Kyiv, 3 January 2024. Volunteers remove rubble after a bombing (Photo: ANSA)

Sigov: "The logic of Christmas and Ukraine at war"

The Kyiv-based philosopher reflects on the contrast between the Feast of the Incarnation and the ongoing violence in conflict-affected countries. “Certain events weigh much more heavily in the judgement of history than the shadows of the pharaohs.”
Alberto Perrucchini

There is no more room. There no longer seems to be room for the war in Ukraine in the media, which is preoccupied with reporting on other tragedies in the world. There is no room for the enthusiasm that accompanied a counter-offensive that never got off the ground, for Christmas time in a country that for two years has been grappling with an invasion that will not subside. However, it is precisely in such a context that Christmas is vital for Constantin Sigov, a philosopher and editor from Kyiv who has been living between Ukraine and France for two years, “because it allows hope to show itself again.”
"I would like to recall an expression uttered in 1937 by the Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky," Sigov begins: "Christ's Christmas feast is the feast of Christian joy. Silent, pure and humble. It is the feast that is appreciated by those who are poor in spirit, humble, persecuted, hungry and thirsting for justice; the Gospel is addressed to all of you, wherever you are, with joy: stretch out your arms and weak knees.'' While Lviv, his city, was being occupied – by the Stalinist army, then by Hitler's army, and finally again by the Soviet army –, Sheptytsky had the responsibility to guard the people and to show how, despite the hell imposed by totalitarian regimes, it was possible to live according to the Gospel. Mary also had “weak arms and weak knees” when there was nowhere to take refuge and she found herself forced to flee to Egypt with her husband and newborn son. She only found solace in relying on God.

Professor Sigov, how can one speak of hope in places like Ukraine or the Holy Land, scarred by war?
At Christmas there are three types of songs: the harmonious song of angels, the prayer of men, and then the cry of the child who calls out and cannot be silenced. Such a contrast is particularly evident today: our job is to bring the din of war and the 'symphony of peace' into dialogue. This cry of the weakest cannot be bracketed and replaced by the harmonious song: unity is needed. This is what is happening for me in the relationship that has been born between the publishing house I manage and the Taizé community. In 2023, both Kiev and Lviv were visited by monks, in particular by the community's prior, Brother Alois, who in recent years has forged an ever stronger bond with the Ukrainian culture and people. The relationship with them has also resulted in a book that collects the speeches given by Brother Richard, who is of Swiss origin and has become one of the pillars of the community, and who participated in several editions of the ‘Assumption Meetings', the largest international ecumenical conference that we organised each year in Kyiv. The book has been translated not only into Russian and Ukrainian, but also into French and English for sale in the United States, and finally into German.

Why is it an important book?
It is entitled Opening the Treasure of the Scriptures: Some Biblical Crumbs. We know that the Bible often speaks, even directly, about justice, freedom, friendship... About discovering the meaning of the reality around us. The struggle being fought today is between open societies and authoritarian regimes, and its outcome will depend on the ability and willingness to distinguish truth from lies, humble humanity from the archaic obsession with greatness. This is not a contrast that only concerns the Ukrainian people, but the whole world. In order to be able to speak of hope, it is crucial that the Ukrainian people feel united, but it is also necessary that solidarity with our friends in the West is strengthened.

How can we contribute to this?
Each one of us can take part in the 'bet' of Christmas: the incredible announcement of the Incarnation is the news that the Creator of the universe becomes the smallest, the most vulnerable. An infant who overcomes the greatest, the most powerful. From this fact that happened two thousand years ago and continues to happen, we can discover that certain events – apparently insignificant – weigh much more heavily in the judgement of history than the shadows of the pharaohs. It is very important to distinguish what surrenders to the realm of shadows and what belongs to the incarnate reality of our lives. It seems to me that it is precisely this distinction that sustains the Ukrainians in the defence of their freedom.

What do you mean by 'shadow world' and 'incarnate reality'?

The incarnate reality, which we Ukrainians experience first and foremost today, originates from a deep sense of gratitude to those who, even before us, made Christ's words their own: “There is no greater love than a person who would lay down his life for his friends.” This is not just a nice quote, but a direct experience: we know who is fighting for us, we know their faces, their names; we know that right now they are defending us. Our focus is not on the aggressor, geopolitical schemes or abstract calculations, but on people close to us. There are two questions I always ask myself: who is my neighbour and who is trying to kill me. The answer to the second one is generic: it can be missiles, drones, planes, etc. that strike us. Regarding the first, however, the answer is very concrete: they are precise people. Those who repair damaged power plants, who rescue those trapped in houses hit by missiles...

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Why do Ukrainians have such a great will to resist and so much courage?
I am often asked this by Western journalists. And I answer: “The right question is not why, but for whom.” There is a huge difference between an abstract 'why' and a concrete 'for whom'. Their reasons may change, the enthusiasm may wane, but the faces of the people you are fighting for cannot be forgotten. On the other hand, for us this is an experience that began with the Maidan protests of 2013-2014. I remember that my wife and I were at home and we felt in danger, we were afraid. We asked ourselves, "What must be happening to our son who is spending the night in the square?" So we turned off the television, got into the car and went to him. We talked to him, met his friends and experienced what was happening in a completely new way: the shadows became a concrete reality that spoke to our lives.