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Thursday, January 7

With Christmas! With Christmas!

Christmas in the Orthodox Church is celebrated today, January 7, in Russia. Given the time difference between the U.S. east coast and Russia it's little late to wish Orthodox Russians a merry Christmas although in Russia the Christmas greeting is "With Christmas!" But John Batchelor's interview Wednesday night with Russia Insider's Charles Bausman filled me with the Christmas spirit; much of the interview was about Christmas and Christianity in Russia.

This year there's been a dusting of snow in Moscow, which goes nuts with the most gorgeous Christmas light displays, so with the lights and snow Moscow just looked magical, reported Charles.

He explained that the Christmas religious service in Russia is at midnight and that it lasts four hours -- during which everyone stands! He added that the churchgoers wear comfortable shoes for the service but that the service is very inspirational and the Christmas choirs are wonderful.

Of course Batchelor wanted to know whether Russians put up Christmas trees, and "are there trains under the trees?" 

Yes, replied Charles; some years ago the Russians adopted Germanic Christmas customs so there are trees, and yes (toy) trains under the trees.

Gordon Chang, co-hosting with John, wanted to know how the Russian enthusiasm for Christmas emerged from decades of Soviet state-imposed atheism. Charles replied that the resurgence in Christianity was one of the most amazing -- and under-reported -- stories of the late 20th Century. In the early 1990s, after the Soviet state was dissolved, "Hundreds of Russians were being baptized every day." There are now 800 monasteries in Russia, and each is filled with hundreds of monks. 

I'd known there was a resurgence but until Charles' report I'd had no idea how large it was; I was so surprised I momentarily lost track of the conversation, so I'll have to listen to the podcast of the interview (last segment) to make certain I heard right when he said that 10,000 churches have been built in Russia, or that the number are being built. 

A chill went up my spine. In the early 1980s I and other Americans were ticked off at Sathya Sai Baba because he kept criticizing Americans. Finally I snapped to some other Americans at the ashram, "Why doesn't he ever criticize the Soviet Communists?" This brought forth vigorous nods of agreement.  

Sai Baba got wind of this and in one of his hallmark plays on words said, "Not Comm-u-nists. Come you next."

Yeah, right.

It turned out he was right, more right than I could have imagined.  

The Orthodox Christians in Syria have also had a White Christmas this year. There's been quite a bit of snow in several parts of the country, and not just in the mountains. Earlier in the week SANA posted photographs of snowy streets. There's been an unusual cold snap; for days the temperature had been 6-7 degrees below normal. 

The snow bounty, while surely hard on Syrians getting by with little indoor heating, is a blessing because the ground can certainly use the snow melt.    

And they go all-out for their Christmas services, as do Coptic Christians in Egypt. It's become a tradition for several Muslims, at least in Cairo, to serve as human shields by attending the Christmas services in the churches.  Many Coptic churches have been bombed in Egypt by Muslim groups.  

Christianity has been under such heavy attack in the Middle East from Muslims that there are reports the religion is being wiped out in the region. At the same time, Syria has been the great bastion for Christianity -- and other religious minorities -- in the Middle East, which is a big reason the Saudis and Turks loyal to Erdogan want Assad to go.  

So I think Vladmir Putin's decision to defend Assad's government is seen by Syrian Christians as a kind of Christmas miracle -- and many Syrians in other sects, including Sunni Islam, have also taken Putin and the Russian people to their hearts for acting to preserve their secular government, of which Syrians are justifiably proud.  

Syrians do not have a tradition of warring sectarian divisions, even though the Saudi, Qatari and Obama regimes have been fanning sectarianism so they can break up the country or at least balkanize it.

Well, enough grim considerations for the moment. As we start this January with buckets of bad news, it's good to remember that the Russian and other Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas at the start of the new year, which helps place all the bad news in context. 

This realm isn't a rose garden; here death comes to all, and we demanded free will and got it. But it helps to stand back now and again to remember that the great role of religion is to remind us that we are not only angst. The spirit that towers over the human condition is adamantine, and the troubles it passes through in this realm are to it nothing more than a rain squall on one long glorious summer day.

With Christmas, indeed! With Christmas!



A few (just a few!) Christmas lights in Moscow



Armenian Orthodox Syrians celebrate Christmas at St. Sarkis Church 



Christmas joyful noises in Damascus streets          




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