Ctime 452   Advent IV or Christmas 2000





            I wonder how Grigorii’s grandmother will spend her Christmas. Grigorii is one of the Ukrainian seminarians who has visited our parish in Adlington for the last four summers. He will be at home  with his younger brother Ivan and grandmother, Pani Komar, in the little village of Bronitsya a few kilometres from the chemical town of Drohobych in west Ukraine.

            Christmas comes on 7th January in the Orthodox and eastern Catholic rites, which follow the Julian, not the Gregorian calendar. The Poles in the village will keep Dec. 25th in the western rite, and mixed Polish-Ukrainian families often keep the feasts and fasts in both rites! Kyiv television (unlike the atheistic BBC) will probably broadcast the Papal Midnight Mass from Rome, and repeat it again in the daytime, along with the Urbi et Orbi message.

            Pani Komar hasn’t much to live on. Ivan (21) is still looking for a job now his two years in the Army have finished, and he got married last year. Most of the factories are closed or on short time. And what does a job pay anyway? 117 hryvnia (£14) a month, unless you join the police and get those little extras! At least he can run the farm, plough and reap, and take his turn on the monthly rota leading the village cattle to pasture for the day.

            The boys’ mother died about ten years ago in hospital on the operating table. She was 39. Their father died three years ago, his lungs ruined by the fumes from the ink in the print works at Drohobych. He was 47. Now the young men are alone with their grandmother.

There is no machinery for agriculture. One pays a little for a neighbour’s horses to drag the plough. The rest is done with spades and scythes. The kolkhoz, the collective farm, has been split up. All the tractors are broken, and no one has the money to buy the components to mend them. Anyway, they are too big to work on the small peasant plots. Many of the outlying fields are now lying fallow, because there isn’t the machinery to work them.

The young are leaving if they can. Talent and youth are now a major export. They seek work, legally or illegally, in Czechia and Slovakia, Portugal, Spain and Greece.  Or on the big building and oil construction projects in Russia where you can make $100-200 a month. Or helping the Mafia build their big new mansions. Girls especially go to Italy as nannies. And some, tragically, find themselves trapped by that same Mafia and forced to sell their bodies as prostitutes.

Pani Komar will never go abroad now. She has only 50 hryvnia (£6) pension per month. Less than £1.50 per week. This year at least the Government has been paying pensions promptly, not six months in arrears. Most of it goes on the gas and electric. Households throughout Ukraine owe several trillion hryvnia to the gas company, which in its turn hasn’t been able to pay Gazprom, the massive privatised Russian kombinat, for its imports. So just to keep the houses warm, Ukraine siphons off a couple of billion cubic metres extra in the winter from the international pipeline running across her territory from Russia to Slovakia and the West. Gazprom and Moscow are not pleased. 

If, as the West demands, the remaining reactors at Chernobyl shut down, it may mean two evenings per week without electricity in Pani Komar’s cottage. That’s nothing new. But candles can be expensive.

            With the little money she has left, she can stock up on salt, sugar, vinegar, some flour for making bread. In her mid-seventies she isn’t getting any stronger. In due season she has to buy a few bits and pieces for the ploughing, clearing the weeds, sowing and digging the potatoes. For what she does own is 0.7 hectares of good Ukrainian soil. This is her lifeline. Without it she would starve. And naturally a cow, a calf, a pig, some hens, and a big dog.

            From the  daily seven litres of milk, she makes butter and cheese and kefir (sour yogurt) and supplies them to her relations in Drohobych. Eggs too. They reciprocate, providing her with a few necessities. A barter economy. So they manage: land, food, shelter. But clothing is a problem. She can’t afford to buy any new clothes or shoes, so unless Caritas and the Church help out, it is grim when one’s boots split irreparably.

            In the cities the elderly or handicapped, if they have no family support, have to live on bread and milk, begging a few kopecks on the street, scavenging in dustbins for food. They stand in the snow and ice, selling brightly coloured plastic carrier bags or old Coke and Fanta plastic bottles to the market customers. The latter are necessary for buying milk or cooking oil. But in the villages, no one starves.

            In one sense Pani Komar is rich. She has what so many in the West do not have. She has her Faith. The Catholic Faith she learnt as a girl in the 1930’s. The Faith the Communists tried for 45 years to destroy. In Bronitsya they left the church open as a Russian Orthodox chapel. They arrested many Catholic priests. Some went underground. Others compromised but still mentioned the Pope’s name during the Litanies and the Anaphora. Later new priests were sent, from Russia, to stamp out any hint of Catholicism or Ukrainian nationalism. Oh yes. They had sermons on fidelity to the State, even on the benefits of socialism. But no one believed it.

            Freedom came in 1990. The next year the village voted to return to the Catholic Church. The Orthodox priest, a good pious priest, not a lazy money-grubber, tried to dissuade them. But the overwhelming majority wanted to return to their own Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. So he had to leave. He went to live in Drohobych, saddened and bitter for a while. The first year a Catholic priest could come only once every few weeks. People began to grumble. Eventually they got a Catholic priest of their own – shared with two neighbouring villages.

On Christmas Eve about 10 pm, after a fasting supper without meat or milk products– traditionally of twelve courses, but no way can she manage that now - Pani Komar and her grandsons, will step out into the cold night air, and make their way two miles to Church along the broad, unpaved, wheel-rutted track.   There will be ice on the puddles and frost or light snow on the ground, for Lviv oblast averages –2C in December. Better a sharp, clean frost, hard underfoot, than five degrees above zero with mud and slush everywhere.

No cars to avoid. Few have them, and even fewer can afford the petrol. She will greet the other village babtsi she meets along the way: “Khristos rozhdayetsya!” Christ is born! And they will reply “Slavite yoho!” Praise Him! They will exchange their news of who is back home for Christmas. They want to arrive at church early, so as not to have to stand outside. The kolyadi, carols, have already begun, and Father is hearing confessions.

            Gregorii will help the village diak, the cantor, in leading the chants, especially the difficult special tones for the Feast which he has mastered in seminary. In dark-red vestments the Priest begins the All-Night Vigil with Great Compline,.

            “Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today God has come upon earth, and man gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Saviour, glory to Thee.”

Morning Prayer follows, and then the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom itself. For up to five hours the congregation will stand squashed amid the lights and icons and candles, singing the responses heartily. The elderly and infirm take turns on the few seats by the wall. Father’s voice may begin to croak from all the chanting, but he has two more Liturgies to sing in the subsidiary villages before noon.

            “Your birth, O Christ our God, has shone upon the world with the light of understanding, for by it, those who adored the stars, learnt from a star how to worship Thee the Sun of Righteousness, and to recognise Thee, the Dawn from on high. O Lord, glory be to you!  Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all being, and the earth offers a cave to Him whom no man can approach. The angels and shepherds together sing praise, and the Magi journey with the star, because for our sake the little child is born, the pre-eternal God.”

Pani Komar has her faith. The Church brings colour and joy into her hard life of unremitting poverty. This is her 75th Christmas.  This world can be dreadful. She has seen so much war, purges, oppression, misery, but God is good. Her grandson, her pride and joy, will soon be a priest, please God. And one day, not too long now, she can lay down her weary load, and see the Christ not just as the child in the manger, but face to face in glory.