Liturgy, Politics, and Vinegar

“Instead they gave me poison for my food; and for my thirst they gave me vinegar.” (Ps. 69:22)

I recently received feedback on the essay I wrote on Orthodoxy’s kryptonite. The writer complains that my essay was too political.

I do not have much more information to work with, so I am not one-hundred percent certain why my assessment of Eastern Orthodox indifference on the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) justification of the invasion of Ukraine does not fit.

Focusing on the Liturgy of Christ’s Pascha

The liturgical agenda is always a long list, and I’m guessing that prioritizing a commentary on the Orthodox geopolitical problems seems to be better suited somewhere else. After all, the Churches of the West are deep into Holy Week, with the Orthodox observing these holy days one week later this year.

We are laser-focused on the prizes, occupying ourselves with antiphons, processions, the washing of the feet, consecration of oils, reconciliation of penitents, baptisms, chrismations, the Paschal Vigil, the Exsultet – an inexhaustible list. A competent pastor would exhort the people to fix their gaze on the crucified Lord and prepare their hearts for the descent of the Spirit that permits us to recognize Christ, risen in our midst, and become his apostles.

Most of us who participate in these discussions and have become accustomed to the anticipation of entering Christ’s bridal chamber have already been washed and anointed, and partake of his body and blood in holy Communion. We have been given the capacity to see, hear, and speak with the image of God renewed in us, and therefore, to bear witness.

Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, how can we set holy joy aside and kvetch about the failures of the leaders of our church communities?

Is the Liturgy Political?

My own answer to these questions takes me away from the world of liturgiewissenschaft, of manuscripts, editions, and translations, and into the very essence of liturgy – the community.

I think of those for whom Easter is now barren and flat. I think of the support group for widows and widowers that is bursting with anxiety this week, trying to figure out how to mark these holy days while nursing the still-open wounds of the death of their spouses.

The Tears of the Afflicted

I think of the face of a Ukrainian woman I recently met. She arrived in the United States in a very roundabout way having endured gunfire, separation from family and friends, loss of home, work, and school. She left behind an apocalyptic scene of abandoned vehicles owned by people fleeing Ukraine who knew the missiles were coming.

I looked into her face and saw her uncontainable tears. The missiles came, over and over again, destroying schools, hospitals, and taking lives. Children have been kidnapped and deported from Ukraine to Russia, a documented war crime. She knew what was coming.

We humans do not weep only from fear of violence. We weep at the primordial sin of covetousness, which breeds such fierce hatred as to incite murder. The world was warned, the churches lifted up prayers incessantly and collected millions of dollars for aid, and the missiles kept coming, along with the rapes, executions, kidnappings, and human trafficking.

I looked into her face and thought about the God who will wipe away our tears and give us eternal life.

He is Risen – the members of Christ’s body have beheld his resurrection and are supposed to bear witness.

Bearing Witness to the Resurrection

The Church is God’s body – the people of God can wipe away these tears and can call upon the instigators of violence and injustice to stop. In fact, the Church has a responsibility to take immediate action. God has renewed the humanity of those who have been baptized and anointed in Christ. They now have the eyes, ears, mouths, and minds conformed to Christ’s own, given freely to them at these sacred liturgies.

The silent indifference of the leaders of God’s holy people in this world is cacophonous. One of their own, the patriarch of the ROC, has repeatedly justified the war, going so far as to give an icon of Mary, the mother of God, to the leader of the Russian National Guard to defeat the “Nazis.” Patriarch Kirill used the pulpit to instruct the people that defense of the fatherland on the ground was participation in a metaphysical war of good vs. evil, and a holy war, in which losing one’s life amounted to a baptism of blood.

Almost all Orthodox church leaders have looked away. Some have condemned Russian aggression, prayed for peace, and collected money for aid. But they have not yet held their own leader accountable even though some of the clergy in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church he claims jurisdiction over have called for an international Orthodox tribunal to bring him to justice.

When God has given the body of Christ all the tools they need to extend the divine hands to console the afflicted and bear witness to Christ’s righteousness, and the main leaders of the body refuse to act, how can the church look into the eyes of the afflicted without seeing the image of their own condemnation?

Renewed Humanity, the Afflicted, and Justice

Baptism, anointing, and Holy Communion are political. These mysteries beckon us to see the afflicted in our midst and to identify those who enable and justify aggression. The Church has been scarred by one scandal after another, from enabling sexual abuse and concealing it from the church to inciting hatred and violence on the basis of a lie.

Perhaps Holy week and Easter require a renewed sense of participation in Christ’s passion and death. Perhaps bearing witness requires the body of Christ to appeal for accountability and name the actual problems in the church. Perhaps one of those problems is a distorted interpretation of sacred orders that grants an ecclesial version of diplomatic immunity to church leaders and entitlement to the church at large.

The time has come to allow destructive and enabling practices in the Church to die.

Acknowledging the reality of broken humanity in our midst is bitter – it is like trying to quench our thirst with vinegar. Enduring this passion is a necessary step in dying to the passions and injustices that enslave and afflict humankind.

May this Holy Week and Easter, whenever one celebrates it, bring a true participation in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.


  1. I think the most ‘political’ thing about this whole issue is Rome’s somewhat muted response to Kirill’s madness. Sometimes forthright condemnation is called for, repeatedly and loud and clear, especially when evil on this scale is being advocated and enabled by the ROC. Francis HAS spoken out, but I’d prefer a more robust condemnation. Hopefully others will correct me and show that I’m wrong!

    Most people living in today’s world don’t distinguish between divisions in the Church. Kirill gives ammunition to anti-Christian voices, which often drown out the Church’s real message.

    Goya is always worth revisiting:

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