A Ukrainian Christmas-at-the-crossroads


When Ukraine celebrated Christmas two weeks ago, there were ample reasons for pessimism about that long-suffering country’s future.

The national parliament is often dysfunctional, even by Washington standards. Corruption remains rampant throughout society and government. The Russian Anschluss of Crimea is, for the moment, a fait accompli, and Russian troops and their local hoodlum proxies continue to occupy significant parts of eastern Ukraine. The economy is a mess, real purchasing-power is down, fuel prices are up, and the oligarchs who control much of Ukraine’s wealth have not shown themselves overly enthusiastic about economic and political reform. Ukraine has absorbed 1.5 millions displaced persons fleeing Crimea or the war-zones of the Donbas – the rough equivalent of the United States being suddenly confronted with about 12.4 million internal refugees. The West has been largely supine in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine; the West remains helpless in the face of the barrage of lies and propaganda the Russian media and Russian-paid internet trolls spew around the world.

Yet confronted daily by this long menu of distress, the people of Ukraine have remained remarkably faithful to the 2013-14 Maidan revolution of integrity: the self-liberation of a people who braved the bullets of Russian-supported murderers and swept a new government into power almost two years ago. The Ukrainian leaders with whom I’m in regular contact give the post-Maidan government grades ranging from B-minus to C-minus; they give Ukrainian civil society an A, for both its steadfastness and its patience amidst sluggish reform, Russian aggression, and a massive refugee crisis.

This patience, which is complemented by a gritty determination to see real legal and economic reforms take hold, is all the more striking in that Ukraine must confront daily the cultural and social deterioration created by the sad reality of Homo Sovieticus: men and women who grew up under a brutal political system that was built on falsehoods, that maintained itself through terror, and that taught everyone that trust in another human being can be very costly. The lessons driven home between 1932 and 1945 – the years of the Soviet-managed terror-famine, the Holocaust, and the Second World War; the years when Ukraine was arguably the most dangerous place on earth – remain toxic to the third and fourth generation: truth is dangerous, trust is dangerous, solidarity is dangerous.

Homo Sovieticus remains a great obstacle to fulfilling the promise of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. But those who bet that the reflexes of Homo Sovieticus would extinguish the flame of moral conviction that was the core of the Maidan in 2013-2014 were proven wrong then. Why? Because another idea of the human person – free in the truth; responsible; capable of fellow-feeling and solidarity; willing to sacrifice for the common good – made the Maidan revolution in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine possible.

Many communities of faith and conviction helped challenge Homo Sovieticus in those stirring days. Indeed, one of the most under-reported aspects of the Ukrainian revolution of 2013-14 was its intensely religious character, which reflected an intensity of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation that was unheard of, previously, in Ukraine’s history. That inter-confessional solidarity continues today; it is one of the signs of hope during Ukraine’s 2016 Christmas-at-the-crossroads; and at the center of that solidarity are the leaders, clerical and lay, of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church [UGCC].

Two of those leaders, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and the UGCC’s “foreign minister,” Bishop Borys Gudziak, are the heirs, by episcopal consecration and conviction, of the heroes of the UGCC in the twentieth century: the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky; Cardinal Josyf Slipyj; Cardinal Lubomyr Husar. One of the Church’s principal lay leaders, Dr. Myroslav Marynovich, is both a veteran of the Soviet Gulag and a world-class scholar. If Ukraine’s political leadership mirrored the courage and insight of its Greek Catholic leadership – whose influence is considerably greater than Ukrainian demographics might suggest – a country at the crossroads would, in the year ahead, find itself pointed in the right direction.

The UGCC’s efforts to deepen and extend the revolution of integrity that triumphed on Kyiv’s Maidan in 2013-14 deserve the support of fellow-Catholics throughout the world: not least in the Vatican.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.