At the end of January, what were perhaps the largest protest rallies in the last ten years took place across Russia. The protests were sparked by the arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had returned to his homeland after medical treatment in Germany. Back in August 2020, Russian special services had tried to poison him, and Navalny spent several weeks in a coma. Two days after returning to Russia, an investigative filmabout Vladimir Putin’s alleged private residence (“Putin’s palace”) was published on Navalny’s YouTube channel, where it has received more than 100 million views to date. These events became the starting point of the protests. During the rallies, the police carried out a record number of arrests, which caused a new wave of anger.
During times like this, the painful realization that Orthodox Christians, especially post-Soviet Orthodox Christians, do not have a theological language to speak about political events becomes especially acute. This is true both for those who are outraged by the authorities’ actions and for those who support them. Orthodox political speech today is discrete and is a repetition of the same old commonplaces: “There is no authority except from God”; “Not peace, but a sword”; “To Caesar what is Caesar’s”; “The church is outside politics.” But around these commonplaces, no narrative, no meanings or interpretations, no concrete rule or guidance is formed. They are thrown into the public space and immediately recoil back.
Each year since his death in 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann’s legacy is evoked through an established annual lecture in his name at St. Vladimir’s, the theological seminary in New York in which his ideas flourished, nourishing generations of clergy and faithful and, through numerous publications and lectures, reaching the broader world. A permanent academic chair or annual event implies that the individual named represents a benchmark of thought and achievement for the institution, a legacy which his spiritual heirs are committed to honor and promote. Here, I ponder how Fr. Alexander might formulate the Church’s response to the crisis of our time.
In a foundational idea of his work, perhaps best expressed in his famous lecture, Between Utopia and Escape, Fr. Alexander advocates for the middle path between two extremes—a sectarian isolation from the real world at one pole, and at the other pole, its counterpart of “progress” towards an ephemeral secular utopia. Yet his proposed middle path is not a compromise between the two extremes, but rather the victory of an ascension out of both dead-ends towards an eschatological vision of the tangible, real world, the home of the Incarnate Lord of history.
On this great feast of Theophany, we celebrate Christ’s baptism, when the voice of the Father identified Him as the Son of God and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. Epiphany reveals that the Savior Who appears from the waters of the Jordan to illumine our world of darkness is the God-Man, a Person of the Holy Trinity. He is baptized to restore us, and the creation itself, to the ancient glory for which we were created.
Tragically, our first parents turned away from their high calling and ushered in the realm of corruption that we know all too well. God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin when they left paradise after disregarding Him. Through their disobedience, they had become aware that they were naked and were cast into the world as we know it. Their nakedness showed that they had repudiated their vocation to become like God in holiness. Having stripped themselves of their original glory, they were reduced to mortal flesh and destined for slavery to their passions and the grave. Because of them, the creation itself was “subjected to futility…” (Rom. 8:20).
There has been a lot of excitement this December regarding an astronomical phenomenon known as a great conjunction. This great conjunction, also known as a planetary conjunction, is an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn with Earth that is visible in our night sky. A great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last came this close in the night sky nearly eight hundred years ago. However, this year for a few days beginning on December 21st (which also just so happens to be the winter solstice), these two planets aligned so closely that they could appear as a single point of bright light in the night sky. Because this year’s great conjunction occurs so near the date of Christmas, some have referred to this great conjunction as a “Christmas Star.”
Anyone familiar with the narratives about Christ’s birth is aware that a star led certain magi to the newborn Jesus—details that are found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12 versus Luke 2:1-21). Was this star that appeared at Jesus’s birth a great conjunction, or was it some other kind of astronomical occurrence such as a supernova or comet? A close look at Matthew’s birth narrative indicates that the star seen by the magi cannot be reconciled easily with any natural, astronomical occurrence. First of all, it is by observing this star’s rising in the sky that the magi gain the knowledge that they must find “the newborn King of the Jews” (2:2) in Jerusalem where they travel from their distant “Eastern lands” (2:1). Moreover, this same star later leads them accurately from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, at which point the star finally stops above the house of Mary and Joseph where the newborn Jesus is to be found (2:9-11).