Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Baptism of Jesus

On Saturday, we visited our sister church in Kyiv. It also happened to be the day that most Ukrainians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus (January 19th). We saw lots of people taking the plunge into the Dnipro River through holes cut in the ice to celebrate the occasion. Even the President of Ukraine jumped into the icy water on national television. And yes, Christmas trees and decorations are still up all over the city.

This excerpt from a Ukrainian website best describes what we experienced and why.

"Why are all those Ukrainian politicians jumping into the icy Dnipro when you turn on the news this month? What’s On has the scoop on a bone-chilling local tradition. If you’re a Westerner living in Ukraine, the Christmas season might seem to last forever. After all, you’re probably oriented toward a Western calendar and following the Western media, which starts carrying Christmas advertising and content in late November at the latest. Under normal circumstances you’d expect the holiday season to be over with the New Year, but of course in Ukraine, which follows the Orthodox calendar, that’s when it’s just starting. Right when you think the decorated pine trees should be coming down, some are still going up, and grocery stores keep playing Christmas songs until the third week in January.

Still, even the holiday season has to come to an end some time, and in Ukraine it ends with the upcoming feast of the Epiphany on 19 January. The Epiphany in general celebrates the presentation of the infant Jesus Christ to the world – hence the fact that it’s also called the Theophany, which combines the Greek words for ‘god’ and ‘showing forth.’ The holiday also takes into account Jesus’ christening in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, which is why the blessing of water remains a core part of its observance in all churches. In the old days, and even today, Christians (at least those who lived in cold climates) would cut a hole into the ice of their local river or lake, through which to bless the water. Locally, this body of water was called a ‘iordan’, after the Biblically important river, and a religious procession was held annually around it.

In Ukraine over the past decade, not only water blessings but bathing in icy water has become very popular. Every year you can see top Ukrainian officials, including most illustriously President Yushchenko, jumping through a hole in the ice of the Dnipro – what he calls the ‘Ukrainian Jordan’ - and taking a fast swim, gasping and grunting like a walrus and wearing nothing but a regular bathing suit. The event is usually held in Hydropark, and generates its share of media attention. Before the celebrity ice-swimmers arrive, musicians perform a holiday concert for passers-by. Despite the terrible frosts that typically befall Ukraine every year in mid-January, hundreds of people who wish to take a dip in the frigid Dnipro waters assemble near the entrance to the Hydropark metro station, ready to strip down and suffer for the fun of it."

The church we visited in Kyiv is a Messianic church and most of the congregation are ethnic Jews who are Christians. We had a great time and feel blessed to have met so many people with a genuine passion for Christ. Dominic was even presented with a kippah as an honorary Jewish member of the congregation.

Dominic wearing his Kippah
Dominic wearing his new kippah.

On Sunday, we were blessed with our youngest member to attend our children’s ministry. Little Andriy is two years old and full of energy and smiles. Edna had fun helping Andriy make his craft.

Edna and two year old Andriy at church
Edna with two year old Andriy at church.

As usual, Maxime went to church with us and through Dominic we discovered something that broke our hearts. When the boys went Christmas caroling, Maxime had said not to tell his parents about the money he had gotten because they would keep it for themselves. We thought that he had some toy or something in mind for the money. Instead, Maxime used the money to buy himself a new pair of pants and shoes. The pants he had didn’t fit anymore and were falling apart. The shoes he had were a pair of used ones that someone at church had donated. I guess we take it for granted that parents will feed and clothe their children.

Maxime asked if he could spend the night at our place so of course we said yes. He shocked us when it came time to pray before dinner. He eagerly asked if he could be the one to pray. He not only thanked God for the food, but it touched our hearts when he thanked God for us. He even prayed that God would help us to continue learning Ukrainian. Edna and I still can’t believe that this is the same boy who six months ago didn’t understand why we needed to pray before we ate.

Maxime asking to pray over dinner
Maxime letting us know he wanted to pray.

Another surprise came when it was time for bed. Maxime wanted to have a Bible study with Dominic. Dominic would read a verse in English and then Maxime would read the same verse in Ukrainian. In this way, Dominic and Maxime read through several key concepts about the life of Jesus. Maxime happily told us that he understood that if we trust in Jesus then even if we die, we won’t die. Maxime then asked if we could all pray together. He began and then we all prayed in turn with Maxime closing by reading a prayer for Ukraine that he found in our Bible.

Bible Study with Maxime
Maxime reading the Bible with Dominic and Edna

Maxime had asked to sleep in the living room instead of the boys’ room saying that Joshua would keep him up talking if they all slept in the same room. After everyone was in bed, I saw the light go on in the living room. I crept in to see what Maxime was doing and I realized why he had wanted to sleep in the living room by himself. He was reading the Bible.

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