Christianity in Ukrainian and Russian lands dates to the earliest centuries of Christian history. Legend has it that the apostle Andrew traveled over the Black Sea to the Greek colony in Crimea where he converted thousands of people.
Throughout centuries of its history religion and politics have both united and fractured Ukraine and Russia. The reality today that complicates the war is that both Russian and Ukrainians are linked by their Orthodox faith. Their religious leaders, however, are not united to stop Vladimer Putin’s invasion into Ukraine even as they offer prayers for peace and the safety of Ukrainians.
Only a fierce cultural pride and identity, a steady historical resilience against oppression, and a loyal faith in God gives strength to Ukrainians and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to push back against Vladimer Putin’s plan to reestablish the former Soviet Union by encroaching upon
|Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv, Ukraine|
The first reading today (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) tells a similar story. It reports what Moses said to the Israelites, who were seeking their independence from Egyptians. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the God of our ancestors. God heard our cry, saw our affliction, and with “terrifying power,” brought us out of Egypt.
Ukrainians are pleading with God these days with words taken from their national spiritual anthem written in 1885: “Lord, Oh the Great and Almighty, Protect our beloved Ukraine … Bless us with freedom, bless us with wisdom, Bless us, Oh Lord, with good fortune, for ever and evermore.”
What Ukrainians want is a chance to live freely and without being afraid that their children’s dreams will be erased by oppressive dictators. Their battle is important on a global scale where many countries are ruled by autocrats.
The Ukrainian dream is like the Israelites’ in the Hebrew bible who yearned for a promised land. It is like those who still pursue the American dream. It is an aspiration for all of humanity to live in a world measured by justice and peace.
On this first Sunday of Lent we begin a liturgical journey to repent and transform our lives while the world all around us is in trouble. So what are we to do? Give up something for Lent while others are fighting to keep their freedom? Repent and believe the good news while evil people in the world never ask for forgiveness? Renew our lives while millions of people in this nation have no way to do so?
We have innumerable freedoms in this country thanks to the courageous stories of our ancestors in faith. Those who fled one captivity after another, who journeyed long years in the desert, who fought religious wars in Europe, who faced prejudice as immigrants in this country. We are summoned by our baptism to protect the common good so no one person or institution or political party steals it away.
We are part of a long history of humanity, a larger global dynamic, a cosmos without boundaries. We travel bravely to proclaim justice and truth with countless caring Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and people who practice no religion.
Along the way we are urged by our tradition to avoid any temptations that distract us from our calling as Catholic Christians to “stand as living witnesses to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all peoples may be raised up to a new hope.”
In today’s familiar gospel (Luke 4:1-13 ) a smooth-talking devil tried to break down Jesus with physical, political and spiritual temptations but the Anointed One from Nazareth never gave in. Jesus snap back at the devil: “Do not tempt God!”
Jesus desired no power or dominion over anyone. He did not want possessions. He stood up against corrupt civic and religious leaders. He taught that only love and compassion matter most. The Ukrainians are not giving in to the devil and neither should we.
And, there is something we can do. We can believe what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (10:8-13) that everyone who calls upon God will be saved. The Ukrainians, like other people struggling in tyrannical countries believe that God is on their side and is still walking with them.
These scriptures are good lessons for us. During this season of Lent let us walk not only with God but with someone who is not doing so well in the world. Let us find the time and a way to give a portion of our resources, however large or small, to people in need. For example, consider donating something to ease the pain of the people in Ukraine.
Our faith coupled with our good works can be a “terrifying power” in a world where evil lurks in our midst … sometimes closer than we think.