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home : opinion : perspectives

4/12/2017 9:00:00 AM
Women who keep the light alive

After the collapse of atheistic communism in Russia some 30 years ago, many of the Christian churches that had been closed by the communist regime reopened, bringing joy to the long-suffering people of a once vibrant Christian country.

One church in particular is worthy of mention: the Church of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg.

Once the communists came to power, the Soviet government turned it into a museum to trumpet the glories of atheism. The once-magnificent church was desecrated by the disciples of Lenin; the communists boldly predicted that the Christian faith would soon be dead and buried.

Many of the faithful languished in Soviet labor camps, often dying of malnutrition. Thousands of priests were systematically murdered. But, for all their efforts, the atheist communist government failed miserably. Even after scores of priests and nuns had been exterminated, the light of faith continued to burn -- and all because of the Babushka, the elderly Russian peasant women of deep faith.

Seldom did a day pass when those women did not enter one of the few churches that remained open to light a candle before the holy icon. By such a simple gesture of faith, they kept the memory of the Orthodox faith alive in the homeland for decades. For the young, the elderly peasants brought back memories of what had been largely forgotten in the classrooms of state-sponsored atheism.

In the last decade of the 20th century, newly-installed Archbishop Kazimierz Swiatak of Minsk, Russia, paid public tribute to the Babushka for their extraordinary witness. During the darkest years of oppression, they kept the light alive.

One of the most important symbols of Easter is light. At the Easter vigil, the faithful wait in the darkened church for the Easter candle to be lit. We believe that God is aware of the darkness by which we are surrounded. The night enables us to appreciate what the light is.

The glow of a single candle burning in a darkened church, the paschal candle, reminds us that even a single candle suffices to bring light. Recall the lovely prayer of Cardinal John Henry Newman: "O Lord, you can bring light into the darkness."

Darkness has used its ultimate weapon, death -- but the resurrection of Jesus effects a great reversal. Light has triumphed over darkness and now lives unconquerably.

In the Exsultet, which is chanted at the beginning of the Easter vigil service, the cantor prays: "Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night."

While it is true that the "night" continues -- present-day Syria is one painful example of darkness seemingly without end -- it is a night in which a light has been lit.

As Christians, we can joyfully walk through the darkness. Having been signed with Christ's cross, we can approach the dawn of a new day with confidence. Christ, our Lord, is the morning star, the one who is "light from light, true God from true God."

Christ lives! "Christ has shed His peaceful light on all humanity," says the Exsultet.

In the first public demonstration after the fall of the Soviet government, one of the Russian pilgrims walked by the great Presidium with all the communist luminaries present. He raised his clenched fist in a gesture of triumph and cried out, "Christ is risen. Truly, He is risen."

The Church is indeed alive and well. As famed author G. K. Chesterton once remarked, "Christianity has died many times and risen again, for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave!"

Like the Russian peasant wo­men, cynics sometimes make derisive comments about "superstitious old women" who haunt our American churches, too, attending daily liturgies, praying the Rosary and decorating the altar. The critics complain that the elderly women are simply wasting their time and making nuisances of themselves.

But their faithful, persevering witness keeps the memory of the faith alive in our secular, unbelieving culture. Their light burns brightly in so many of our local churches!

At the end of the day, the quiet, heroic witness of these women, near and far, will be celebrated by Christians of a future generation.

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)

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