Letter #68, 2016: The Passing of a Russian General

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December 25, 2016, Sunday — The Passing of a Russian General

Christmas Day 2016

Christmas Day is here. I would like to send my heartfelt Christmas greetings to all of my friends and readers at Christmastime.

I would also like to share some sorrowful news.

This Christmas day began, as so many now do, with an email from a friend. This one came with tragic news from Leonid Sevastianov, a Russian:

“Bob,

“Merry Christmas!

“This Christmas morning General Khalilov with his orchestra who performed oratorio in Washington died in the air crash!!

“Say few prayers!

“Leonid”

Leonid was referring to the concert of the Christmas Oratorio composed by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev which was performed in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception almost exactly nine years ago, on December 17, 2007.

General Khalilov was the conductor for that concert. I helped organize the concert, and so I came to know Khalilov.

He was a strong man with a ready smile, a military man who stood tall and erect with square shoulders, but also a man of music, a composer himself, who threw himself emotionally into his conducting.

He died at the age of 64.

Here is a picture of General Khalilov while conducting.

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And here is a link to a portion of the performance of the Christmas Oratorio Khalilov conducted on December 17, 2007, in the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.; Khalilov can be seen clearly at the 3:30 mark of the performance; the vocal part begins at about the 2:55 mark (link). It is quite moving to me even today, after all these years.

And here is the finale to the same Christmas Oratorio, but in another performance in Russia, with another conductor, Alexei Puzakov, where the choir sings the Russian words for “Glory to God in the highest.” (link)

(Note: We will be reprinting the CD of the American concert; if anyone would like to order one, simply send me an email by return mail.)


 

I checked on the internet to see the news: an airplane traveling from southern Russia toward Syria to perform for Russian troops stationed in Syria had crashed near Sochi in the Black See, killing all 92 people on board.

“Among them,” CNN reported, “eight crew members, eight soldiers and more than 60 members of the famed Alexandrov Ensemble, the Russian army’s official choir, including its conductor Valery Khalilov.”

Wildly popular in Russia, the Alexandrov Ensemble was founded in 1928 as the official Red Army choir, and it has toured the world performing Russian folk songs, World War II anthems and patriotic music, and has been dubbed “Russia’s singing weapon.”

The ensemble consists of between 100 and 120 members depending on the type of performance. It includes a choir, a dance troupe and an orchestra. Because their performance at the Syrian airbase was going to be mostly a cappella, only the choir and a handful of dancers were aboard the plane, Russian media reported.

“The orchestra did not fly because [the choir] was supposed to use pre-recorded music,” choir singer Sergei Khlopnikov, who didn’t make the trip because his daughter was sick, told the Interfax news agency.

Nine journalists, including three reporters with Star TV, were on board, the Russian Defense Ministry said on its television network.

“Our cultural paratroopers perished,” the head of the Moscow government’s culture department, Alexander Kibovsky, said in televised remarks. “These people always performed in war zones, they wore uniforms, they brought kindness and light.”

So, along with the General Khalikov, nearly the entire Red Army choir had died this Christmas morning.


Here are excerpts from an email I sent back to Leonid:

“I send my condolences, and these few thoughts.

“When the General was in America, nine years ago, he conducted the Christmas Oratorio so beautifully.

“I remember that he was so active, and alive, and his intelligent eyes glinted with light and joy and hope.

“We joked a bit as we rode the bus from the Hilton hotel to the Shrine, the first time the dome came into our sight through the front window of the bus, and I told him proudly that it was the largest church in the country, and he nodded with what I thought was due respect for the fact that our concert was going to be something important…

“He always stood straight and tall; he was a military man. But he was also very human and he put his heart into conducting the Christmas Oratorio, so movingly… I could see this again in the video selections that Leonid sent to me in a link, which I just watched….

“No one who was there that night in 2007 will ever forget that occasion, and we owe so much to him, the General-conductor, as we owe so much to all the musicians, the singers, everyone who worked so hard to make it happen. It did happen.

“And now the General has been taken suddenly away, and so many singers with him. I shake my head…

“The joys and sorrows of our lives are intertwined — today, here, for us, is the happy day of the birth of Christ, we are quietly sharing presents with one another in our homes, and yet, this news comes — there are so many sadnesses, events we cannot control, this airplane crash and the loss of life.

“For my part, I too send thoughts and prayers to the members of the General’s family, and to the members of the families of all the singers, and to the members of the families and friends of all who died in the plane crash, on this Christmas morning in our calendar.

“And I hope that in the mysterious designs of God, who does not clearly explain to us why such things happen, the sorrow all feel can be a motivation, an impulse, to all of us, to do what we can while the light lasts for us… that despite our limitations, and the fact that we are now getting older and less strong than we once were, that we may find a way to bear witness in our world to some depth of holiness and dignity which the General bore witness to in his life, and in his conducting, and which we in our differing ways have tried to support in our efforts for truth, and peace, and goodness, and hope, in this fallen world.

“Yes, we pray for General Valery Khalikov, this good man, and we pray for ourselves, hoping that we may live as well as he lived, and as honorably.

“May eternal light shine upon him, and may his soul rest in peace, and may all who mourn him be comforted…”


Pope Francis at the Christmas Vigil Mass, Christmas Eve

At 9:30 on December 24, the Holy Father Francis presided in the Vatican Basilica at the “Christmas Midnight Mass” for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord 2016. During the Mass, after the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, the Pope gave the following homily.

The essence of the homily is in these words: “Christmas has essentially a flavour of hope because, notwithstanding the darker aspects of our lives, God’s light shines out. His gentle light does not make us fear; God who is in love with us, draws us to himself with his tenderness, born poor and fragile among us, as one of us.”

Here is the complete homily:

“The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Tit 2:11). The words of the Apostle Paul reveal the mystery of this holy night: the grace of God has appeared, his gift is free; in the Child given unto us the love of God is made visible.

It is a night of glory, that glory proclaimed by the angels in Bethlehem and also by us today all over the world. It is a night of joy, because from this day forth, and for all times, the infinite and eternal God is God with us: he is not far off, we need not search for him in the heavens or in mystical notions; he is close, he is been made man and will never distance himself from our humanity, which he has made his own.

It is a night of light: that light, prophesied by Isaiah (cf. 9:1), which would illumine those who walk in darkness, has appeared and enveloped the shepherds of Bethlehem (cf. Lk 2:9).

The shepherds simply discover that “unto us a child is born” (Is 9:5) and they understand that all this glory, all this joy, all this light converges to one single point, that sign which the angel indicated to them: “you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).

This is the enduring sign to find Jesus.

Not just then, but also today.

If we want to celebrate Christmas authentically, we need to contemplate this sign: the fragile simplicity of a small newborn, the meekness of where he lies, the tender affection of the swaddling clothes. God is there.

With this sign the Gospel reveals a paradox: it speaks of the emperor, the governor, the mighty of those times, but God does not make himself present there; he does not appear in the grand hall of a royal palace, but in the poverty of a stable; not in pomp and show, but in the simplicity of life; not in power, but in a smallness which surprises.

In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is: we need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small.

The Child who is born challenges us: he calls us to leave behind fleeting illusions and go to the essence, to renounce our insatiable claims, to abandon our endless dissatisfaction and sadness for something we will never have. It will help us to leave these things behind in order to rediscover in the simplicity of the God-child, peace, joy and the meaning of life.

Let us allow the Child in the manger to challenge us, but let us also allow ourselves to be challenged by the children of today’s world, who are not lying in a cot caressed with the affection of a mother and father, but rather suffer the squalid “mangers that devour dignity”: hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.

Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons.

The mystery of Christmas, which is light and joy, questions and unsettles us, because it is at once both a mystery of hope and of sadness.

It bears within itself the taste of sadness, inasmuch as love is not received, and life discarded.

This happened to Joseph and Mary, who found the doors closed, and placed Jesus in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7).

Jesus was born rejected by some and regarded by many others with indifference.

Today also the same indifference can exist, when Christmas becomes a feast where the protagonists are ourselves, rather than Jesus; when the lights of commerce cast the light of God into the shadows; when we are concerned for gifts but cold towards those who are marginalized.

Yet Christmas has essentially a flavour of hope because, notwithstanding the darker aspects of our lives, God’s light shines out.

His gentle light does not make us fear; God who is in love with us, draws us to himself with his tenderness, born poor and fragile among us, as one of us.

He is born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.”

In this way he seems to tell us that he is born as bread for us; he enters life to give us his life; he comes into our world to give us his love.

He does not come to devour or to command but to nourish and to serve.

Thus there is a direct thread joining the manger and the cross, where Jesus will become bread that is broken: it is the direct thread of love which is given and which saves us, which brings light to our lives, and peace to our hearts.

The shepherds grasped this in that night. They were among the marginalized of those times. But no one is marginalized in the sight of God and it was precisely they who were invited to the Nativity.

Those who felt sure of themselves, self-sufficient, were at home with their possessions; the shepherds instead “went with haste” (cf. Lk 2:16).

Let us allow ourselves also to be challenged and convened tonight by Jesus.

Let us go to him with trust, from that area in us we feel to be marginalized, from our own limitations.

Let us touch the tenderness which saves.

Let us draw close to God who draws close to us, let us pause to look upon the crib, and imagine the birth of Jesus: light, peace, utmost poverty, and rejection.

Let us enter into the real Nativity with the shepherds, taking to Jesus all that we are, our alienation, our unhealed wounds.

Then, in Jesus we will enjoy the flavour of the true spirit of Christmas: the beauty of being loved by God.

With Mary and Joseph we pause before the manger, before Jesus who is born as bread for my life.

Contemplating his humble and infinite love, let us say to him: thank you, thank you because you have done all this for me.

Pope Francis at Noon on Christmas Day

And here is the message that Pope Francis promounced at noon today, his Urbi et Orbi message, “to the City and to the World.”

Pope Francis’ Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi Message

At noon today from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis addressed the following Christmas Message to a crowd of approximately 40,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!

Today the Church once again experiences the wonder of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and the shepherds of Bethlehem, as they contemplate the newborn Child laid in a manger: Jesus, the Saviour.

On this day full of light, the prophetic proclamation resounds: “For to us a child is born, To us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulder; and his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Is 9:6)

The power of this Child, Son of God and Son of Mary, is not the power of this world, based on might and wealth; it is the power of love. It is the power which created the heavens and the earth, which gives life to all creation: to minerals, plants and animals; it is the force which attracts man and woman, and makes them one flesh, one single existence; it is the power which gives new birth, pardons faults, reconciles enemies, and transforms evil into good.

It is the power of God. This power of love led Jesus Christ to strip himself of his glory and become man; it led him to give his life on the cross and to rise from the dead. It is the power of service, which inaugurates in our world the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace.

For this reason, the birth of Jesus was accompanied by the angels’ song as they proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14).

Today this message goes out to the ends of the earth to reach all peoples, especially those scarred by war and harsh conflicts that seem stronger than the yearning for peace.

Peace to men and women in the war-torn land of Syria, where far too much blood has been spilled.

Above all in the city of Aleppo, site of the most awful battles in recent weeks, it is most urgent that assistance and support be guaranteed to the exhausted civil populace, with respect for humanitarian law. It is time for weapons to be still forever, and the international community to actively seek a negotiated solution, so that civil coexistence can be restored in the country.

Peace to women and men of the beloved Holy Land, the land chosen and favoured by God. May Israelis and Palestinians have the courage and the determination to write a new page of history, where hate and revenge give way to the will to build together a future of mutual understanding and harmony.

May Iraq, Libya and Yemen – where their peoples suffer war and the brutality of terrorism – be able once again to find unity and concord.

Peace to the men and women in various parts of Africa, especially in Nigeria, where fundamentalist terrorism exploits even children in order to perpetrate horror and death.

Peace in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so that divisions may be healed and all people of good will may strive to undertake the path of development and sharing, preferring the culture of dialogue to the mindset of conflict.

Peace to women and men who to this day suffer the consequences of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where there is urgent need for a common desire to bring relief to the civil population and to put into practice the commitments which have been assumed.

We implore harmony for the dear people of Colombia, which seeks to embark on a new and courageous path of dialogue and reconciliation.

May such courage also motivate the beloved country of Venezuela to undertake the necessary steps to put an end to current tensions, and build together a future of hope for the whole population.

Peace to all who, in different areas, are enduring sufferings due to constant dangers and persistent injustice.

May Myanmar consolidate its efforts to promote peaceful coexistence and, with the assistance of the international community, provide necessary protection and humanitarian assistance to all those who gravely and urgently need it.

May the Korean peninsula see the tensions it is experiencing overcome in a renewed spirit of cooperation.

Peace to those who have lost a person dear to them as a result of brutal acts of terrorism, and to those who have sown fear and death into the hearts of so many countries and cities.

Peace – not merely the word, but a real and concrete peace – to our abandoned and excluded brothers and sisters, to those who suffer hunger and to all the victims of violence.

Peace to exiles, migrants and refugees, to all those who in our day are subject to human trafficking.

Peace to the peoples who suffer because of the economic ambitions of the few, because of the sheer greed and the idolatry of money, which leads to slavery.

Peace to those affected by social and economic unrest, and to those who endure the consequences of earthquakes or other natural catastrophes.

Peace to the children, on this special day on which God became a child, above all those deprived of the joys of childhood because of hunger, wars or the selfishness of adults.

Peace on earth to men and women of goodwill, who work quietly and patiently each day, in their families and in society, to build a more humane and just world, sustained by the conviction that only with peace is there the possibility of a more prosperous future for all.

Dear brothers and sisters,

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”: he is the “Prince of peace”. Let us welcome him!

[after the Blessing]

To you, dear brothers and sisters, who have gathered in this Square from every part of the world, and to those in various countries who are linked to us by radio, television and other means of communication, I offer my greeting.

On this day of joy, we are all called to contemplate the Child Jesus, who gives hope once again to every person on the face of the earth. By his grace, let us with our voices and our actions give witness to solidarity and peace.

Merry Christmas to all!

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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