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It’s timely that we contemplate the ashes of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on Ash Wednesday – a day that begins the 40 day fasting and prayer of Lent – a day when the ashes of the Palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are now used to mark the foreheads of Christian pilgrims with the sign of the cross. This is a time to contemplate the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how we may let Him influence our weary lives in this weary world.

How will the Prince of Peace demonstrate His heart’s desire at this moment as we join the faithful – not in war – but in the International Day for Fasting and Payer for Peace? Nothing can be more poignant amidst the contradictions of calling for peace whilst preparing for war as we all watch the ashes of Ukrainian cities and bodies.

Religious Offence added to the Offensives

Among the offensives of Putin is his appealing to the Russian “spiritual space” into which he wishes to absorb Ukraine. Odd that an atheist dictator would appeal to the spiritual, but then again, we’ve see this play a few generations ago. Raymond J. de Souza writes:

“Of the many big lies that Vladimir Putin told in preparation for the expansion of his invasion and occupation of Ukraine this week, the claim that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s “spiritual space” is perhaps the most puzzling to foreigners… If that sounds uncomfortably close to Hitler’s “living space” — Lebensraum — it is analogous.

… The Christian history of the eastern Slavs begins in 988, with the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the leadership of Kievan Rus with him. (The baptism of the western Slavs in Poland took place in 966.) In 988, Vladimir was prince of Kyiv; Moscow did not yet exist.”

Pope Francis meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in private audience (2015). (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

Into this “spiritual space” Pope Francis went to the Russian Embassy on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 to personally express his concern about the war. The Associated Press reported:

“The Vatican said, [it was] an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent. Usually, popes receive ambassadors and heads of state in the Vatican, and diplomatic protocol would have called for the Vatican foreign minister to summon the ambassador.”

With echoes of the second World War, we hear the religious gymnastics of diplomacy:

“Francis has called for dialogue to end the conflict and has urged the faithful to set next Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine. But he has refrained from publicly calling out Russia by name, presumably for fear of antagonizing the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Why not antagonize the complicit church – for the faithful call on all religious leaders to speak and act consistently with the One in whose name they (we) presume to follow.

Lord have mercy.

Ashes of the Crumbling Pyramid of Power

Perhaps the harshest criticism comes from fellow Russian and playwright, Vladimir Sorokin.

“On 24 February, the armour of the “enlightened autocrat” that had housed Vladimir Putin for the previous 20 years cracked and fell to pieces. The world saw a monster – crazed in its desires and ruthless in its decisions. The monster had grown gradually, gaining strength from year to year, marinating in its own absolute authority, imperial aggression, hatred for western democracy, and malice fueled by the resentment engendered by the fall of the USSR. Now, Europe will have to deal, not with the former Putin, but the new Putin who has cast aside his mask of “business partnership” and “peaceful collaboration”. There shall never again be peace with him.

… The perversity of the Pyramid of Power lies in the fact that he who sits at its peak broadcasts his psychosomatic condition to the country’s entire population. The ideology of Putinism is quite eclectic; in it, respect for the Soviet lies side by side with feudal ethics, Lenin sharing a bed with Tsarist Russia and Russian Orthodox Christianity.”

Beauty for Ashes

Into this hopeless looking conflict, may we hear the prophetic words of Isaiah uttered some 700 years before Jesus walked the earth. In Luke 4, Jesus opens the scroll and reads this very passage as a kind of mandate of His mission:

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.

Let it be…

May the faithful be found following Jesus through this prophetic mandate, along all the weary ways of war and the wounded, all the way to the cross.

For some encouragement see “How two Christian friends, divided by borders brought a prayer meeting to tears as war raged.” It is a retelling of an emergency global prayer meeting held by Lausanne Europe on February 24.