Christmas divides the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox
The Ukrainian autocephalous Church would like to switch to the Gregorian calendar, used throughout the world and a reference for Catholics. The Metropolitan of Kiev calls for celebration on 25 December and no longer on 7 January. The staggered dates, however, favour ecclesiastical exchanges between the two communities.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - The head of the Ukrainian autocephalous Church, Metropolitan Epifanyj (Dumenko) of Kiev, has again intervened on the choice of the date for Christmas, which in the Orthodox Church of the Eastern Slavic countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia) is celebrated on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 according to the Julian calendar.
The reform of the Gregorian calendar, the one now in use throughout the world, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The Russians established the Moscow Patriarchate seven years later, and the insistence on the old calendar was one way of distinguishing themselves from the 'heretical' Christians of the West. In the non-Slavic Orthodox Churches, the issue is not as symbolic, and many of them have adapted their liturgy to the Gregorian calendar.
Epifanyj believes the insistence on the Julian calendar is "an error that needs to be corrected", as he said in an interview with Radio Svoboda. The Metropolitan explained: "I think that within about ten years we will be able to bring the dates back to normal, let's see how we will be able to achieve this transition, for which extensive information work will be needed". In fact, the issue risks further stirring up conflicts with the Russian Orthodox, especially since liturgical dates have traditionally been a source of misunderstanding among Christians since ancient times.
Ukraine is a multi-confessional country, with large Catholic and Protestant minorities celebrating on 25 December, drawing the local population well beyond denominational affiliations. When it comes to the Orthodox' 7 January, the festive mood is far meeker, with the civil New Year prevailing over the religious holiday.
In the context of Ukrainian disputes, the issue also accentuates the harmony between the autocephalous Orthodox and the Greek Catholics, united by ritual tradition despite their different jurisdictional obedience: the former submit to Constantinople and the latter to Rome, but niether appear greatly contradictory today, when compared to Kiev and Constantinople's disagreement with Moscow.
The move by Epifanyj, who has already repeatedly reiterated his preference for the transition to the universal calendar, is not, however, an anti-Moscow provocation. In fact, even in Russia the date of 25 December, while remaining a working day, is widely honoured, albeit on a "secular" and consumerist level, by analogy with the rest of the world, distinguishing between pagan "Christmas" and Christian Christmas.
In the past, Russian Catholics had been willing to make the opposite sacrifice, more for Easter than for Christmas, by adapting to the Gregorian calendar. No such agreement was ever reached, not least because the divergence of dates basically makes it possible for ecclesiastical hierarchs to pay each other courtesy visits on their respective dates, and for mixed families to celebrate Christian holidays twice.
On 19 December, for example, it was the turn of the Russian variant of the feast of the nation's patron saint, St Nicholas of Bari, to which Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), first aide to the patriarch of Moscow, paid a visit. He was also received as a guest of honour in the city hall by Mayor Antonio Decaro. The double feast, which is repeated in May and December, allows the people of Bari to celebrate and promote the international prestige of a saint from the East, who is also capable of uniting the West without being overly concerned about calendars.