Holy Week 2022: A wartime meditation

Blood has been streaming from Christ’s body, the Church in Ukraine, for eight weeks now. It has poured from the bodies of men, women and children.

A man who says Russian soldiers broke his arm stands outside his house in Bucha, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (CNS photo/Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters)

In both the Roman and Byzantine liturgical calendars, Lent 2022 has coincided with a brutal war in Ukraine. That war was launched by Russia’s Vladimir Putin for an ignoble, imperial cause. It has been conducted by the Russian military in a manner that recalls the barbarism of the Romans who crucified 6,000 slaves along the Appian Way after the Spartacus revolt. It’s an old story. Tyrants cannot tolerate the truth about their tyranny; they terrorize in order to break the spirit of those who seek freedom.

In the third week of the war, Latin-rite Catholics read a passage from St. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 140 that would surely ring true in the hearts of our eastern Christian brethren in Ukraine, both Greek Catholic and Orthodox:

“Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.” This is a prayer we can all say. This is not my prayer, but that of the whole Christ. Rather, it is said in the name of his body. When Christ was on earth he prayed in his human nature and prayed to the Father in the name of his body; and when he prayed, drops of blood fell from his whole body. So it is written in the Gospel: “Jesus prayed with earnest prayer, and sweated blood.” What is this blood streaming from his whole body but the martyrdom of the whole Church?

Blood has been streaming from Christ’s body, the Church in Ukraine, for eight weeks now. It has poured from the bodies of men, women and children. Ukrainian patriots have fallen in defense of their homeland; Russian soldiers have fallen for reasons they could not comprehend, because their superiors lied to them about their mission. The bloody wounds that have been inflicted on the Body of Christ in this war call to mind the Lord’s scourging; the mindless cruelties inflicted on civilians remind us of his crowning with thorns by sadists. With Christ, the Ukrainian people, who ask only to be themselves, have walked the bloody path to Calvary, where those who inflict their suffering mock their claims to be who they are.

Ukraine’s wounds, especially in the city of Mariupol’, brings to mind a reflection by another Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The city’s name honors the Blessed Virgin Mary as depicted in the Hodegetria icon. The wanton destruction of a Marian-named city by Russian forces – including the kidnapping of residents and their deportation to Russia — has been a poignant reminder of why St. Bernard taught the Church that Our Lady is a martyr:

The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus, “He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted.” He went on to say to Mary, “And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son. Indeed, after your Jesus — who belongs to everyone, but is especially yours — gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart…Thus the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.

Healing the physical, spiritual, and emotional wounds of this war will take a long time. Those wounds include the falsifications of the Christian history of the eastern Slavs that underwrite the Russian attempt to destroy a sovereign nation: one that posed no security threat to Moscow, but did, by its existence, challenge the false story that Russian leaders — political and, alas, religious — have been telling their people for too long. A lengthy healing process notwithstanding, Ukraine has experienced more than the Passion this Lent.

From the beginning, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other true men of God have proclaimed the saving truth that Easter follows Calvary. Thus we can carry our crosses, however bloody, in the sure knowledge that Christ’s victory is ours if we remain faithful to his cause. As Major-Archbishop Shevchuk, named on a Russian assassination list, put it with simple eloquence, in the “baptismal waters of the Dnipro River” those faithful became “the body of the Risen Christ, over which death has no power.”


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About George Weigel 394 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

10 Comments

  1. “The wanton destruction of a Marian-named city by Russian forces – including the kidnapping of residents and their deportation to Russia”

    The city is primarily filled with Russian-speakers who identity with Russia, but Weigel will not tell you this.

      • Ahh… Professor Weigel, “cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

    • You are totally misinformed. They may be Russian speakers, but they are thoroughly Ukrainian. The Russians are mindlessly shelling their apartment buildings in an attempt to kill as many civilians as possible. A huge number have stayed to fight the Russians as they come into the city. They are not leaving, they are not demanding to be turned over to the Russians, and they do not want anything to do with Russia.

      Search for the article “Ukrainian Russian-speakers in Mariupol send defiant message that they ‘don’t want Putin’s protection’”

    • SOL –

      It doesn’t make sense that the Russian Army would utterly destroy Mariupol if, as your comment implies, the citizens of Mariupol identified with and wanted to be “liberated” by Russia.

      • Chris in Maryland: Maybe you should stop trusting American imperial media regarding what the Russians are doing and the sympathies of the citizens of the LDNR. It’s your own presumptions that are the problem.

        • You could also do some research on the presence of Azov in Mariopol and in the LDNR in general, as well as reading what their public position is regarding ethnic Russians.

  2. Thank you, George, for another excellent piece. (For a similarly correct perspective on what’s happening in Ukraine, see Daniel Henninger’s oped in today’s WSJ, “The Devil Resurfaces in Ukraine.”)

  3. Catholics should all call for Pontiff Francis to tear up the Havana Accord with his co-signer Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a sign that the Catholic Church has no accord with such a blasphemous Krisjun, who blessed the Ear of Atrocity against Ukraine.

    The Catholic Church should only be in accord with the Orthodox Churches which have condemned Kirill and the Russian Atrocity.

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