Russian Christmas

Russian Christmas

Today, the Virgin Mary is the most vital and the one who brings the inviolable to earth. Angels and shepherds praise. The Wise Men travel with the star. For us the child is born, the Eternal God.

This is the Kontakion [Editor's note: The Kontakion, or Contacio in current Italian, is a typical hymn of Eastern Christianity, formerly originated from the setting to melody of a part of the sermon, generically of the Church Fathers or Saints, and later codified as its own hymn] sung for the feast of the Nativity of Christ in the Russian Church. This great feast is the focal point of all Christian teaching, and because we are Christians, this is the essence of our destiny. We are not just abstract 'Christians' living in an unknown time and place. We are Russian Christians living in contemporary Russia. To be conscious participants in our destiny, we must understand where we live, how we live and how we feel the time and place of the greatest event in human history, the Nativity of Christ. This raises the question of the Orthodox understanding of space and time and the relationship of this understanding to our place and time.

Sometimes the Russian feels the trajectories of the angels' flights piercing and sharp, it is only necessary to look away from our surroundings, to close our eyes to open other eyes - eyes that look in another direction, inwards.

Thus, our Kontakion begins with the words 'Today the Virgin'. "Virgin" is the adjective "virgin", i.e. Virgin Mary (usually this word always has the accent on the first syllable, the accent on the second syllable is what distinguishes Our Lady from other Marys), "today", "this day". What does this 'today', 'this day of Christ's birth' mean for us? If we approach it from a secular position, i.e. if we do not believe in what the Church teaches and, consequently, if we do not believe in God, in the reality of His being and power, then this "today" has a historical-symbolic meaning and the feast itself has a remembrance character. That is, 'today' 7 January we commemorate an event that happened over 2000 years ago. But for believers, this is not the case.

For believers, God is above time and everything about him is not measured by human temporal measures. In the Church and for believers, the 'today' of the quoted Kontakion is precisely 'today', 'now', 7 January Not as metaphor, but as reality. The event of the Nativity takes place now, "today". Christ is born at this moment and radically changes the destiny of the world, the destiny of nations, our destiny.

In the 'now' two times collide: everyday time and the time of eternity, eternity bursts into time, changes it, transforms it into something different - a magical moment that changes all the proportions and certainties of existence. In the magical time of Christmas, being is torn apart by the flash of divine presence. This rending did not happen once (and it is as if we remember it now); if we believe it, it is happening now. This is indicated by 'day'.

"Day after day the Substance is born". The pre-existent is he who was when there was no being, he who precedes existence. Time is born with existence, as one of its most important dimensions. But the Substantial is beyond time, because it precedes existence, yet the Kontakion tells us that the Substantial, God himself, comes into being exactly 'now', now. Therefore, there is a "now", a "today" that is able to contain that which is timeless. This is the greatness of the Good News: it informs us that something unprecedented, unheard-of, impossible has happened, which destroys all philosophical constructions, all arguments of common sense. From the point of view of common sense, from the point of view of the 'wisdom of the world', it is a kind of 'madness'. That is why St Paul says: "Has not God turned the wisdom of this world into folly? Because the world, in its wisdom, has not known God in the wisdom of God, it pleased God to save believers by the preaching of foolishness" (1 Cor 1:20-22).

Now, for us, particularly for you and me who find ourselves at this moment on 7 January 2016, what is more important: common sense, which suggests we are dealing with lofty allegories and beautiful metaphors, or straightforward fact, rejecting all contrary arguments of faith? Whether we believe in God, whether we are Christians, depends on the answer. It all comes down to this 'day', to how ready we are to understand it, to receive it. If we transcend reason, we open up a new dimension in time: the dimension of the substantial, the dimension of the event, the dimension of Christmas.

By relating to this 'day' we can tell everything about ourselves. It is not just about each one individually, but about people, culture, civilisation, country, society. If we have a Christmas dimension, we are one. If we do not and it is a formal homage to a recently rediscovered cultural convention, we are another. The second means that we are not Christians, that we are not orthodox people and unorthodox societies. The first means that we are in the midst of the greatest of miracles, eclipsing all possible miracles.

Here we come to 'the earth'. "The earth brings the untouchable to the touchable". A cave, that is a burrow, a hole in the rock, a mountain, a depression. The earth is separating, making room in its dense structure for the Substantial and the Untouchable to manifest in it. It is now a miracle of place, of space. The Untouchable is God, for he is above all corporeal forms in the world, above space. But in his mercy he voluntarily allows himself to be 'touched', born on earth, in our world. To receive him, the earth must give space.

Of course, according to common sense, it would be an infinitely large place, not a cave, but, according to our faith, the cave was small, modest, capable of containing only the divine Child, the Mother, Joseph the Just, and a manger, a donkey and an ox... A great abyss would not have been sufficient to contain the Unborn One. Nor would it contain Him, but Orthodoxy teaches us that a cave is sufficient. Here is the cave - the earth must move, must make room - the most important place in the history of the world, the most important place in space.

Now the question is: where is this earth that 'brings the Untouchable to the cave'? You say: in Bethlehem of Judea, called "the house of bread". Where, however, is the 'house of bread'? Again, the dividing line: for those for whom 'today' means 'then', 'a long time ago', 'land' means 'another land', 'a distant land', 'that land'; hence the question of her 'bringing forth', preparing, releasing the cave is a matter for her, but for true believers it is not so. This land is our land, the Russian land.

If time has rolled to the blessed night of the Nativity of Christ, to the placing of the Substance in the 'day', then another miracle, another magic happens - the 'land of the faithful', the land of Christ, the Russian land, our land must bring the Untouchable to the cave. That is, our land must separate, move, try to make a holy place for the presence of the Lord. This is a Russian crib, which cannot be there, but must be here. It is the Russian place freed for the Nativity of Christ, the place we must prepare, open, cultivate, create.

The cave is an empty place, it is not cluttered. Christ is born on earth, where there is free space, where there is empty space not yet cluttered with meaningless life, and if it is cluttered, it is cleared for the great moment. Let it be small and simple, but it must be empty, clean, prepared. This grotto is the soul of the Russian people, it is our churches, where people flock to celebrate Christmas.

Isn't Russia the 'House of Bread', and doesn't almost our entire history consist of the labour of cultivating bread? 'Peasant' comes from 'Christian'. He who cultivates bread from age to age, builds the 'House of Bread', builds the Russian Bethlehem, makes the Russian Land worthy of the Nativity. It is a land of the Nativity. It is a magical land that is 'here'. It is true, it will be 'here' and not 'there', if we are true Russians, true Russian Orthodox Christians, and not good-for-nothings... And how should we treat this Christmas land, our country, our expanse, our place with the thought of Christ? Is this how we treat it?

On this earth, at Christmas time, meanwhile, 'angels and shepherds' gather for the 'glorification' of the 'prevelation of the miracle'. God's highest spirits, the 'lights' with the simplest shepherds keeping watch at night. The highest joins the lowest at the point of the Nativity. Both angels and shepherds sing 'reasonable light' beyond all reason and shepherds flock to the crib to marvel at the wonder of miracles: the birth of God. Who are the angels? Clearly they are not us, but sometimes the Russian man feels the trajectories of their swift and sharp flights, it is worthwhile to turn away from our surroundings, to close our eyes to open others - eyes that look in another direction, inwards; but the shepherds - the shepherds - can also be us. In this case, if we keep watch when everyone else is asleep. Only those who are awake when everyone else is asleep can expect to be on the ground around Bethlehem on the blessed night, the holiest of all nights.

"If it were mathematically demonstrated to you that truth is beyond Christ, you would agree that it is better to be with Christ than with truth."

Now we see perhaps the most important thing. "But the Magi walk with the star". Who are these wise men? They are Persian magicians, but magicians with their gifts - gold, frankincense, myrrh - are part of a magical place and time and are therefore only 'Persian' if Christmas is for us a memory of the past and not an actual event. The important thing is that we are talking about the Russian word for 'wise men'. The Persians did not know the scriptures, they were not under the law. They were the first to come to worship the God-man in his incarnation, not the Jews, but the Persians, not those within the law, but those outside the law. They came to Bethlehem from afar, from outside.

In Judea itself, however, the ruler Herod is far from happy about the Saviour's birth and is preparing to cut off all the first-born children born that night. "Blessed is he who takes and dashes your children against a stone!" (Psalm 136). Those near and law-abiding prepare to smash the heads of their children, those far away go to worship the infant God. The Zoroastrian magicians waited for their 'saviour', Saoshyant, and worshipped fire, but they made a crucial choice at the crucial moment: they believed in the true Saviour of the world, they chose fire instead of the splendour of the substantial Light. There is wisdom in those who are far from the law, from the true Faith, but wait - truly, stubbornly, fiercely - for the truth and the hour comes when they must gather.

The Russian Magi gather their gifts - here and now, to arrive at the blessed spot at the blessed moment.

The way of the Magi is the way of Russia, of the Russian people, the people who are always waiting. Waiting calmly, sullenly, stubbornly, focused, waiting even when there is nothing to wait for, when waiting is stupid and useless, when you have to snap and throw everything away... But they wait. For centuries, in circles, in the infinite expanse of our time. However, the time will come when in the East (note: in the East - not in the West, Satan has fallen in the West, all that comes from there is an electric flicker of stray lights from the swamp of St. Elmo) the star will be lit. A star as a sign for the Russian Magi, as the fulfilment of Russian expectations. It means it is time to get ready to leave.

Where are we going? To Bethlehem, to the Bethlehem manger. When? - "Today", "now", "now", and what can we bring? - The gold, of course, has to be found somewhere else, and in the last centuries of our history we have replaced the sacred incense with other substances and substances, other smells and mixtures - we do not smell of incense, but of oil - which is even uglier, of deodorant or lotion. However, everyone has his share, his little treasure. The Russian man still has his heart and this is what must be given. So that there will be no more of this. Give it to the newborn Christ, our God, and live without a heart, let it be better in his little baby hands.

Now we come to the Russian star. The star is a bright spot in the night, a hole in the blackness of the vault. A small patch of living light. It is our heart. We are going, guided by the light of the Russian heart - one for all, which we will give, bring as a gift. This may give the impression that this will happen in the future, but the fact is that the Persian magicians, expecting salvation to come 'one day or another' according to their ideas of fire-worship, at some point realise that 'tomorrow' has arrived, that the future is now present, that it has come true; then a heart star flashes in the black firmament and they leave. Their task (our task) is to arrive on time. That is, at exactly midnight on 7 January 2016.

And here is the end of the Kontakion: 'For us the child is born, the eternal God. God is born for our sake. Not by himself, not because of him. Because of us and again, not for an abstract "us", for the sake of Russians. Of course, not just for the sake of Russians, for the sake of Russians of all. But for us they are all Russians. It is all concrete, not abstract. Let no one be offended, but go to Bethlehem, travel with a star and praise the Nativity of Christ. We will meet there, but only 'there', when it becomes fully 'here', when we have been transformed by the time and space of Christmas. At that moment, the words of the Gospel will resound in every language. It will be a translation from our language - if our language is truly Christian and Orthodox, if we ourselves are the people of Christ.

"For our own good" cannot fit, it is too much, but in the Nativity everything is too much: the Substance is born, the Immaculate One is found in a simple manger, the higher heavenly spirits take sides with the shepherds, the Virgin gives birth and nurses the swaddled child, who is - 'a child' - the eternal God. Everything is incredible, everything is magical, everything is beyond the horizon of a sane mind. Dostoevsky has a theme in one of his letters, later taken up in The Brothers Karamazov: 'If it were mathematically proved to you that truth is beyond Christ, you would agree that it is better to be with Christ than with truth'. We have heard of these mathematical proofs and almost all of us have repeated them for almost a century. If the truth is against Christ and the miracle of His Nativity, then spit on the truth. This truth has no value, it is not, in a word, Russian truth. Russian truth is a contestable truth, the truth of what cannot be, but is. Moreover, the only thing that is.

Being on the side of the Nativity of Christ at the moment of the Nativity of Christ: this is the choice the Russian people make/have made/will make. Otherwise, not only will it not be, but it does not exist and has never existed. The Russians are against the truth, if the truth is not Christlike, it is not Christlike. And even Christless Russians are not Russians, like some 'leftists', some who don't understand who they are....

Happy birth of Christ! For 'unto us a child is born, the eternal God'.

Video in original Russian from 2016