A seasonal occurrence that’s about as delightful as yellow snow is the silly claim by pundits about an alleged “war on Christmas.” But over in Ukraine, we see a literal war on Christmas. Russian forces have destroyed churches ahead of this holy time, darkened Christmas trees with attacks on power sources, forced millions to flee as refugees like the holy family, and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people made in the image of God.
But this isn’t merely a war on Christmas; it’s also a war with Christmas.
In Gorky Park (the central park in the Russian capital of Moscow), Christmas decorations went up recently. There are multiple Christmas trees decorated with ornaments, lights, and beaded garlands. More lights are strung up across the park. And there’s even a massive outline of a Christmas ornament made from lights. A beautiful, festive celebration of the most wonderful time of the year.
And then there is a large ‘Z’ made out of yellow lights and another ‘Z’ on a red star with lights. Since early in the war, the letter ‘Z’ has been a key symbol of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Soldiers paint it on military vehicles and weapons. Pro-war supporters in Russia paint it on buildings and streets. A Russian gymnast taped the letter to his uniform at an international competition. It’s become so associated with Russian imperialist aggression that some companies in other countries that featured a ‘Z’ on their products have changed their symbol to make sure they aren’t seen as pro-Russia.
And there the symbol sits in Russia’s celebration of Christmas. Not just next to the Christmas trees and lights but literally lit up as a Christmas decoration. Displaying pro-war propaganda as a Christmas decoration is a sacrilegious assault on celebrations of the birth of the Prince of Peace.
From the beginning of this war, Russian leaders have blasphemously baptized the invasion as a holy crusade. The entanglement between Vladimir Putin’s regime and the Russian Orthodox Church is an example of Christian Nationalism at its deadliest. So we shouldn’t be surprised — but should still be outraged — to see Christmas co-opted for the war.
And we shouldn’t be surprised to see a mad, bloodthirsty authoritarian ruler act this way. Because it’s part of the story of the first Christmas.
After the magi showed up with the news of a newborn king, the man who fancied himself as the real “king of the Jews” pulled them aside to make a request. King Herod asked that they report back to him after they found the baby. But with the doublespeak of an authoritarian dictator, he added, “So that I too may go and worship him.”
We know Herod had no intention of bowing his head before Jesus but instead wanted to cut off the baby’s head. But Herod isn’t honest. He pretends to want to worship. He hopes to exploit a time of worship on that first Christmas to justify a violent pursuit of power.
Two thousand years later, another man with delusional visions of greatness is massacring innocent people to gain more power. And his empire dares to pretend he wants to worship the Christ child this Christmas. To put up a ‘Z’ Christmas decoration is to side with Herod. It is to want Jesus dead. It is to fight against the idea of the incarnation, of God with us. It is to wage a war on Christmas with Christmas.
But what Putin forgets is the way of Herod ends in defeat. The proud rulers are torn down from their thrones. The rich are sent away empty. The bloody ‘Z’ is no match for the Alpha and the Omega.