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Today’s Advent Post concerns what happens when traditions are stripped from lives. It isn’t a Christmasy topic per se, or even an Advent-y one.
Unpacking still from our move two years ago, I came across the contents of a long file drawer dating back to my office at SMU. In three boxes were folders with Soviet-era topics: Lenin-this, Stalin-that, plus a host of files for Soviet-era artists. Drawn to one thick manila envelope, I slid out a photocopy of a Dictionary of Atheism (Slovar’ aeteista), published in Moscow in 1964.
Apparently while in Leningrad in the early 1980s researching my dissertation, I had copied this dictionary using the lugubrious Soviet system that allowed scholars restricted access to non-sequential photocopying (kcerokopia). “Restricted” meant, for example, that pages 5-15 of a resource could be copied one day, ten more pages randomly selected two days later (pages 59-69 or any others far from page 15), then ten more pages a couple of days after that. You get the idea.
Presuming one kept careful records and stretched the process out so as not to draw attention when filling in the gaps, voilà, it was possible to copy fully a publication unattainable in the West. Since every copy order required waiting in long lines to request, submit, pay, and receive the pages, you can see why copying anything required a will of steel.
I must have been awfully intrigued with this Dictionary of Atheism to come out with a full copy. But why? Why did I spend precious time and effort for a book utterly unrelated to my musicological research?
The best I recall is that I realized what an odd item it was—something one could not fathom elsewhere at that time. I also recall a feeling of gratitude that such distortion of religious traditions and Judeo-Christian history could never exist in my homeland of America.
I was wrong. Today, in many quarters, people find themselves edged up against circumstances that bespeak eerily of a similar phenomenon. It was clear to the Bolsheviks that religious culture and tsarist history were inextricably linked to Russian identity, so both had to be eliminated. Under Lenin that meant assassinating the royal family (Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children, and even household members), then driving out or killing a certain amount of clergy, plus closing nearly all churches and monasteries and stripping them of their wealth. Later, under Stalin came dynamiting certain of those churches and monasteries (especially the most historic) and executing far more clergy (along with a horrifying number of intellectuals from every field).
Still, the Soviets were practical. They recognized that an educated person needed to know a few things about Jewish and Christian history, so the trick was to find a way to teach those basics while exposing it as “Tom-foolery.” Anyone in Leningrad during the Communist period, for example, remembers the stunning Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect being turned into a “Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.” My one visit there in the spring of 1982 left me in tears, it was so perverted.
Yet, wondrously and amazingly, churches in Russia have again filled with worshipers, precisely as increasing numbers of our churches here face steep declines. The decimation of religious culture in the USSR came at the point of a bayonet. Here, it has come through the media and a political correctness that may have seemed innocuous, but clearly now is weaponized. We are reaping the fruits of what a culture in decline looks like, particularly with a new generation that seems dedicated to worshipping Marxism.
In Russia’s case, the transition to Marxism was ensured by violence. In our case, the steps seem gentler, particularly when wrapped in the banner of progress and freedom of choice. But are they? Are you old enough to remember when kids’ sporting events began to be held on Sunday mornings? (That, by the way, is an old Soviet trick: circuses and theatrical performances for children were routinely scheduled on Sunday mornings.) Do you remember when crude public language and awful images printed on T-shirts became “ok”? (Another chink in the foundation is kicked in.) At what point did we accept the fashion industry’s decision to dress our pre-adolescent girls as “ladies of the night”?
Add in the viciously misogynous lyrics we are supposed to celebrate in pop music. Throw a few pastors in jail for continuing to preach the biblical principles that have underlain their denominations for centuries. And top it all off with a public education system that seems satisfied with fourth-grade proficiency in reading and third-grade standards for math. Voilá, we have moved far closer than many realize to the position that Soviet ideologues celebrated when they published the Dictionary of Atheism.
That’s why, no matter what you do this Advent, it is important. Certain things cannot occur in some places (starting with Christmas Eve services and visits from family). These conditions, coming after such a limited, frustrating 2020, feel doubly discouraging. Yet not only is it possible to create a meaningful, traditional Christmas season, it is imperative that we do so!
So whether your form of celebrating focuses on “secular” traditions (watching old Christmas movies, playing with the chipped collection of nutcrackers, baking cookies, and wearing headbands with reindeer antlers) or “sacred” observations—lighting Advent candles, singing hymns, and following the devotional readings dedicated to John the Baptist and other saints commemorated in December, or a combination of both, you are preserving and extending the substance of Advent and Christmas.
An Orthodox priest in a recent class made the simplest, most wondrous statement about the Christmas Season. He was addressing the liturgical cycle of fasting for Lent, but also during Advent. But then he made this joyous statement about the spiritual obligation for feasting that follows. It caught me by surprise:
You must feast. You really then must feast . . . for Twelve Days!
Feasting means far more than returning sweets, meats, or dairy products to a dining-room table. It means rejoicing and singing. It means spreading across the Twelve Days of Christmas some of those gifts that overwhelm the tree on Christmas morning. It means keeping the crèche, tree, and decorations up wherever possible. It means continuing to send cards, make goodies, offer help particularly to neighbors, and do whatever activities bring you and your family joy. In short, rejoice!
This is the spirit of spiritual rejoicing that was stripped from daily life under Communism. Yes, it was replaced with vapid holidays like the “October Revolution Day” or cartoon-like facsimiles of Christmas as a New Year’s Feast replete with New Year’s trees, New Year’s gifts, Father Frost, and plenty of vodka. But it never worked.
All of this I thought about, looking at the now-antiquated Dictionary of Atheism. For 70 years the outlook was dark in Russia. But darkness always precedes light.
Prepare for Christmas not just through meditation, fasting, praying, and whatever else is part of your Advent tradition. But prepare to feast as well! And proclaim your gratitude that we still do have freedom in our religious activities, even amidst troubling trends. Make certain your children know what this freedom is worth. Both your and their commitments to hold on to our religious liberty may well be necessary.Published in