Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Saint Volodymyr the Baptizer:
Wetting cultural appetites for the Gospel

Dr. Alexander Roman

The period between July 28 and August 14 is a significant one in the history of the Kyivan Church.  These dates frame a time of celebration of St Volodymyr and his legacy to our Church.  The first date is his proper feast, while the latter date marks the day on which Volodymyr officially received Orthodox Christianity as the state religion of Kyivan Rus'-Ukraine in A.D. 988.  What was it exactly that this Sovereign did and why is it so significant?

Having inherited a vast empire from his grandmother, St Olha, Volodymyr pressed forward with her vision of a people united by a common spiritual culture that transcended the parochial loyalties of their local traditions.

Volodymyr even considered other religions at first, including Judaism.

A legendary story handed down to us affirms that Jewish missionaries approached Volodymyr to accept Judaism, much as had happened with the Hebrew Kingdom of the Khazars previously.

Volodymyr reflected much of his own cultural perspective when, according to the story, he asked where the country of the Jews was. 

Upon learning that the Jews were scattered throughout the world, he was shocked.  He couldn't believe that the God of the Jews who could do such a thing to His people was, in fact, the true God!

For Volodymyr, the reception of Byzantine Christianity had more to do with cultural proscriptions, such as the fact that his grandmother had been baptized there, than even with the all-important political considerations.

The theories of some that Volodymyr actually "tried" Islam and other religions to see, one would presume, "how they fit" is a modern interpretation that has no basis in historical fact or even speculation.

Did Volodymyr "force" Christianity on his people?  That question betrays a modern bias.  People always followed the religion of their leaders.

Did anyone ask the peoples of Scandinavia if they wanted to become Lutheran in the sixteenth century?  Or those of Britain if they wanted to become Anglican or Calvinist?

Volodymyr himself followed what those did before him.  Tradition was more than a series of quaint customs.  It was and is a way of life based on a deep-rooted relationship to one's ancestors.

The success of Christianity, once received through Baptism, would only come about, however, to the extent that it was "married" to the culture and way of life of the people.

This task Volodymyr relegated to the Church itself.

A special four volume "Trebnyk" or Book of Blessings was developed by the Kyivan Church that related prayer to the daily activities of the rural populace of most of its members.

The Church followed nature's cycles to the letter, respecting its inherent holiness.  The people in turn respected the Church for inculturating their way of life into its vision of faith and life in accordance with the Gospel of Christ.

Fairly soon, a Christian culture would intimately link the people's not too distant pagan roots with a faith that struggled to displace the old gods.

In many cases, the Saints simply took over where the old gods left off.  The first Church in Ukraine was built in honour of the Prophet Elias (Feast: August 2nd) on the site of a pagan temple dedicated to the god "Perun" who was the god of thunderbolts.  

The cult of St Elias took on that of Perun.  Elias, having gone up to heaven in a chariot of fire, was said to protect against lightning during the summer flash storms.  A candle would be lit before his Icon in homes during devastating storms as well as during times when people would be slowly dying.

St Antipas of Pergamon became the patron for those suffering from toothache, a common malady.  Thank God for our dentists today!

Sts. Savaty and Zosimas, along with St John the Baptist were and are the patrons of the bees and bee-keeping.  Sts. Florus and Laurus the patrons of farming, along with St George, whose two feasts in May and November, frame the agricultural year in Ukraine.

Various local traditions that echoed ancient ones kept the integrity of the people's material culture alive while being infused with a Christian meaning.

Kolbassa was, in fact, a ritual food that was bound up with the cult of the wild boar, widely worshipped throughout Central Europe at one time.

To eat it was a kind of "communion" with the god of the wild boar, said to placate him.

Slavs were deathly afraid of forests and of the wild animals within them . . .

But the eating of kolbassa continued, especially at the Paschal season, even though Eastern Patriarchs sometimes wrote to the Kozaks asking them to stop practicing such "pagan traditions."  Among these they also included the Paschal dances, the "Hahilky" which were taken over from pre-Christian times as well.  

The fact is that even if Ukraine had not become Christian, holidays such as "Sviat-Vechir" at Christmas and others would still be practiced in virtually the same form and manner as they are today!

The veneration of the "holy corner" in Slavic homes continues in the "Icon Corner" where icons decorate the main corner of the home which is also where all the family celebrations always take place, a tradition peculiar to the East Slavs.

The use of the pussy-willow, an ancient pre-Christian practice, continued in the Kyivan Church, not because "real palm branches" could not be had, but because the pussy-willow exemplified the Resurrection of Christ to the Slavs in a much more meaningful way!

Saint Volodymyr baptized more than just the people on 14 August 988.

He also baptized an entire culture, grafting these Ukrainian shoots onto the Vine that is Christ.

This was happening in other cultures and with other peoples.  It is just that the way in which the Kyivan Church conducted its process of inculturation of the Gospel throughout Kyivan Rus' was most ingenious and successful.

Centuries later, Kyivan missionaries would, under the aegis of the Russian imperial power, conduct Christian outreach in Alaska among the Aleutian peoples.

They reached as far south along the North American west coast as San Francisco in 1815.

The Spanish Army drove the Russians away from California and found groups of Aleutian Indians wearing three-bar Orthodox Crosses.

They ordered their Catholic priests to re-baptize them.

But one Peter the Aleutian refused, saying that he was already baptized.  He refused to receive Catholicism and chose to die a martyr for his new Faith.

St Peter the Aleutian, as he is listed in the Calendar today, represented the first-fruits of the preaching of the Gospel by a tradition that was quick to inculturate it in the way of life of the people who were the object of that preaching.

"Preach to all nations," was the command of Christ to His Apostles and their successors, the Churches they founded.

If nations are the object of preaching, and the Gospel is the message, then culture is most definitely the medium.

Several years before the Baptism of Kyivan Rus,' Volodymyr was shocked to learn of the martyrdom of two Christian soldiers in his Royal Army.

These were Sts. Theodore and John, one a father, the other his son.  The former was killed because he refused to offer his son in sacrifice to a pagan god, the other was killed anyway.

On the site of this act, Volodymyr later erected the Church of the Tithe, a Church built by the tenth of the wealth of his nobles.

Although later destroyed, it was in this Church that Volodymyr placed the miraculous Icon of Smolensk.

Later, he placed it at the source of the River Dniepro-Slavutych as if to consecrate forever the water in which his people were baptized.

That water flows to this day, holy and sacred.  It is our River Jordan in whose streams we as children of the Kyivan Church are always invited to enter into to experience anew a sense of our own calling as the Baptized in Christ. 

And if we look up to see the statue of St Volodymyr the Great hovering over the entire site, we might just hear the words of Saint Volodymyr, spoken so long ago, by way of a prayer on behalf of his new people of Christ:. 

"Lord, look down upon this new nation of yours and keep them under the Mantle of Your Divine Protection . . ."

Every August 14th finds this non-swimmer in a body of water.  It is as if the shimmering waves reflect the very Grace of Christ from Heaven.

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