Denver, Colo., Dec 22, 2022 / 10:45 am (CNA).
Traditionally, Christmas in predominantly Orthodox Ukraine comes on Jan. 7. But some of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians can now add Dec. 25 to the festivities and celebrate Jesus’ birth twice, Church leaders have said.
“We are giving people the option to celebrate on a different day,” Archbishop Yevstratiy Zoria, the press secretary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, told Politico.
“We are not moving the day of Christmas.”
For Ukrainian Orthodox parishes that make the change, Christmas in December means “an additional day of worship,” he said. Celebrations will otherwise follow the official Church calendar.
The new Dec. 25 observance would celebrate the Divine Liturgy “according to the Nativity of Christ.” Participants in this liturgy would receive a one-day exemption to Orthodox Christianity’s traditional 40-day fast before the feast of the Nativity. The Orthodox synod’s stated reasons include the circumstances of the war with Russia, increased disputes about the calendar in public life, and the need to consider possible calendar changes in the future.
The synod governs some 7,000 parishes of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in a country where Orthodox Christians are split among several bodies.
Any changes should take place where pastoral circumstances warrant and where there is an evident desire from the Christian faithful, the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said in October.
Tied to Julian calendar
While Roman Catholics follow the Gregorian Calendar reforms of the 16th century and observe Christmas on Dec. 25, the Ukrainian Orthodox Christian liturgy has continued to follow the Julian calendar, which has roots in ancient Rome.
In 2017, Dec. 25 became a public holiday in Ukraine. In recent years, some members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine have advocated that the Church abandon the Julian calendar.
Archbishop Yevstratiy said one-third of Ukrainians had favored a change to the Gregorian calendar before the 2022 invasion by Russia.
“The numbers are probably higher now, and we are having an experiment to try to understand what worshippers really want,” he told Politico. The archbishop said Church leaders will “observe closely how many congregations take up the opportunity to celebrate on Dec. 25.”
In 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriarchate broke from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is aligned with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. In 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Kyiv-based body as autocephalous and self-governing. The move led to a significant breach between Constantinople, a historic center of Orthodoxy, and the Moscow Patriarchate, one of the largest bodies of Orthodox Christians. Ukrainian Orthodoxy has been aligned with Moscow for more than two centuries, and Kyiv is a major historic center of Slavic Christianity.
There are long-standing questions of linguistic, ethnic, religious, and political identity in Ukraine, further aggravated by Russia’s invasion of the country in February.
More than 100,000 Russian and 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, as have at least 40,000 civilians, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month.
Archbishop Fedir of Poltava told Christianity Today that most bishops of the Kyiv Patriarchate do not see the calendar as “a dogmatic issue of faith.”
“Especially after the full-scale aggression of Russia, there is a desire to become part of the Western family of churches,” he said.
Despite claims that a date change could be popular, a survey reported by the website Religion in Ukraine suggests otherwise. It found that 71% of Ukrainians celebrate Christmas in January, 4% celebrate in December, and 18% celebrate Christmas twice. Only 6% do not celebrate at all. About 58% of survey respondents opposed a change in the date of Christmas, while only 26% supported it, Christian Network Europe News reported in June.
While the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church has taken steps to distance itself from Putin, its leaders still criticized any modification of Christmas celebrations.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Luke of Zaporizhzhia characterized the change as a step toward Catholicism, Christianity Today reported.
Metropolitan Klyment of Nizhyn and Pryluky, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, portrayed the option as a political move. Families are used to celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7, he said.
“The people who go to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are not requesting any change,” he said, according to Politico. “It has been four years since the government announced Dec. 25 as an official holiday, and since then, you have not seen people celebrating it as Christmas Day.”
Archbishop Yevstratiy of the Kyiv Patriarchate objected that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate has always treated his Church as “a political group.”
“It is very similar to how Russia treats Ukraine in general,” he told Politico. “From our side, we have often offered to start a dialogue without any preconditions, but they generally don’t respond — and when they do, they insist we acknowledge that we are not a church, have no canonical rights, and that our clergy are not clergy.”
Russia-aligned Orthodox leaders have a history of collaboration with the Russian government and its Soviet predecessor. Its churches are now under a cloud of suspicion in Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has endorsed a law that would ban the Russia-aligned Church from operating, and Ukrainian security services have investigated many churches and church leaders for alleged pro-Russian activities.
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