Uliana Krekhovets’ The Crucifixion of Bucha, with the bodies of executed civilians bound at the foot of the Cross. Photo courtesy Uliana Krekhovets

Ukrainians ‘are living the Resurrection’

  • April 14, 2022

The bodies in the street, the abandoned tanks, the blackened and collapsed buildings, the bewildered and exhausted survivors who speak and weep before television cameras do not merely tell us the news. This Holy Week the bulletins from Ukraine are teaching us about God.

“If you understand, if you take the crucifixion from John’s Gospel, it’s the moment of glory,” said Pontifical Oriental Institute rector Fr. David Nazar. “It’s not the moment of abject suffering and death. It’s at that very moment when the glory of God is revealed — not afterwards in the Resurrection.”

The Canadian Jesuit spent 12 years in Ukraine as regional superior of the Jesuits there, after six years as provincial superior of the Jesuits in English Canada, before his appointment as rector of the Orientalum in 2015.

Thinking about the Cross, reading the news in terms of the paschal mystery, are not strange or far-fetched ideas for Ukrainians.

“It’s a very spiritual culture,” Nazar said. “Not because of but despite the Soviet period. People prayed all the time.”

Leading a graduate faculty of theology in Rome that is now home to Ukrainian theologians who can’t yet return to their country, and in constant contact with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Lviv, Nazar’s sense of what the war means is grounded in Ukrainian spirituality and culture.

“These people are living the Resurrection while being nailed to the Cross,” he said. “The Church is alive and is doing all the things that should be done. It’s helping people. It’s serving people.”

The Cross is not a comfortable place, points out Ukrainian PhD candidate Mariia Ivaniv, who is studying in Toronto at the Sheptytsky Institute of the University of St. Michael’s College.

“The Resurrection is really present on the Cross — theologically, yes,” Ivaniv said. “But I’m not sure that some Ukrainians already feel it. They just feel all these passion things, like Good Friday… I just don’t know if everyone really can find such a strong faith sometimes. It’s so difficult, especially after Bucha.”

Since April 2 images and reports have poured out of Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, showing bodies dressed in civilian clothes lying in the street. Many of them were apparently tortured, bound and executed by Russian troops who had occupied the city for two weeks.

“The main thing that’s keeping me is that God was, is and will be suffering with us,” said Ivaniv. “He was killed with all these kids. He suffered without food and water with all these women. He was killed as a man just because He was less than 50 years old, so Russians thought He could be a soldier. He was with everyone there.”

The passion is deeply felt in the Byzantine tradition, said Fr. Georffrey Ready in an email. The Orthodox Archpriest and rector of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto, puts the Cross at the centre of Christian faith.

“That is the Christian narrative of hope, that in the very midst of darkness and death we can see and experience light and life,” Ready wrote.

“It’s not the suffering or torment itself that is glorious — far from it. The life of God that He desires to share with us is truly joy and peace. It is shalom. But in the crucified God-with-us, there is no longer any part of human experience and suffering that God has not entered into and transformed,” he said. “The Cross and Resurrection are inseparable, but not because the Cross is a mere stepping stone or staging post towards the Resurrection, but because everything about who God is and desires us to be can be found in the self-sacrificing love and presence of God expressed there. What that means when we look at the horrific images from Bucha is that we understand by only seeing the suffering and death we are not seeing the whole story.”

To understand Ukraine, pay attention to what Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk has been saying in daily YouTube posts and statements to the media, Nazar said.

“The message that he speaks is extraordinary. It’s a message of consolation from the Cross,” he said. “It’s a message of resurrection. There is hope. That we are defending. That the cause of justice is on our side.”

Shevchuk’s message shouldn’t be confused with cheering on the war effort from the Ukrainian side.

“He’s not saying, ‘Oh, we should kill Russians or we should hate Russians.’ He’s giving witness to the suffering that’s there, even talking about the need to love the enemy. But all the time, for justice — appealing to the people for justice and sanity,” Nazar said. “It’s not the language of ‘God is on our side and not on their side.’ He avoids that whole kind of discourse. This is all about finding true justice, respecting the dignity of people.”

That on the other side Moscow Patriarch Kirill has backed and blessed Russia’s war is no surprise to Nazar.

“What Putin says today, Kirill says tomorrow — but he adds the word God into the sentence,” he said.

What has happened to the Church in Moscow is a tragedy for Eastern Christianity, attributable largely to the patriarchate’s dependence on the Kremlin for money.

“The Orthodox Church is not free,” Nazar said. “In fact, Putin says this. The role of the Orthodox Church is to support the state. You should never think of it otherwise… This is not the Orthodox tradition. People like St. John Chrysostom were jailed, were exiled, because they criticized the Tsar, because they criticized the state. When the Church loses its prophetic voice, from one point of view it’s not the Church.”

As Ivaniv speaks daily with her family in Ukraine, she hangs on to her own faith and theirs.

“It’s difficult to trust,” she said. “People believe and have faith and hope, but it should be nurtured day after day by prayer.”

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