Christmas in the First Circle
“If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?” - Solzhenitsyn
The greatest holiday for Christians is Easter, but their favorite holiday is Christmas. Unelected individuals have recently stated that Christmas must be held open handedly (although Anthony Fauci walked this back later this week). But in times of uncertainty and corruption, it is more important than ever that Christians protect their “ancient landmarks” (Prov. 22:28). Our leaders need to be reminded that worship of the almighty transcends lockdowns. God is a god of festivals and assembling, hence our right to “freely assemble”. People need holidays like Christmas, especially when they are living under a government that has forgotten its place. Holidays are a reminder to government and citizens. Christmas reminds government of its proper end — submission to God; it reminds citizens of their proper aim — to worship and enjoy God.
Fear and Humanity
“If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?” This question posed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his epic novel, In the First Circle, haunts us in our current dilemma. It is true that we should submit to government for “they do not bear the sword in vain.” But it is also clear that when faced with the choice to serve God or man, our fear of God should outweigh fear of anything else — friends, family, work, and government. There is a hierarchy, and government is not equal with God. Those who believe they can worship God without any holidays, festivals, traditions, or the physical assembly of their churches, will soon forget the God they claim to serve and will replace him with the idol of government. Traditions are a time set apart for us to remember. If we set a personal precedent that government can trump our days of remembrance, we may eventually fail to take communion in “remembrance” of Christ; it’s difficult to remember the upper room when observing it from a live stream.
Solzhenitsyn and other authors on Communism unsettle us. This is not because of their detailed depictions of violence, torture, and barbarism; these depictions, though disturbing, are difficult to relate to. It is the psychological descriptions of the citizens who self-deceive in order to remain in good graces with their community that are most unsettling. Ask a Christian, “Should you compromise indefinitely?” “No!” They adamantly state it’s absurd to not have conviction. Yet, the pressure comes and they forget or move their lines despite the prophets of communism screaming from their graves “Don’t compromise! Do not be silent! Do not comply!”. As they succumb to their peers and the government pressure, the cries of the communist victims are drowned out. They forsake their conscience, and in so doing, lose a bit of their humanity.
A constant state of fear is also dehumanizing. Whether our fearful state comes from a very real and present overreach of the government or our imaginations conjuring the worst possible scenarios based on The Great Reset does not matter. Things are objectively bad on all fronts in the world. But it is precisely in this moment that we must not forsake our holidays. This is why all Christians must stand firm on celebrating Christmas. It is our duty to worship God and to remind our neighbors and enemies that in the darkness, a light shined. God became a baby; he willfully entered a sinful and diseased ridden world; a diseased world without hospitals, hand sanitizer, and masks. Christians, are you seriously considering canceling Christmas over COVID? Christ entered the world at a time far worse than our own. Can we Christians really claim to serve God rather than man if we choose not to enter our own world and darken our church doors on Christmas? Is not a pandemic the best time to celebrate the gift of Christ? For those who think worshipping digitally and physically are the same, contemplate for a moment the implications of Jesus appearing digitally to the disciples rather than physically. “God became digital” just doesn’t have the same significance as “God became flesh”. If there is one thing COVID is doing, it is revealing our hypocrisy to ourselves and the world.
Children are masked in schools, Americans are buying guns at record rates, parents are being targeted by the FBI over their complaints of Critical Race Theory. Wherever you look, fear is being weaponized against the global populace. We are now two years into this pandemic. Do you feel like your community is more united or less united than it was 2 years ago? How long can we go on like this and remain human? Better yet, how do we end this pandemic without forsaking our neighbor or violating our conscience? It is by fixing our eyes on Christ and recognizing that our government is not above the law; our law is above the government.
Christmas Unlike Anything You Have Ever Seen
Solzhenitsyn’s epic novel describes the lives of men and women under Soviet Russia, specifically those “intelligentsia” that were forced to serve the state. While the names were changed, the circumstances depicted in this novel were very real. The story takes place during Christmas in 1949, Soviet Russia. Early in the story, we find a scene that should convict any of us, especially those considering complying with any potential or actual government restrictions on our holidays. Within the first few pages we come across a chapter titled, A Protestant Christmas. Solzhenitsyn sets the scene:
“The Christmas tree was a pine twig stuck in a crack in the top of a stool. A multicolored string of low-wattage bulbs was wound around it twice. Milk white vinyl-covered wires connected them to an accumulator on the floor.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition (New York: HarperCollins Pub., 2009), 13
There are six men present. The mere description of these men with their competing ideologies being in the same room is enough to condemn anyone who complains about their weird Al coming for the Holidays. Within this group are 5 Nazis and a Communist Jew. All six men had been sentenced to a sharashka, the first circle of hell.
One of the main characters we follow in this chapter is Ruben. During World War II, he was responsible for brainwashing Germans and sending them back into their motherland to undermine the Nazi regime. Germans captured by the Russians were taken in by Ruben to train them in the ways of Communism and plant them back in their country to subvert their German leadership — apparently, a common strategy of communists. So, why is a devout communist like Ruben in the Gulag? How could he be lumped in with the Nazis, one of which was an SS soldier! Humanity. It was that law written on the heart. Those truths that are indescribable by the human tongue, but inscribed by the divine author — that one should love their neighbor as themselves.
Would you have ever imagined a scene where an SS soldier, a handful of Nazis, and a Jewish Communist would be celebrating Christmas together? Are these men the epitome of godliness? Far from it. The scene that unfolds has the tension of a stereotypical awkward Christmas gathering. The relative that wants to stir the pot, the friend who came out of obligation, and those who are enamored with the joy of the season. How can this be in Gulag of all places? Within Gulag’s First Circle, they assembled for Christmas. Take note, Christian who readily punts to Romans 13 to justify your cowardice and apathy. This assembly was against the law of the prison, and their punishment would have been more severe than any consequence we face today. But Ruben had become fond of his German captives, now friends, and they were fond of him. With the exception of their SS companion, all were all insistent that Ruben be there:
“. . . In his efforts to convert Germans, [Ruben] had inevitably begun to feel close to them, gotten to like them, and, once Germany was prostrate, to pity them. That was what landed Rubin in prison. His enemies in the administration accused him of speaking out against the slogan ‘Blood for blood, a death for death’ after the offensive of January 1945.”
“For this little group of German exiles, storm blown into the gilded cage of a sharashka in the heart of barbarous and chaotic Muscovy, there was only one person with whom they felt any kinship, only one they understood: this major in the enemy’s army, who had spent the whole war sowing the seeds of discord and moral collapse among them.”
While attending seminary one of my professors gave a memorable sermon to our student body. His body had suffered immensely from football and the bodily harm he endured had caught up to him in his old age. While in extreme neck and back pain, an occasional tear of agony rolling down his cheek, he said: “Suffering is God’s tool for removing sin from your life.” Solzhenitsyn affirms this idea throughout his writing — suffering makes you a better person. Viktor Frankl, a famed psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, concurs. The Gulag strips a man of his vice and his prosperity and forces him to become an animal or a soul. These men, despite their vileness in a previous life, experienced a kind of sanctification that only suffering can bring. They celebrated Christmas, and reminded each other and themselves, that they were not mere animals; they were souls. Once persecutors of innocent life and each other, they were now united in suffering. They chose, in their prison and pain, to come together around a Christmas tree.
At the close of the chapter, Ruben walks out of the Christmas party, worried “. . . that he might be stopped at the exit and dragged off to the security officer to give an explanation.” As he’s leaving the Germans begin singing carols in “sotto voce”, meaning: “In a quiet voice; as if not to be overheard.”
Serve God Rather than Man
If Christmas can be a unifying force in the darkness of Gulag, it can certainly be a unifying force in a COVID lockdown. Christmas’ significance is that God entered a sin-plagued world, and willfully took the disease for us. In return, we are to do the same thing he did — enter a dying world and serve God rather than man. Are we slaves to truth or to man? If you are a church that closes your doors this Christmas and cancels gatherings in worship of your Savior, you are exchanging the bonds of truth for the road to hell. This exchange is illustrated by a later chapter, titled: The Church of Nikita the Martyr.
In chapter 25, The Church of Nikita the Martyr, we meet a new character named Agnia. This is the only chapter in which she appears. Her lover, Anton, is a main character in the story. The question of the chapter is this: will Anton love Agnia or the state. “This is the Church of Nikita the Martyr”, says Agnia. She is referring to a beautiful church built by a group of “righteous masons”. But the church’s beauty was fully realized by Anton against the backdrop of God’s creation. Anton is awestruck:
“It was as though they had soared free from the narrow ravine of the city and come out on a steep eminence with an open view far into the distance…the river was on fire in the light of the setting sun. . . And in all this golden radiance Agnia sat with a yellow shawl around her shoulders, screwing up her eyes at the sun and looking golden herself.”
Yet, love is fleeting—especially when your other mistress is the state. Anton and Agnia begin to have an argument about the future of the church. The following is a lengthy dialog between the engaged couple. Their dialog parallels many conversations I have had with Christians since the lockdowns began. As you read this, know that it is very much a parallel for Christians in Canada and Australia, and possibly America. All emphasis indicates the characters’ dialogue:
“They’re going to demolish this church, Anton.” She insisted.
“How do you know?” he asked angrily. “It’s an architectural monument; they’ll let it stand.”
“They’ll pull it down!” Agnia prophesied confidently. . .She was for the church because it was persecuted.
“What makes you say the church is persecuted?” Anton asked in surprise. “Nobody stops them ringing their bells and baking their altar bread and having their processions. Let them carry on, by all means, but they aren’t really wanted in the cities and the schools.”
“Of course it’s persecuted.” Agnia’s voice never rose above a murmur in disagreement. “When people say and print anything they like about the church and never give it a chance to defend itself, when they confiscate the alter furnishings and exile the priests, don’t you call that persecution?”
“And what if it is persecuted? Say the church has been persecuted for ten years. For how long did the church do the persecuting? Ten centuries?”
“I wasn’t alive then,’ said Agnia, shrugging her narrow shoulders. ‘I have to live here and now. I see what is happening in my own lifetime. . . “
Anton smiled indulgently.
“What a dreamer you are! Do you really think that the soul of our country was ever Christian? In the thousand years of its existence, did we ever really forgive our oppressors? Did we ever ‘love them that hate us?’ . . .How did the Russian clergy safeguard its lands, its slaves and its cult? Why, with the Tatar sword! . . .”
Agnia never argued when she was challenged. She looked at her fiancé with wide-eyed bewilderment, as though she saw him for the first time.
“That’s what all those beautiful churches with their cleverly chosen sites were built on!” Anton thundered. “And on schismatics burned at the stake! And on sectarians flogged to death! Persecuted church! Don’t waste your sympathy on it!”
“Yes, yes,” she said in a sinking voice. “I realize perfectly well at times that living is very difficult for me, that I just don’t want to live. The world has no place for people like me. . . You can probably look forward to fame and success and prosperity,” she said sadly. “But will you be happy, Anton? You must take care, too. When we get interested in the process of living, we lose. . . we lose. . .how can I put it? . . . Once the bell stops ringing, once the tuneful sounds fade, you can never call them back. But all the music is in them. Do you understand? . . . Imagine yourself dying and suddenly asking for an Orthodox funeral . . .”
I will not spoil the rest of Anton’s story, but you ought to read the entire chapter yourself. It is a “warning to the west”.
I quote this at length as a bit of a book end to Solzhenitsyn’s parable of Christmas in the sharashka. At the beginning of the book, we are in the middle of a story. Christmas is no longer in churches. It is in a monastery turned labor camp. Later, Solzhenitsyn takes us back in time before the atrocities of the camps, to an innocent girl, raised by atheists, who found God because of the persecution she saw the Christians willfully and faithfully accept. Contrast the western church experience to the Russian church experience, and the human spirit under and preceding the totalitarian conditions: it is impossible to declare Christians who are forsaking their faith, reforming their religious practice, in favor of the government mandates, as merely ‘wayward Christians’. They are stumbling blocks to the Gospel and to human freedom.
For my entire Christian life, I can remember Christians saying “when the church is persecuted, that is when it thrives most.” They don’t realize that persecution is borne from faithfulness, not apathy or pleasing your neighbor, family, and employer. Faithfulness is not closing your church doors during COVID so your surrounding neighborhoods see you “complying with the government to keep them safe.” Faithfulness is worshipping God despite mandates, listening to your conscience despite the rejection of your family and friends. It is celebrating Christmas, the first pillar in the Gospel, with Easter being the redemptive conclusion. It is time for Christians to stand strong, be courageous, operate in faithfulness to God first, love your neighbor, watch Die Hard, and be a catalyst for freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike. Merry Christmas.
Resources used for this post:
The Screwtape Letters - C. S. Lewis
In the First Circle - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn