds the sceptre and
the enemy-slaying sword. These human things are said about God in the Torah not because there were no other words to
choose from, or because human beings were in their infancy
and would have understood nothing without them; no, God
really is like that and really does feel all these things, for our
rage and joy, our remorse and sadness, our attitude towards the
true and the false are also created in the image and likeness of
His rage and joy, His sorrow and love.
Ilyin would say: nobody knows and nobody can know the
Lord in his entirety, but we can and must understand the part
of Him that is turned towards us, the human part. The Lord
wants us to understand Him, wants more from us than faith,
good deeds, repentance, and observance of the Law. He needs
us human beings to understand Him, to be children, yes, but
children who can reason. Were this not the case, He would not
be able to teach or explain anything at all, and we would be
complete strangers to one another.
Christ, Ilyin would say, is not only the true God and the Son
of God – He is the Godman, and His two natures, divine and
human, cannot be separated and cannot be fused. They make a
whole precisely because they both come from the Lord and are
both created in His image and likeness, resembling each other
so much that they are inseparable in Christ. Christ the Godman,
moreover, is a metaphor for the relationship between God and
human beings, for what that relationship will look like when
people repent and follow the path of righteousness; then, not
only will we be granted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and
not only will we receive Holy Communion – the blood and
flesh of Christ – several times a year, but we shall all be united
forever in Christ, and in Him and with Him we shall be united
with the Lord.
Ilyin would say: the Lord could not do evil, and in fact there
was no evil in the world before man. There was knowledge of evil, but not evil itself. The world was like an alphabet, which
had been given to us for our good, but which could be turned
to evil. The Lord made man, and man was the first to be given
the opportunity and the freedom to do both good and evil. The
Lord believed that man, knowing what evil was and knowing
that he could do it, would himself choose good and do good,
so the world which the Lord had brought into being was good.
Heaven was the time of man’s childhood. Playing, he gave
names to the animals and the fish, the birds and the trees, to
everything that the Lord filled His world with and that would
live with mankind. Heaven was where man came to know
good and evil, and came to know them too soon, while he was
still a child and his soul was still raw. His first act of evil was
to break the Lord’s interdiction, then run and hide; this was
merely the sin of a foolish child and yet, having once appeared
in the world, evil began to beget evil, it multiplied and grew,
and man, whose soul was ill-trained to distinguish good from
evil, merely helped it along in his ignorance. We fight evil and
think that since it is against us and since we are fighting it we
must be good, but that’s not true. The other man also thinks
that he is good and that by fighting us he is fighting evil, and
in this fight two evils come together and a new one comes
into being. We do not understand, or we forget, that good is
something entirely different, that good is what everyone will
see, from wherever they happen to be looking.
Evil, Ilyin would say, is a retreat from God, a wall between
Him and us: we can see the Lord neither over it nor through
it, and we remain all alone in a world where there is no God,
where there is only us, and then, bewitched by the fact that we
are alone for the very first time, that there is no one above us
and we are free to do evil, we do it again and again. The wall
between us and the Lord grows higher and higher, our faith weakens, and around us there is nothing but evil, the evil in
which we are drowning and choking, but even then He will
hear us, even then He will save us, if there is just one person
amongst us who will repent and turn to Him.
Ilyin would say: many claim that the Jews of the Old
Testament do not act as God’s chosen people ought to act.
They kill the innocent, they renounce and betray the Lord, and
it’s hard to understand what’s so special about them. These
same people say that the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are
not divinely inspired and that it is far from clear how and why
they entered the canon. They fail to understand that the books
of the Old Testament are a conversation between God and
human beings, the most important of all the conversations that
man will ever hold; everything they contain – the treacheries,
the betrayals, the renunciations – actually took place. This
is the path man walked, the story of his return to God, and
there is nothing more important than that story or a single
one of its parts, each of which is a part of the path towards
knowledge of the Lord: good or bad, every step of this path
must be preserved in its entirety and must be accurately and
fully conveyed, whoever it was that walked it.
Ilyin would say: the life that Christ the Son of God lived
on earth was a time without precedent – for God, for man,
and for everything there has ever been between God and man.
All the previous times known to us when God dwelt on earth,
including the seven days of creation, are as nothing compared
to the thirty-three years that Christ spent in the world. To be
closer to man, the Son of God even accepted the human flow
of time. The experience which both God and man drew from
thirty-three years of the most intimate contact – and I am
speaking not just of those who followed Him, but above all of
God and Man within Christ Himself: that is where it all began, and it was only after He spent almost thirty years getting to
know man within a single body, as if inside Himself, where
there can be no separation, no view from the outside, that He
went off to preach to the chosen people – well, this experience
was the foundation of the next two thousand years of human
history. Without it we will understand nothing either about the
events of the New Testament or about what followed.
Ilyin would say: from the moment the Jews appeared on
earth, the basis of everything that tied them to God throughout
the ages was faith, daily prayer and sacrifice. There was also
something else: the fact that He had chosen them, that their
fate and history had meant more to Him than those of any
other people; after all, at the very beginning of their existence
the Lord Himself had come down into the world, spoken to
them and exhorted them, even if later this happened more
rarely. When the Jews multiplied, they remained bound to
God, as before, through prayer and sacrifice, but He also
gave Moses a Law for his people, and this nation even built
a kind of dwelling place for the Lord – the Temple. When the
nation sinned and forgot God, which happened often enough,
the Lord sent prophets to exhort the people in their faith and
righteousness, to lead them, as if they were blind, onto the
path of truth. So it continued for more than a thousand years,
and it seemed that a lack of faith was the one and only cause
of every woe, but on the cusp of the era, when Rome already
controlled the entire Mediterranean and even Judea, a great
deal changed. Never before had there been so few idolaters in
the country, and never before had the rituals been performed so
irreproachably in the Temple; hundreds upon hundreds of the
most learned Levites continued to analyse and apply the laws
given to Moses, and there was only one thing driving them:
the fear of committing sin before the Lord. These interpreters and teachers of the Law were more respected than anyone else
within the nation, because the guiding aim of all the Jews was
the avoidance of sin. At that time the majority of those living
in the Promised Land was prepared to accept exile and death
if it was the only way of keeping the Temple pure. And during
the Jewish War, just a few decades later, the Sicarii, Zealots,
Pharisees and many Sadducees would indeed go into exile
and perish, losing their land but remaining faithful to God.
This loyalty would endure through two thousand years of
persecution and execution, and only those who stayed faithful
would be Jews, while the others would not; they would spread,
scatter and dissolve among other nations, and no memory, no
trace would remain of them.
Ilyin would say: even so, the Jews, for all the devotion
they showed Him, are still guilty before God; even in God’s
Promised Land, evil multiplied year after year, filling His Land
to bursting, and neither the Lord nor their faith could contain
it. The Lord saw and knew all this, saw that His people were
devoted to Him – exactly how devoted is, of course, not for
me to say, but more so than ever – and that they were ready for
what lay ahead. But His world was greater than the Promised
Land, and it was not only Jews who lived in it.
So the Jewish nation was scattered over many different
lands, it settled and mixed with many different peoples, who
learned from the Jews about the Almighty, the one whom, in
the time of Noah, they had once worshipped themselves but
had managed to forget long ago, living ever since like foolish
children who knew no sin. Another story of good and evil.
Learning about God once more, they learned that they had,
as it were, become strangers to Him, and also that they were
not children and had not been children for a very long time,
and they immediately felt so much sin upon them, felt so worthless and so lonely, that they were sure they could never
be saved. The Jews had no desire to help them, and they only
had themselves to blame. So when news of God reached the
nations, they were further away from Him than ever and no
longer cared how much evil was upon them. They, too, were
His children, however prodigal and sinful, but they had moved
away from Him and had not yet taken a single step back
towards Him, nor did they wish to, because they thought they
were strangers to Him and He would not accept them. And
anyway, the path towards Him was so hard that there was no
point beginning. So then the Lord came to them Himself, and
came, as they learned, through His people.
Ilyin would say: the Lord decided to live the life of an
ordinary man, to live it far away from the Temple, in a place,
Galilee, where there were more pagans than anywhere else and
where faith was weaker, to live a full life – childhood, youth,
maturity – and live it piously and honestly, in full observance
of the Law. When that life was over, He would know what to
do next. We should emphasise, by the way, that the Law is not
questioned by the Son of God here or anywhere else, even in
part. He says: ‘Therefore whatever they tell you to observe,
that observe and do’ (Matthew 23). ‘Do not think that I came to
destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but
to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass
away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law
till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least
of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called
least in the kingdom of heaven…’ (Matthew 5). And perhaps
most importantly, both for us and for an understanding of the
entire fate of the Jews, just think how loyal they were to the
Covenant if, despite all the thousands of miracles worked by
Christ, they judged whether He was truly the Messiah solely by His devotion to the Law.
Ilyin would say: was Christ a real person? I don’t think
so. Yes, He was conceived by a mortal woman, who carried
Him in her womb and gave birth to Him, but His conception
was, and had to be, immaculate, and Christ was free of original
sin, the burden which we have borne, bear and will continue
to bear until the end of time. All the same, the Lord, having
assumed the image of Christ and having united in Him with
human nature, found Himself closer to man than He had ever
been, and His experience of life on earth, among ordinary
people, His experience of sharing human, mortal and, for
Him, infinitely deficient nature was the most important event
in human history since Abraham went out from Ur of the
Ilyin would say: Christ is different from man. He is pure
and without sin, feels that He is right and has every right,
knows that both this world and that world are His, that He can
always leave the earth to which He has descended, that He
will leave it and will ascend. And there is something else: the
world has been created by Him and can be changed, remade,
reformed by His will; in other words, He, Christ, is its master,
and try as the Lord might to relinquish His omniscience and
omnipotence, Christ will not manage to absorb man’s view of
the world entirely until the very last hours and minutes of His
life, just before He is led to Golgotha, and then on the cross
Ilyin would say: uniting with man in Christ, the Lord wants
to recall and renew His own knowledge that such a union
with the human race is possible, that it is organic, essential,
inevitable. It is, as I have already said, a prefiguration of what
awaits us all. The Lord’s expectations become reality: the
Son of God and the Virgin Mary is born on earth, but in some peculiar way, even before the infant Christ begins to walk, His
birth ceases to be a secret and changes the world. Everything
changes: the structure of life, the commensurability and
correlation of its parts, the very edifice of life, and even
notions of right and wrong; yes, right is still right, and sin
is still sin, but in the gap between them something has been
disturbed, displaced, distorted. Many people lose their way,
confused by the lodestar that guides the Wise Men to Christ,
and the aim these people have always set themselves, knowing
that their own strength is limited, suddenly disintegrates and
can no longer be true, at least not while Jesus Christ still
walks the earth. I am reluctant to say this, but it would seem
that when Christ appeared on earth, only one path remained
to the righteous in the country where He lived, in Israel: the
revolutionary, lightning path walked by the Son of God and
His disciples.
Ilyin would say: the Wise Men and the shepherds, who
lived beneath the stars, were the first to notice this disturbance
in the natural order of life and to see how powerful it was:
God had come down into a world where man was meant to
look after himself, and it had proved too cramped for Him.
This disturbance of the normal way of doing things, this
overwhelming advent of God on earth (remember that nothing
similar had ever happened before, or has ever happened since)
inevitably altered the fate of His chosen people – the Massacre
of the Innocents in Bethlehem was just the beginning.
On earth, the Son of God took the road which the Jews
had been walking for two thousand years. Retracing their
flight from hunger, He flees to Egypt and hides there, escaping
persecution, and when people in Palestine have forgotten all
about Him, He goes back and lives there, unobtrusively and
unnoticed, for almost three decades. He is waiting for His time to come to pave the path for His nation, the path which the
nation should walk and will walk, just as Christ Himself did,
in its entirety, from Nazareth to Golgotha. And so, the first part
of the life of Jesus Christ is the life of a man of His people; it
ends when He turns thirty and a second life begins – the life of
a prophet and Messiah who foretells the destiny of the Jews.
Even so, He does not begin it right away.
Ilyin would say: John the Baptist, just like the Wise Men,
knew who Jesus was, knew He was the Son of God, and could
not fail to know this, which is why he said to Him: ‘I need to be
baptised by You, and are You coming to me?’ But at that point
nothing had been decided yet and another forty days separated
the lives of Jesus the man and Jesus the Messiah: His baptism
by John, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the long fast in
the desert, during which the devil tempted Christ three times,
tempted the man in Christ, and only when the man had resisted
and endured did Christ become the Lord’s Anointed. One can
feel, in the conversation between Christ and John the Baptist, a
certain tentativeness on Christ’s part. Perhaps this was because
the time of His mission had not yet come, perhaps because
His trial had not yet ended, but it seems – though nothing is
actually said about this – that initially the Son of God was only
meant to be incarnated as a man; after all, it was the fault of
man and no one else that the world had become as it was.
Ilyin would say: the fact that the Lord sent another, greater
prophet while John the Baptist was still alive, that He sent His
own Son, should not be taken as proof of John’s inadequacy
(as was assumed in the disputes between John’s disciples and
Christ’s); no, the appearance of Jesus Christ and His teachings
signified something else: they signified that before He, the Son
of God and the Saviour, had come between God and humanity,
man had lacked the ability and the strength to overcome sin.


RRP: £12.99

No. of pages: 355

Publication date: 19.01.2018

ISBN numbers:
978 1 910213 14 8
978 1 910213 61 2

World English