01/07/2021, 13.15
RUSSIA
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Pandemic Christmas for the Russian Church

Despite the start of vaccinations, death from COVID-19 still haunts the Russian Orthodox clergy. Orthodox Church leaders are disappointed by the failure of many to respect health guidelines during Christmas services. Putin visited the church on Lipno Island, a place of great value in the country's Christian history.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Today Russia celebrates the solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, 25 December in to the old Julian calendar.

In the middle of the second wave of COVID-19 and despite the vaccination campaign that began at the end of December, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to be beset by numerous deaths among its clergy.

On 5 December, Father Oleg Burlakov (pictured), a very active priest in the Diocese of Shakhtinsk, in the south of the country, died of the virus at the age of 59. Fr Oleg had become a priest at the age of 50 in 2011.

In 2020, the number of dead Orthodox priests and bishops tripled compared to a year before. Patriarch Kirill (Gundyayev) ordered all churches to celebrate Christmas liturgies only in the presence of a few faithful and upon invitation.

Which is what he did for the solemn night celebration at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ Saviour, broadcast on the Russia 1 TV channel.

The patriarch has been in strict isolation since early October at his residence on the outskirts of Moscow, which he left only once on 31 December for the end-of-year service at Moscow cathedral.

In his Christmas message to the clergy and the faithful, Kirill said: “Today, when the peoples of the earth are distressed by the difficult trial of the new disease, when men's hearts are troubled by fear and worries for the future, it is for us particularly important to strengthen community and personal prayer.”

He stressed that “no problem can destroy man’s spirit, if he holds on the living faith and entrusts himself to God in everything,” adding that “no people has not been influenced by the birth of the Lord,” as the visit by the Magi shows.

The Orthodox liturgy highlights the Nativity (the feast of Theophany, that is, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, which takes place from 6 to 19 January).

In a television interview, the patriarch's top aide Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) said that he was disappointed by the fact that “not all parishes observe the health and hygiene recommendations given by the patriarch and approved by the Holy Synod back in March.”

He noted that during many of the services he attended, communion was dispensed without sanitising the spoon used with each communicant, as required.

“Unfortunately,” he explained, “this is the reality of our Church, after all we are not in the army, where orders are given and everyone is obliged to carry them out”.

Hilarion urged priests “not to rely only on their own judgment and personal opinions, but to listen to their ecclesiastical superiors.”

President Vladimir Putin came out of confinement to participate in the night Christmas liturgy in a provincial church on the island of Lipno, on Lake Ilmen (Novgorod region).

Entering the sacred place, the president lit a candle and kissed the icon of the festivity, contravening hygiene and health regulations. However, he respected guidelines by taking the communion with a sanitised spoon.

This is Putin’s second visit to this church, which is dedicated to St Nicholas. The first time took place in 2016 when he was accompanied by then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Lake Ilmen represents the beginnings of Russian Christian history, even before Kiev, in the early 10th century as the so-called Ilmenskaya Rus' of the Great North.

The church was built after the Mongol invasion in 1292 with frescoes from the 13th century. It was one of the main architectural models of the “Novgorod school”, playing a key role in the Christian revival of Russia after the Tatar yoke.

Destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, it was rebuilt by the Soviets in 1956 for its symbolic and patriotic value.

According to a Russian legend, one of those nannies (няня) tell children, a fourth Magi from the Ilmen area travelled to Bethlehem; his Russian-Scandinavian name was Oleg.

However, he was late because he got lost in the taiga, and robbers stole the gift he intended to bring to the Child Jesus.

According to local lore, King Oleg is still wondering Russia’s endless forests, trying to find that gift, Russia’s soul, to give to the Saviour. (V.R.)

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