The Russian Patriarch delivered a sermon on Sunday in the Cathedral of the Armed Forces, just outside Moscow, which isn’t so much an Orthodox cathedral as a temple to the cult of the new post-Soviet civil religion, as has been observed:
“In the war, our soldiers martyred themselves so that we could be free and independent. Only Russians are capable of sacrificing themselves to save humanity, just like Jesus did.”
..“We are not talking about the geopolitical background at any particular time, we are talking about the fact that our armed forces have sacred help from above, from God and from the heavenly saints. That’s what the cathedral is about.”
Patriarch Kirill chose his setting well, for his theme was the national glory and military victory of ‘Holy Russia’, inspired (circuitously) by the ascetic sacrifice and divine wisdom of the Desert Fathers, in particular St John Climacus (otherwise known as John of the Ladder), whose writings are very widely read in Eastern Orthodoxy through the season of Lent. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a framework for spiritual development, from the flesh of the novice on the first rung, through the acquisition of virtues through the ascetic life, and overcoming vices to ascend to the higher virtues and ultimately the final rung of the ladder, where is found a peace and love which transcends all and passes understanding.
The interesting part of the Patriarch’s sermon comes about half-way through. It is quoted at length below because a translation doesn’t seem to exist anywhere, and the reporting of it has been scant. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to discern his meaning, which is essentially that there is no such country as an independent Ukraine (it is an integral region of Holy Russia); and there is no such people as Ukrainians (they are simply Russians). He preached robustly, if not militantly:
I am very glad that today I had the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in this beautiful church, in the presence of our servicemen. Today, our Fatherland is going through a difficult time. Today, the name “military man” is again associated with being not only in a peaceful state, but also being on the battlefield. Fortunately, our Fatherland does not often face the battlefield, but the arrival of young people in the Armed Forces who aspire to become officers, who strive to devote their lives to defending the Fatherland, does not dry out. And if in peacetime this can be explained by some privileges or material considerations, then in wartime service in the Armed Forces is a real feat, and this is the time we are now experiencing. The service requires readiness from everyone who has taken the oath to defend the Motherland, not sparing their lives; and therefore today our special prayer is for the Armed Forces, for our soldiers, with whom the hope for security, for freedom, for the true independence of our country is associated.
Today the word “independence” is often applied to almost all countries of the world. But this is wrong, because most of the countries of the world are now under the colossal influence of one force, which today, unfortunately, opposes the force of our people. And since this is so, since there is great strength, then we must also be very strong. When I say “we”, I mean, first of all, the Armed Forces – but not only. All of our people today must wake up, wake up, understand that a special time has come, on which the historical fate of our people may depend.
That is why today I celebrated the Divine Liturgy right here, in this church, in order to meet first of all with representatives of our Armed Forces, to address them, and through them to our entire army, to the navy, to all the defenders of the Fatherland, so that they realize the historical importance of the present moment. I want to say again and again: we are a peace-loving country and a very peace-loving, long-suffering people who suffered from wars like few other European nations. We have no desire for war or for doing something that could harm others. But we have been so educated by our entire history that we love our Fatherland and will be ready to defend it in the way that only Russians can defend their country.
When I say these words, I do not say any empty compliments. I start from the history of our people, from the history of our Armed Forces. After all, we broke the back of fascism, which, undoubtedly, would have defeated the world, if not for Russia, if not for the feat of our people. May the Lord help us today too, so that we, being peaceful, peace-loving and modest people, are at the same time ready – always and under any circumstances – to protect our home.
Of course, when I say all this, I do not cease to feel anxiety for all the people who live in those places where military clashes are taking place today. After all, all these are the people and peoples of Holy Russia, all these are our brothers and sisters. But, as in the Middle Ages, wishing to weaken Russia, various forces pushed the brothers against each other, plunging them into internecine strife, so it is happening today. Therefore, we must do everything that we can only do to stop the bloodshed and so that there is no danger of internecine strife with all its consequences. But at the same time, we must be faithful – when I say “we”, I mean, first of all, military personnel – to our oath and readiness to “lay down our lives for our friends”, as the word of God testifies.
…To all of you, my dear ones — Bishops, fathers, brothers, sisters, military personnel, military leaders, our youth — I once again cordially greet and congratulate you on this Sunday and wish all of us to maintain strength of mind, the ability to pray for the Fatherland, and for ourselves, the ability to always maintain inner strength, which can be translated into different life situations, including multiplying the power of our Armed Forces. May the Lord keep our land, our Fatherland for many and good years! Amen.
There is a report of this sermon on Reuters, but nothing much else except a profoundly insightful piece by Katherine Kelaidis entitled ‘The Russian Patriarch just gave his most dangerous speech yet — and almost no one in the West has noticed‘. And (pace Archbishop Cranmer) she is alone is grasping the theo-political significance of Kirill’s homily:
He’s speaking in terms of the obscure history of the Christian East, a history largely unknown in the West. But do not be fooled; what he’s saying is extremely dangerous.
Patriarch Kirill’s sermon on the Sunday of St. John Climacus does no less than refuse to acknowledge the distinction between Russian and Ukrainian culture and identity, and it denies Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, both historically and in the present. Furthermore, it legitimizes the ongoing violence as necessary and even, perhaps one could argue, holy.
As the Patriarch says, recalling the words of the Gospel of John, the Russian soldiers are “laying down their lives for a friend.” That’s right. The Ukrainians the Russians are bombing, shooting, and leaving dead at the side of the road are friends. Just like Jesus thought of his disciples. These are the words of a committed nationalist of the imperial variety and a man who thinks nothing of using the familiar words of a faith to their most egregious effect. As we should all know by now, this is a very dangerous combination. When we ignore his words (and when we’re too generous in our interpretation of them), we betray those he’s already harmed and we virtually ensure that he will do worse in the future.
Kirill is the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’: he’s got Moscow quite securely, but he doesn’t quite have all Rus’, and hasn’t had since the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formally recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2018. This precipitated the Moscow-Constantinople Schism. The Patriarchate of Constantinople claims that the Ecumenical Patriarch has the right to establish a court of final appeal for any case from anywhere in the Orthodox world; and that he has jurisdiction, ecclesiastical authority over Orthodox Christians. The Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ doesn’t quite agree: he holds to the Russkii mir (‘Russian world’) ideology, which “seeks to assert a spiritual and cultural unity of the peoples descended from the Kyivan Rus… [It] is also “a spiritual concept, a reminder that through the baptism of Rus, God consecrated these people to the task of building a Holy Rus.”
President Putin is a faithful disciple of this ideology, doing the work of God to restore Holy Russia. The Patriarch and the President together have sacralised political power to propagate a strong delusion of Christian nationalism, claiming that Orthodox Russian civilization includes the territories and peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (at least). The salvation of all Russia depends on the visible unity of Russkii mir, and the restored fellowship of all the peoples of Holy Russia under the supreme authority of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’. Ukraine must therefore be subjugated, its heresy eradicated, and its ‘Ukrainians’ purged. This war is therefore holy: it’s what Jesus would want.