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After Calendar Change, Many in Ukraine Are Looking Forward to a New Christmas

Christmas in Ukraine
Snow covers the city center and a Christmas tree with St. Sophia Cathedral, foreground, and St. Michael Cathedral, background, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

(RNS) — Nearly five years after the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was recognized as independent from the Russian Orthodox Church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the OCU has further cemented its split from the Russian counterpart by adopting a new liturgical calendar.

“This is a decision that the majority of the faithful of our Church and the majority of Ukrainian society are waiting for from us,” the OCU said on its official Facebook page in late May, after its assembled bishops voted for the change. The decision still needs to be approved by the church’s ruling council in July, but it is expected to pass. The calendar shift is then slated to go into effect on Sept. 1 of this year.

The most palpable impact will be that millions of Ukrainians will celebrate Christmas with the Western world on Dec. 25, instead of the day two weeks later when Russian and other Eastern Orthodox churches, following the Julian calendar, mark Christ’s birth.

Westerners adopted the Gregorian calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XII in the 16th century.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, center right, and priests deliver an Orthodox Christmas service inside the nearly 1,000-year-old Pechersk Lavra Cathedral of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Hundreds of Ukrainians heard the Orthodox Christmas service in the Ukrainian language for the first time at Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Lavra Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas Day, a demonstration of independence from the Russian orthodox church. (AP Photo/Roman Hrytsyna)

Metropolitan Epiphanius, center right, and priests deliver an Orthodox Christmas service inside the nearly 1,000-year-old Pechersk Lavra Cathedral of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Hundreds of Ukrainians heard the Orthodox Christmas service in the Ukrainian language for the first time at Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Lavra Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas Day, a demonstration of independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. (AP Photo/Roman Hrytsyna)

It’s not the first time an Orthodox church has shifted calendars; in fact, it’s almost exactly a century after a synod in Istanbul, known as the Council of Constantinople, voted for a similar change, which was adopted in 1924 by churches across Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and elsewhere in the Balkans.

This time, however, the shift has a distinctly political character.

In its statement, the church described its decision to shift to using “the living Ukrainian language in worship instead of the traditional Slavic one” as a desire for the newly independent church to replace “centuries-old subordination.”

The “centuries-old subordination” refers to the 16th-century move to put Orthodox faithful in what is modern Ukraine under the purview of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The church officially split from the Russian patriarch’s jurisdiction in 2019, when Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople — styled “the first amongst equals” among all Eastern church patriarchs and therefore the closest thing the Orthodox world has to a universally recognized authority — granted the church a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or a decree of independence.

The decision was one of the most controversial in recent Orthodox history, and it put the Russian church, the largest in the Orthodox world, at odds with Constantinople, the church’s historical capital.

“In general Orthodoxy is divided in two big parts, represented by two leaders,” Metropolitan Yevstratiy, of the central Ukrainian city of Bila Tserkva, told Religion News Service in a recent interview. “One part, which is represented by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, is a contemporary type of Orthodoxy, which is open to the contemporary world and contemporary people, and has answers to real contemporary questions.”

Metropolitan Yevstratiy in Istanbul. Photo by David Ian Klein

Metropolitan Yevstratiy of Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, photographed in Istanbul. Photo by David Ian Klein

By contrast, said Yevstratiy, “Russia and specifically (Moscow Patriarch) Kiril Gundayev represent an attempt to reconstruct a medieval type of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy not contemporary but turned to the past, a part of Russia’s neo-Imperial project.”