Russian Easter eggs
Something special would show up in the markets in Moscow back when my family and I lived there, when Communism was the effective state religion and lots of very ornate old Orthodox churches had been turned into museums. Not all of them, of course. You could still go to the cathedral in Moscow and marvel at the icons and be moved by the great bassos singing about God in a voice so deep and powerful that it sent ripples through your guts.
You could see the worshippers, old women with faces wrinkled as dried apples and men in suits and thick winter coats and women so pink and lovely they looked like they had stepped from a painting. Incense and the glow from a hundred slim candles set the stage, literally glittering on the gold surface of the big iconostasis that defined the front of the church. Jesus and Mary and all the holy saints were gathered there, in paintings and icons, looking down on all of us.
It was at this time of year– when we Catholics and protestants living in the Soviet Union had already celebrated our Easter holiday–that the Orthodox Church was in preparation for its own Easter Sunday a week later. In the outdoor markets, full of vegetables and fruits from Georgia, particularly lovely items would show up, wonderfully painted Easter eggs, some of them from Russia and some from Ukraine, Romania, all the places that made up what used to be known as the Eastern Block.
Most of the eggs carried a symbol that seemed perfectly appropriate for the season of the year, letters that looked like an “XB.” I had a talk with one of my Russian friends, a translator, about them. Remember, this was during the Soviet era, when public religious displays were frowned on.
“Officially, people will tell you those letters stand for “Khleb Vechi,” or Spring Bread. The Cyrillic letters that started those words in Russian were XB. “But that’s not what they mean. They mean Christos Voskresh, “Christ is Risen.” That’s why people want them, they are important religious symbols hiding right out there in front of everyone.
Here in the heart of a brutal war in which Ukrainians are being slaughtered and Russian soldiers are being burned in their tanks, blasted off their feet, left to rot in the late snows of spring, Easter approaches with its ancient message about a God man who rose from the dead three days after he was crucified.
Above all, it is a heartening story, even for those who don’t believe.
But none of the dead will be resurrected in Ukraine. I hope their souls live on. But that is hope built on belief, not on reality.
We are asked on Easter Sunday to remember the miracle, and promise it will remain cherished by reciting a creed that states, quite simply, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…” We also recite the Lord’s Prayer, where we ask that our own “trespasses” will be forgiven just as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
I have what will seem an unusual proposition as this brutality plays out. We are obliged to pray for Ukraine and its people, to ask for God’s protection. But I think we should also be praying for the Russians, the sons and daughters of those people who were able to mask “Christ is Risen” behind a curtain of “Spring Bread” and who knew exactly what all that meant back in the Soviet era in the 1970s when believing was a dangerous business.
I think what Russia is doing is awful, but I don’t for a moment believe there is anything awful about the Russians. I believe the mothers are grieving and the fathers are weeping in the dark over what has happened to their boys, not much older than teenagers, who are following murderous orders as they push on in their brutal march across Ukraine.
The crimes of war don’t just land on one side of a conflict. What Vladimir Putin is doing to his own soldiers is a war crime, too, sending them off on a badly led mission that has already yielded hundreds, if not thousands, of cadavers from all sides.
War has this way of erasing innocence from the reality of the battlefield. Weapons have no consciences. They kill wherever they land, man, woman and child alike.
What would you expect?
It is the way it has always been in war, so common and so known among leadership that it created the phrase “collateral damage” to describe something that is not much of a leap from cold murder. It’s a rubber stamp solution to the discomfort that would settle on any truth teller sincere enough to say what war has really become.
Still, there is that old story, that old “XB” story from the eggs, the spring bread, from wherever. The risen Christ is a defining symbol for the world of Christianity. In the heart of it, there is a message of peace and a call for forgiveness. I would hope that would settle on the people of Ukraine, and on the Russians, too.