04/23/2022, 20.36
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Orthodox Easter amid death and rebirth

by Stefano Caprio

Holy Week rituals and traditions are exploited in Russia and Ukraine. The mid-June Jerusalem meeting between the pope and the Moscow patriarch has been cancelled “until better times”. Going against the current, Metropolitan Onufriy's offers hope: “[T]he world lives for the sake of those righteous who have placed in their hearts the Risen Christ, the Strong and Mighty God, who made them strong and powerful. Such people sacrificially love the whole world”.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The Paschal Mystery was born to free the Chosen People from Egyptian slavery, ultimately proclaiming victory over death and all the attacks by the Evil One. 

Never as this year has Easter marked the cusp between two opposing realities, as it does in Russia and Ukraine – the Red Sea to cross with the miracle of divine assistance, drowning the Pharaoh’s armies of knights and chariots. 

Easter is a passage, Ukraine is a border, and war is the dominion of Evil. Amid the tragedy of slaughter and cruelty, the descent into hell of the Risen One is the icon that rises on the field of life, even before church walls.

In Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and All Ukraine, head of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, urged the faithful to stay home, and avoid night gatherings in churches that could provide the occupying and invading enemy with an opportunity to carry out further massacres, a few days before the liturgical Holy Sepulchre. 

Conversely, the Moscow Patriarchate is warning that Ukrainians – cursed by Moscow as tools of the devil, who get themselves killed in order to blame their Russian liberators – might use the Easter holy days to “organise provocations”.

Not since Soviet times have liturgical celebrations been used to fuel a sense of terror in this part of the world. Under Stalin and Brezhnev, very few churches were open in Kyiv and Moscow for Easter. Very few people dared cross police barriers knowing that they could be arrested and deprived of their rights.

In the gulag, priests squirreled away raisins and bread crumbs to celebrate the Eucharist of the martyrs, who often truly gave their lives to bear witness to the faith.

In addition to openly persecuting religious believers, Soviet authorities organised large public events to replace religion with their ideology and other sacred symbols that proclaimed Victory, Socialist Labour and Revolution.

Today, with Ukrainians forced to mark Easter literally underground in shelters with increasingly devastating rockets and bombs falling on them, the ostentatious Easter celebrations in Moscow and other Russian cities is impressive, with flowers arranged in triumphal arches, Easter eggs decorated with the letter Z, the ideological swastika of the holy war that ushered in the new religion of the Russian World, albeit seen as heretical by many Orthodox in other countries.

Various patriarchal spokesmen timidly noted that “nothing is needed alongside the traditional Orthodox symbols, which have always been unchangeable;” hence, in view of certain reports, it is inappropriate to paint Z on church domes or eggs and Easter sweets to be blessed in church.

Yet, for Moscow Church official Vakhtang Kipshidze, “outside celebrations, it is good to back grassroots initiatives in support of the country; even in the past, loaves were given forms appropriate to the events they celebrated”. Thus, Z-Easter and Z-Orthodoxy are acceptable.

Patriarch Kirill started the Paschal Triduum by consecrating the Chrism, the sacred Miron with a thousand perfumes. In his address, he urged those present “in these times of suffering to pray for the gift of the Spirit that we especially need, that the Lord may enlighten the minds of those who lead us, sustain the spiritual and physical forces of all our people, to obtain His grace and mercy." 

The patriarch called on people to choose between the woman who pours perfume on the head of Christ, giving herself, and the wicked Judas who wanted to use the money for his projects and profit, between faith and ideology.

Amid such proclamations and paradoxes, true religious feelings, faithfulness to real traditions, faith mixed with politics, and the claims of earthly domination are put to the test, in a way never seen in centuries.

Today, words such as West and East, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, emperors and patriarchs take on new perspectives and definitions, showing how the human illusion of imposing reason over religion has not changed the weaknesses of human nature, the original sin of pride, of divinisation oneself and one's own power and ideas.

Without faith, human easily lose reason. In Russia, decades of atheistic propaganda have sown confusion, clouding people’s minds, starting with Putin and Kirill, to the point that religion is used in a violent way that even anti-religious ideology could not express. 

Soviet communism hated America and the West because it put the individual above the collective, personal freedom before social unity; Putin's religion makes war on the West because it corrupts the minds of Russians, prevents the recognition of the moral superiority of one people over all others.

If Stalin was the “Father of Nations” and got priests to praise him, Putin wants to be recognised as the new “Word Incarnate”, representative of the people whose mission is to save everyone, head of the church of the new Apocalypse. The Kremlin has already announced that "the president will be in church for Easter services, as per tradition.”

Today only Easter can stand in the way of the powerful. As Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, head of the Catholic Church in Moscow, said: “The Cross is our only hope”.

In his message, Patriarch Kirill greeted the heads of the “heterodox Churches”, most notably, Pope Francis, Armenian katholikos Karekin II, Katholikos of Cilicia Aram I, Metropolitan Mar Thoma Matheus III of the Malankara Church of India, Patriarch Mara Awa III of the Assyrian Church and Maronites Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.

Kirill of Moscow reminded these leaders that “the Lord Jesus’s victorious resurrection from the dead broke the chains of sin and death down the centuries, so that ‘we too might live in newness of life’ (Rom 6:4), and ‘that your faith and hope are in God’ (1 Pt 1:21).”

In announcing the Resurrection to the whole world, the Russian Patriarch expressed his wish to share such "immense spiritual joy with those near and far".

Yet, despite this desire, the meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow in Jerusalem in mid-June was scrapped “until better times”.

The patriarch bowed together with the people before the Cross itself during the morning service on Good Friday in accordance with the Byzantine liturgy of the twelve Gospels.

After the fifth Gospel, which introduces the texts of the Passion, Kirill sang the antiphon “Today He Who Hung the Earth Upon the Waters is Hung on the Tree”, carrying the cross with the image of the Crucified One from the altar and iconostasis, before the proclamation of the seven Gospels of the sufferings of the Saviour. 

On Holy Saturday eve, the "holy fire" arrives from the Lord's Sepulchre in Jerusalem, an exclusively Orthodox miracle in which flames are lit without human intervention, to be immediately sent to all the Orthodox churches of the Patriarchate of Moscow, in Russia and elsewhere.

Many believers and non-believers hope that Easter might be a time of truce, replacing overnight deadly explosions with the fire of the new life given by Christ.

The horrific war seems to be coming to an end. Hopefully, Ukraine will not be totally destroyed and its future endangered in what some media call the “Easter genocide”; otherwise, this would be mean that Russia could never be a place for universal fraternity among Christians.

In recent days, in certain military districts, some barracks and other military facilities have been the target of arson attacks by unknown protesters opposed to the madness of war, trying to prevent their children from dying.

As a result of the war, Ukrainian refugees are everywhere. Thousands are in Russia, especially from the disputed Donbass. They seek no celebration of military victories, nor are they interested in which country or Church rules; all they need is hope for the future, and be able to return to their destroyed homes. 

Despite stains of schism or heresy, people need the Church and the Churches, whose one hope is Christ's return from the underworld to proclaim a new life.

“This year the Lord visited us with a special trial and sorrow,” said Onufriy (Berezovsky), primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), in his message of hope to the faithful. “Let us not grumble nor lose heart, for by His Resurrection, Christ the Saviour defeated evil”. In so doing, “each person has received a key with which he can and must open Paradise.”

The prelate went on to say, “And today there are earthly Angels in the world, strong spiritual warriors who, by faith in the Risen Christ, overcome evil and for whose sake the Lord has mercy on all of us sinners. Such holy ascetics are often near us, but we are not interested in them, so we do not see them.”

Ostensibly, “We believe that the world lives for the sake of our economic, political, scientific and other achievements, but, in reality, the world lives for the sake of those righteous who have placed in their hearts the Risen Christ, the Strong and Mighty God, who made them strong and powerful. Such people sacrificially love the whole world”.

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