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Today, January 7th, many Orthodox Christians around the world witness the celebration of Christmas. For Russians and most Slavic people, this day IS Christmas, and the western celebration on Dec 25th is a workday.
This is not an innovation. It is actually because an innovation was never made to the Julian Calendar, which is followed by most Orthodox Christians in the world, so it lags behind the civil calendar by 13 days at present. So, for the Church it is today which is December 25th.
In Russia, this brings an interesting shift in present-day life. The Communist times were not able to destroy all the Christmas traditions, but it did shift many of them. Father Christmas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) became “Grandfather Frost”, and got a sidekick, the “Snow Maiden”, and the celebration that is accompanied by what is unmistakably a Christmas Tree got centered on New Year’s Day. To this day, even in post-Communist Russia, it is New Year’s that gets the bulk of attention. This is an unwitting blessing, for it takes away the commercialized emphasis that Western Christmas has associated with it. Instead, the Nativity retains its character as a religious holiday in a very pure form.
The celebration of the Nativity of Christ, features very beautiful church services, lasting many hours. The one this author attended last night ran nearly six hours long, from 11pm until 4:45am. The church was full of people from beginning to the very end. These people have endurance. As an American, to see the patience and dedication of the Russian people in church is humbling, especially that of the people who stand for that entire length of time.
The Russian Church has suffered greatly under the hale of Communism, but, starting in the late 1980’s and accelerating till today, the Church has regained much of its traditional role in this country as the “guardian of the conscience of Russia.” The government and the Church work in a manner foreign to Western understanding, called “symphonia”, and this is a renewal of the ancient Byzantine model of government, where the Caesar (Tsar) was, in essence, a “bishop in charge of State affairs,” and hence a Christian believer, and responsible in his own office to uphold the Christian faith and principles in all secular and governmental matters.
While we do not have a Tsar today, some emulation of this structure exists, surrounding president Vladimir Putin. He has long been a Christian believer (yes, even while in the KGB), and as he has grown older, he has shown an increasing level of commitment to protect Christians wherever they may be. (This is actually part of the reason Russia got involved in Syria in 2015, because Syria is also an Orthodox Christian center, with a Patriarch resident in Damascus for the Antiochian Orthodox Church.)
The concept of symphonia means that the Patriarch of Moscow has significant say in the direction the country takes. The Western narrative is that the Church is the “toady” to the State here, with Vladimir Putin, the thug, running the Church. And there are some Russian people who hold the same view. But the truth of this is the opposite, and most Russian Orthodox believers know this to be true – that the State is increasingly striving for symphonia with the Church, to gradually realign the country with the values appropriate to a Christian nation.
Every Christmas the Patriarch sends out his own greeting, just as President Putin does at the very end of each year. This year the Patriarchal encyclical highlighted the remembrance of the beginning of the tragic period of Communism, which began just 100 years ago in 1917. He highlighted the theme of the love of God even in this terrible time, because the people that would be needed to help the Church survive this fearsome persecution were set in place, both in the ranks of clergy and laity, and they endured through the trial, even though the Church was all but destroyed.
Further, Patriarch Kirill pointed to things today:
Today we are undergoing a special period: afflictions have not yet left this world, every day we “hear of wars and rumours of wars” (Mt 24:6). Yet how much of God’s love is poured out upon people! The world exists in spite of the forces of evil, while human love and family values abide in spite of the unbelievable attempts to destroy, desecrate and distort them. Faith in God is alive in the hearts of the majority of people. And our Church, in spite of decades of persecution in the recent past and the endeavours to undermine her authority in the present, remains and shall always be with Christ. (emphasis mine)
In a world that seems often like it is coming apart at the seams, most particularly in the West, this message speaks to much of the heart of the matter. In this author’s experience, the ability to truly be “red-pill” – one who sees and faces reality – is impossible without the basic understanding of the way things are. Although one tries to avoid a sermon here, it is pretty much impossible to be truly reality based without some sort of understanding that we are not the highest power in the world, and that there is Something or Someone that is.
Russia seems to be one of the very few places in the world where this relationship is understood and put into practice. This is the real reason the Western media and politicians are so antagonistic, because to be traditional is “uncool”, “outdated”, and “not with the times…” – but the things that crowd to replace traditional values all share a very destructive tendency – to put people out of touch with their own reality, to deny the truth, and to blame everyone around them and insist that the world is full of persecutors and victims, with one’s self always the victim.
Russia stands in a much more honest and reality-based frame of reference than this. And one major reason for this is in the souls of those thousands, maybe millions of people who stood for hours and hours in churches across the Russian land last night and today.
To all, a very merry Christmas!