Ukraine in the Tomb

By Tim Kelleher

"What a difference a day makes." That was certainly the case when, in roughly twenty-four hours, Kiev went from flashpoint for civil war to a field in which the seed of freedom had a chance, finally, to take root.

Changes are following rapidly -- most conspicuously, in Crimea. And while some are perilous, all are contingent upon Maidan.

There's virtual unanimity -- the revolution must translate into stabilizing political structures, fortified against extremism and corruption. An order made taller by Russian intervention.

In a sense, Ukraine is compelled to live simultaneously in divergent seasons, identified in Ecclesiastes as, a time to build and a time to mourn.

For most slain in Maidan, the difference a day made can seem unspeakably cruel. Less than twenty-four hours later, the government responsible was no more.  Their deaths are connected to millions before. Ukraine's independence is born from all of them. And they need to be mourned.

Recently, I referred to the sacrifices of Maidan as a crucifixion.

Remarkable then that Great Lent is arriving now.

The annual journey of rigorous self-examination that culminates in Christ's crucifixion, death, and resurrection, will be closely observed by a vast majority of people, in Ukraine and Russia. Given this context, perhaps the way to mourn the dead most fully would be by entering with them into the tomb.

The Apostles Creed refers to what happened when Christ was interred, "...He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose..." Details beyond this terse intrigue are speculative, but rarely opposed if they fit the sense and proportion the text suggests.

In sacred iconography, such details are depicted in dynamic symbols of liberation; Christ conquering death through death; the gates of Hades, broken beneath his feet in the shape of a cross. Against a landscape strewn with shattered locks, he pulls Adam and Eve up and out from the abyss.

In Orthodox tradition the Church holds mutual forgiveness as the precondition for beginning Great Lent. The four major churches in Ukraine share that tradition. For a long time they have stumbled in the contradiction of being the Body of Christ divided.

However, in the clearing smoke of Maidan there appears an opportunity to take a critical step beyond division. It is a tender mercy being offered, flowing from the wounds of common crucifixion.

In a letter, Fr. Cyril Hovorun, of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), spoke to this:

"...The common effort of the Ukrainian Churches in addressing the issues of social justice and human dignity raised by the Maidan gave a clue to the solution of another problem that has been plaguing the Churches in Ukraine since the country's independence: the ecclesial schisms. The Orthodox Churches in Ukraine are divided not for ecclesial or theological reasons, but for social and political ones. The social divide in Ukrainian society is the real reason of the schisms. By helping to bridge this divide, the Churches help themselves; they thus pave a way to reconciliation and the overcoming of schism."

That reconciliation ought to be recognized as an aspect of the liberation wrought in the tomb. To embrace it would be a blessing on Ukraine, as well as to the urgent cause of Christian unity beyond.

Why this matters politically goes to the heart of human nature. Political affiliations, nationalisms, and ideologies are highly susceptible to becoming veiled extensions of self-insistence. This is true collectively as well as individually.

It is the nature of the Church, however, to do the reverse; to facilitate the surrender of self-insistence. This is radical business.

Religion is every bit as vulnerable. When it succumbs, consequences can be grave. For it is then that the lamb of faith falls prey to a religion turned wolf-in-lamb's-clothing.

In the Maidan priests, the world caught flashes of religious faith -- at the literal center of the public square -- operating heroically in radical mode.

From the four churches they came, standing together in a hazardous breach between warring parties. Their presence was an act of self-sacrifice that threw division into shameful relief. We can hope their example has drawn the first lines of a more graceful paradigm.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, is the largest of the churches "represented" at Maidan. The implications of that are huge, and very much in play in what we see unfolding.

The relationship between the Russian Patriarch and President has thus far been a orchestrated convergence of cross and crown; its justification rooted in the notion of symphony found in the Byzantine codes of Justinian. Here, church and state are viewed as two gifts from God with complimentary duties -- the state defending the church, the church supporting the state.

Those used to a different arrangement do no service by merely dismissing it as medieval. Like it or not, it is the reality. Engaging the appropriate parties in the language of that reality might even prove more fruitful than expressions of righteous indignation, or threats of sanctions, alone.

In Ukraine, there have been some extraordinary gestures, including inter-ecclessial invitations to take the work of unity to a new level and pace. Leaders of those churches, notably Metropolitan Onufry of the UOC (MP), have appealed directly to Patriarch Kirill to exercise his unique position in that church/state symphony to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the physical safety of all its people.

Whatever its claims, they are meaningless if symphony produces anthems rather than hymns.

Mr. Putin is quickly becoming a pariah in the world community. If Patriarch Kirill fails to at least approximate the integrity of the Maidan priests, he risks ostracizing himself from the Orthodox communion, and dealing a blasphemous blow to the unity called for by Christ himself.

Great Lent has begun, and each of the key parties in this crisis -- especially those who call themselves Christian -- must decide whether they will stand guard with the emperors' soldiers outside the tomb, or take their place inside, and in due humility, await the emancipation of their Redeemer.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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