Saturday, April 16, 2022

Holy Days, Unholy War: Ukraine’s Suffering Continues

Soon we will begin the celebration of Easter in the West. We will rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus, and be renewed in hope on our journey toward the fullness of God's Kingdom even in the midst of many present trials.

As I noted, however, at the beginning of Lent, Eastern Christianity's seasonal feasts follow the pre-Gregorian calendar, which often results in a different date for Christmas and Easter. This year, the celebration of the Resurrection in the East will be a week later (April 24) than in the West.

For Russians and Ukrainians - whether from diverse strands of the Orthodox Church or from the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church in Ukraine - tomorrow is the beginning of Holy Week, of walking the Way of the Cross. Looking at the burned-out ruins of Ukrainian cities and the mass graves of Ukrainian civilians wantonly murdered, we don't have adequate words.

What kind of madness has seized the brain of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? 

He has been Master of Russia for 22 years, and he has had his own way without opposition in a vast country full of people longing for a better life, and with abundant natural resources to be plundered with impunity … and also used for the common good. He is nearly 70 years old but is apparently not satisfied with the scope of his empire. Instead, he has unleashed the terror of a full-scale offensive invasion and shameless indiscriminate slaughter upon a brother Slavic nation, and he doesn’t even have the honesty to call it “war.”

The Ukrainian people - already subjected to so much violence from previous Russian rulers and to the unspeakable brutality of Stalin’s genocidal artificially engineered murder-famine in the early 1930s - are once again under the fist of a Russian dictator who not only crushes them but has the audacity to claim that he is doing it “for their own good”!

Poor young Russian soldiers: they have been told lies, fed illusions, and poured into the sovereign territory of their neighbor country in a cruel and aimless fashion, and not surprisingly they have fought poorly and chaotically, with a disastrous combination of incompetence and destructiveness. Their personal deeds in the war no doubt are various, and we don’t know how many have soiled themselves with rape and murder, how many have followed orders from habitual fear, how many have wept over the confusion of the “special operation” gone horribly different from what they were told, how many have found the courage to resist the unjust orders of their superiors and obey instead the law of God. 

We rarely know the stories of the ordinary soldiers in the wars especially over the past century, so many of whom were conscripted by force, armed with weapons more powerful by far than any known to human history, and driven out to play the power games of corrupt rulers. The the leaders of the West have their fair share to answer for also in this “Hundred-Years-(Plus)-War” that has, in part, created the globalized world we all share today for better and for worse. Many good things have been accomplished in the global village, and peoples of the world have come to know, appreciate, and empathize with one another as never before. We are learning new ways of working together.

We must work together, because this same globalized world is full of unprecedented violence, not only with its continual local wars everywhere fed by an international arms trade, but also with all its monstrous structural overreach and inequity, its poisoning of the health of our planet, its sundering of the delicate and gratuitous relationships of families and communities from which cultures arise and history is perpetuated. Let us have no illusions about “the West,” which has little to offer the Ukrainian people beyond a woefully compromised (and yet mysteriously tenacious) awareness of the importance of human dignity, intelligence, freedom, and responsibility. These are the most noble natural gifts with which human persons are endowed, but which contemporary westerners - long accustomed to a cultivated ignorance of the One who gives us these gifts - have twisted toward the unmoored pursuit of our own small, confused, and often contrary urges, impulses, and whims.

Can we respond more adequately to Putin’s unvarnished, unjust brutal war that mocks our pretenses? Right now it costs little to “cheer for Ukraine,” but we have no idea how the ensuing months and years will unfold. This is, after all, a war that began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of civil war in the Donbas. Most of us in the West lost the thread of those events when other more novel distractions began to dominate our Twitter feeds. But the war continued and self-appointed Tsar Putin made his plans.

Ukraine as a nation, and the Ukrainian people are Putin’s victims, even as they surprise the world with their justifiable efforts to defend themselves. What will become of them? Pray that the Lord gives them the courage and the mercy to open their hearts to a readiness for reconciliation and forgiveness, so that their suffering hearts might not harden into vindictiveness and a spirit of vengeance that will only perpetuate the cycle of violence. 

The Russian nation and people are also Putin’s victims, from his ideological lackeys to his duped soldiers to their parents who worry about them and mourn them, to all the people whose minds are spun by new multimedia forms of vintage KGB propaganda tactics, to ecclesiastical leaders who cannot bring themselves to challenge a temporal ruler who answers to no one - clerics who perhaps unconsciously wish they had a hierarch to appeal to, an Apostle with authority founded on something stronger than the confines of their “national church” or particular heritage - however great and ancient it may be.

Easter Sunday approaches imminently in the West, and soon in the East. Here in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate victory over death, but let’s pray that this victory can be reflected - however tenuously, with whatever fragility - now, in the circumstances of this temporal historical moment.

Pray for Vladimir Putin. His war of aggression is an offense against God, against humans created in the image of God, against the body of Christ who shares our humanity, and especially Slavic Christians, brothers, who must spend these upcoming Holy Days fighting and killing, brother against brother … and how shall they then approach the Holy Mysteries of the Eucharistic Body and Blood of their Risen Savior on the feast of Great and Glorious Pascha, on Sunday April 24? This coming week, Christ will weep and sweat drops of blood in Gethsemani for them.

Jesus, we trust in you. Convert the heart of Vladimir Putin. Heal his blindness. Move his heart to STOP THIS HORRIBLE WAR! Let him initiate the real penance he must take up for his own and his predecessors’ crimes and outrages against the Ukrainian people, and all the other afflictions imposed on peoples and nations by what the Virgin Mary called at Fatima “the errors of Russia.” Even by the world’s standards, Russia has not yet reckoned with its past hundred years, with the Soviet Communist epoch, with the blindness of its leaders and protagonists. Russia cannot really claim any legitimacy even as a regional leader in the Slavic world until it passes through a period of humility, seeking forgiveness, and what its own great 20th century literary prophet Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “self-limitation” and “inner cultivation.” In the years of his great struggle against the still-intransigent and systemically repressive Soviet Union in the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn insisted that the Russia of the future would not be able to ignore or continue to lie about its ugly 20th century crimes. Yet the lies continue and grow stronger. The mendacious myth of Stalin as a national hero grows in proportion to Putin’s neo-Stalinist consolidation of personal power.

Lord have mercy on Russia. Convert Russia. Free her so that she might share her true and profound gifts with the world.

Lord have mercy on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Protect them. Give them grace to bear their sufferings. Reawaken more deeply their religious sense and the depth of their faith.

Lord have mercy on the West, on we who gorge ourselves with excess and ignore those in need, we who have forgotten our souls and are bewildered about our bodies, obsessed with appearances, worn away by envy and self-loathing, or just overwhelmed and broken by a society too fast, too superficially demanding, too invasive of senses and interiority.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, All-Holy Theotokos, pray for us. Virgin of Tenderness, pray for us.