One of the strange things about the last two years of lockdown and restriction is the deleterious effect upon one’s memory. I had forgotten what we did for ashing last year in 2021 and needed to be reminded of how we managed.
Today is actually a day for memory. Remember thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Words which echo through eternity from chapter 3 of Genesis. From the lies and distortions Adam and Eve had tried to tell God in the garden of Eden, He ejects them from primordial bliss:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Genesis 3: 19
Our most primitive memories today are sharpened, there can be no forgetting the frailty of our condition: just a few verses after the cherubim with flaming sword are placed at the gate of Eden, Adam and Eve’s second son Cain kills the firstborn Abel. Lies, violence, death. No wonder our sleepy souls need to be called to remembrance.
We have seen enacted already, what Joel prophesies in the first reading:
Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?
Ancient words from a time of disaster, as the people of Jerusalem prayed for the deliverance, with fasting and prayer. Joel goes so far as to wonder at God’s apparent absence from the impending disaster.
These images are all too redolent, in an international crisis in which we find ourselves. Hot on the heels of a pandemic, we find the world staring down the barrel of nuclear rocket launchers. Perhaps you have friends living in Ukraine, or friends of friends. I have two ordinands there, a third studying here now who previous to coming here had been there for nine years. Our Europe chaplaincy there is a worshipping community whose life is in tatters, as its members are fleeing, living below ground for more than 12 hours a day, or part of the deterrent effort on the ground, as all males between 18-60 are bound to stay and resist if not fight. Our chaplaincy in Moscow is already seeing most of the expats packing their bags.
There are origins to this conflict with significant religious ramifications. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, made an active choice to convert from paganism to Byzantine Christianity in 988 BC.
One of the early accounts, known as a near contemporary chronicle tells, Vladimir sent ambassadors to investigate the religions of his neighbours.
Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no gladness among them, only sorrow.
Vladimir thought Islam undesirable because of its prohibition of alcohol and pork. The chronicler reports him remarking: “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”
His envoys sounded out Rabbis. And they visited pre-schism Latin Rite Christian and Eastern Rite Christian missionaries.
At Constantinople they found their ideal: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth”, in Hagia Sophia they saw, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” Vladimir’s baptism changed the course of Slavic history.
The fact the presidents of Russia and Ukraine both bear the Grand Prince of Kiev’s name is part of that story too.
Earth’s proud empires have passed away: the Byzantine giving way in Ukraine’s southern reaches to that of the Ottomons, in the South and West the Hapsburgs held sway, to the north the Polish Empire, had its brief flourishing. Always to the East, Russia prized the territories on their side of the Deipner river, with fierce determination to see the cradle of Russian culture uneclipsed.
The Soviet Union maintained Russian influence, some would say the effective subjugation of the distinctive Ukranian spirit. Communism’s collapse in the early 90s meant Russian hegemony was decimated at a stroke. Russian nationalist fervour allied with the rapidly emerging Orthodox resurgence.
Russian communities within Ukraine, some of which were there because of Soviet forced settlement, and arbitrary borders, made for a patchwork of communities, not totally dissimilar to areas of the Balkans.
Thanks to Grand Prince Vladimir, Ukraine is largely but not exclusively Orthodox.
There is a religious fault line which runs through Ukraine. To the west, in former Polish strongholds such as Lvov, of course, there are Latin Catholics; in Ukraine’s central and even Eastern territories, there are sizable Greek Catholic minorities, whose influence dates from the earliest days of the Hapsburg and Polish empires and before, when Uniate rite missionaries succeeded in luring the Orthodox to Roman obedience, with the promise of retaining their favoured Byzantine rites.
For the Eastern Orthodox this was very dimly viewed as a conversion technique.
The fully Orthodox themselves straddle the most complex part of the religious fault line.
You may have heard Sara Wheeler’s A Point of View on Sunday on Radio 4. She tells a well-known story of contemporary Russian folk lore. The Russian Patriarch Kyril, a very powerful man in Russia, appeared in an official photo, in all his robes and pectoral icons. Visible was a very expensive watch he was wearing. Attention was drawn to it in ribald press reports, and the photo was removed, and reissued minus the watch. However, its reflection in the glass table top, on which his arm was resting, was still visible!
There are those Orthodox in Ukraine who remain faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate, under Kyril. But most Orthodox in Ukraine support the newly autocephalous Church, under its Patriarch, His Beatitude Epiphanius I, which was granted its independent status by the Patriarch of Constantinople in January 2019. A matter of months later Zelensky was elected President.
Sadly, many Russian Orthodox have moved from being zealous for their new-found faith in the last 30 years, to espousing full-blown nationalism, and not seeing the fundamental difference.
Arguably the recognition of an independent Ukranian Orthodox Church, the election of Zelenksy by a huge majority, and the perceived threat of Nato, have been too much. Without putting too fine a point on it as well, despite his first name, Zelensky is Jewish, and Russian nationalist feeling is increasingly antisemitic.
We are at moment of real darkness, the chaplain of Moscow last night said this is not the start of Lent, in Russia and Ukraine, it feels like Good Friday.
Discipline, fasting and prayer help us to remember: to remember the frailty of our nature. Lies breed violence, violence brings death. It might seem that there is no health in us, that our nature is the misery of sin.
The sacrificial lamb of God, on Good Friday, through his self-offering, breaks the chain of violence; he transforms the hatred, the lies. His body is broken by them, his blood is poured out, as the sponge of vinegar reaches his lips, his body like a sponge itself absorbs the violence and transforms it. On Sunday we heard the narrative of the Transfiguration. Jesus’s suffering is the transfiguration of violence in himself, and as the priest and victim he makes the sacrifice complete. And so death can have no more dominion, violence is not the last word. The Messiah had to die in Jerusalem, the city of Peace. Only his death can make manifest that peace, which is God’s manner of existence, and goal of all things.