This year, on Christmas Eve, Patriarch Kirill wrote the shortest text in the fourteen years of his patriarchate: the appeal for a Christmas truce. This document might well have become a masterpiece of the anti-war, peacemaking stance of the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, it turned out quite differently. The appeal for a ceasefire is yet another manifestation of the close alliance between the ROC and the Kremlin and evidence of the patriarch’s complete misunderstanding of his place in the modern world.
The text of the appeal is worth quoting in full. It is simple and laconic: “I, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, appeal to all parties involved in the internecine conflict to cease fire and establish a Christmas truce from noon on January 6 until 12 pm on January 7 so that Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
The call for a truce is a good thing, especially if it becomes a prologue to peace, and is based on a Christian understanding of peacemaking. However, the call for a truce can also be part of a political gamble, and church feasts can also be part of the instrumentalization of religion, a form of manipulation of religious feelings.
All this took place to fulfill what had been said by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”—Matt. 1:22-23
May the Lord bless you with peace, and good will, and joy. From Matthew’s Gospel: “Now, the birth of Jesus took place in this way” (1:18). Sometimes I wonder if Christmas doesn’t actually start—and Advent end—the moment we hear those words in Scripture, they are so delightfully familiar. And the Nativity music and the beautiful troparions and the perfume of Frankincense are filling our days, and the sidewalks smell like Christmas trees for sale, and traditional holiday treats are baking, and colored lights bless us from everywhere—here we are at the threshold of God’s unsearchable gift to us of the Incarnation in the birth of the little Christ Child. For soon, so soon we will celebrate the glorification of the Nativity in the flesh by the Most Holy Virgin Mary of our Lord Jesus Christ. And: “the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth contains him in a cave, Him who is utterly uncontainable” (Kontakion of Holy Nativity, Third Tone).
And yet, we do hear a lot of fretting from Joseph in the story as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew. Another of the traditional kontakions explains it for us: “The chaste-minded Joseph, who before had within him a storm of doubting thoughts, now beholds all-glorious things within the divine cave (Kontakion IV, Akathist Hymn to the Nativity of Christ). Another way to reflect on his concern is to see in it Joseph working out his honorable respect of Mary as sacred to God; perhaps that his very young fiancé is already dedicated to God at this point.
“Rejoice, tree of leafy branches, under which believers are sheltered … Rejoice, O wood most blessed!” Akathist to the Cross, Oikos 7
Rocking around the Christmas tree in my little Norwegian hometown, I got to thinking how the Christian world is filled with trees. Not only the spruce. Not primarily anyway. But the spruce, perhaps, evoked in me just then what I might call an arboreal clarity: trunks appear on all sides of us. As soon as the human being was created, God placed this earthborn creature among leaves and branches. The Tree of Life resided in the center of primeval reality, as the source of life force. On the other side of the Fall emerged the Tree of the Cross, bearing the fruit of Salvation. Their circuit of vivacious power is broken only by another tree, the one of knowledge, whose fruits are fatal. Every Christian knows the story. Still, we tend to forget that Christianity is really a tree religion.
Early Christians knew this story well; imagining Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve, they also envisioned the Cross to be the new Tree of Life. The Lord himself, when wandering the dirt roads of this earth, might speak in Dendric: “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” (Mark 11.14) The fig tree listened, replying by withering—or so the evangelist says. Clearly Jesus identified with greenery. He called himself a vine whose branches were disciples (John 15). And he’d search for similes adequate to describe the divine reality. How can we imagine the Kingdom, he asked rhetorically? As a seed that grows and “becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mark 4.30–32; Matthew 13.31–32). Wings hover freely above the buds that constantly grow and burst with ecclesiastical sap.
Is there nothing new under the sun? Is it the case that all of life is an ordered and predictable cycle? That what has been is what will be and what is done is what will be done (Eccl. 1:9)? This sense of the unending monotonous repetition of human experience is not confined to the early agricultural society in which Ecclesiastes was composed; it is known to us here in the twenty-first century. I drive the children to school today, and I will do the same tomorrow. My husband goes to the grocery store tonight only to return later in the week. The media reports the depressing stories of climate change and pandemic and will report the same next month.
The quotidian often feels monotonous and even oppressive, and this makes us seek difference and change. A new sweater brings a jolt of delight. Walking a different route to work means noticing different houses, people, dogs. But these novelties are fleeting—the sweater is only briefly new for so long and the delight wears off. The new route becomes the old route before too long. The sense that what has been is what will be sinks in. We wonder, is anything really new? Is anything truly novel? Is there any release from this cycle?
Christmas answers these questions with a resounding “yes.”