Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

Christmas In The Cracked Temple

The terrible saving mysteries of the Nativity

An editor friend sent me an advance copy of The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction Of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924, by the Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi. It will be out from Harvard University Press in April 2019. Here’s what I know about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians: that it happened in 1915-16, a million or more Armenians were killed, and that the Turks vehemently deny it to this day. Beyond that, not much.

Morris and Ze’evi write that the Armenian genocide was part (the greatest part) of a three-decade cleansing by the Turks of their country’s Christian minority. It happened in three spasm’s: a series of state-sponsored, anti-Armenian pogroms from 1894-96, under Abdulhamid II, one of the last Ottoman sultans; the systematic massacres and exiles of Armenians in 1915-16; and the bloody destruction of Greek and Assyrian Christian communities from 1919-24. As the authors write:

In the course of three campaigns beginning in 1894, the Turks turned variously to tools of steady oppression, mass murder, attrition, expulsion, and forced conversion. By 1924 they had cleansed Asia Minor of its four million–odd Christians.

The authors set out to document and to understand what happened to the Armenians, but found that the 1915-16 Armenian genocide was part of a wider and older story.

I hadn’t planned to start the book until after Christmas, but curiosity got the best of me last night, and I opened it at bedtime. I finally put it down just shy of two a.m.; I had read the entire first section, about the 1894-96 phase of the genocide. I plan to write more about the book when we get closer to publication date. For now, though, here is a characteristic passage from that first section, about a pogrom in Urfa in late December, 1895:

According to [British diplomat G.H.] Fitzmaurice’s investigation, Nazif was seen “motioning the crowd on,” the mob guided by troops who had familiarized themselves with the quarter during the siege. A “body of wood-cutters,” armed with axes, led the way, breaking down doors. Soldiers then rushed inside and shot the men. “A certain sheik,” Fitzmaurice wrote, “ordered his followers to bring as many stalwart young Armenians as they could find. To the number of about 100 they were thrown on their backs and held down by their hands and feet, while the sheik, with a combination of fanaticism and cruelty, proceeded, while re- citing verses of the Koran, to cut their throats after the Mecca rite of sacrificing sheep.” Those hiding were dragged out and butchered—stoned, shot, and set on fire with “matting saturated with petroleum.” Women were cut down shielding their husbands and fathers. More Armenians were shot as they scampered along rooftops trying to escape. When the killing subsided, the houses were looted and torched. As sunset approached, the trumpet sounded again, calling the troops and the mob to withdraw. Soldiers specifically forbade the mob to “touch” Shattuck’s house, “the residence of a foreigner.” The missionary, who witnessed a portion of the massacre from her window, reported that “Syrians and Catholics were also spared.”

The atrocities resumed the following day, December 29, with a trumpet sound at dawn. The largest number were killed at the Armenian cathedral, where thousands had gathered for sanctuary. The attackers first fired through windows into the church, then smashed in the doors and killed the men clustered on the ground floor. Fitzmaurice relates that, as the mob plundered the church, they “mockingly call[ed] on Christ . . . to prove himself a greater prophet than Mohammed.” The Turks then shot at the “shrieking and terrified mass of women, children and some men” in the second-floor gallery. But gunning the Armenians down one-by-one was “too tedious,” so the mob brought in more petroleum-soaked bedding and set fire to the woodwork and the staircases leading up to the galleries. For several hours “the sickening odour of roasting flesh pervaded the town.” Writing the following March, Fitzmaurice noted, “Even today, the smell of putrescent and charred remains in the church is unbearable.” Shattuck described the horror as “a grand holocaust” and for days afterward watched “men lugging sacks filled with bones, ashes” from the cathedral.

Here’s the thing: this was not a one-off event in that period. This kind of thing happened to Armenians in villages and small cities all over Turkey. Around 100,000 Armenians were murdered in that period, and as many are believed to have died from wounds, sickness, and starvation resulting from those events. An important note: not only did Turkish troops commit these atrocities, but also Kurdish clans, empowered by the Ottomans to act on their behalf.

Armenian Christians follow the Julian calendar, which means they were only days away from celebrating Christmas (January 6) when the Islamic mobs set upon them. As you prepare for your Christmas celebration this year, spare a thought for those martyred Armenian Christians.

I’ve been thinking about them all day, wondering how people ever feel at home in the world after enduring something like that. How do they go on? Remember this reflection I posted about the movie Andrei Rublev back on October?  Here I talk about my favorite scene:

I went back to my favorite part of Andrei Rublev — a scene called “Andrei’s penance” on the DVD. It’s about halfway through, in the aftermath of the Tatars sacking the cathedral of Vladimir — an atrocity that took place (in the film’s narrative) with the complicity of a Russian prince, who sold out his own people to seek revenge on his brother. The scene opens with Andrei standing shocked in the ruins of the cathedral. His icons have been mostly destroyed, the holy books burned. The bodies of the townspeople massacred by the Tatars lay all around. The only other survivor — the young woman Durochka, a “holy fool” (mentally ill person — or someone pretending to be mentally ill — believed in Russian culture to be particularly beloved by God) — crouches over the body of a dead woman, braiding her long hair. It’s a powerful image of the instinctive human desire to bring order and beauty out of chaotic destruction.

Suddenly, Andrei sees the shade of Theophanes, the cranky, cynical Greek painter whose apprentice he once was. Theophanes has returned from the dead. The last time we saw him, he was arguing with Andrei about human nature, telling Andrei that people are vile, and that he works only for God.

Now, as they meet in this cathedral all but destroyed by human passion, Andrei confesses to his late master, “I’ve spent half my life in blindness. I worked for people day and night. But they aren’t people, are they? What you said was true.”

“So what if I said it then?” replied Theophanes. “You are wrong now. I was wrong then.”

Andrei meditates angrily on human depravity. How could men who are supposed to be brothers do this to each other? How could they murder and destroy for the sheer demonic pleasure of it? Theophanes listens to this, and says it’s time for him to go. Andrei begs him to stay so he can tell him more.

“But I already know everything,” says Theophanes, who, recall, has died and entered into eternity.

Says Andrei, “Then you know I’ll never paint again.”

“Why so?”

“Because it’s of no use to anyone.”

“So your iconostasis was burned. Do you know how many of mine they burned? In Pskov, Novgorod? You are committing a grave sin.”

“I haven’t told you the worst. I killed a man. A fellow Russian. When I saw him carrying her off. (He looks at the holy fool) Look at her. Just look at her! I don’t remember how it happened. I caught up with him and I couldn’t help it.”

Says Theophanes:

“Through our sins, evil has assumed a human form. Encroaching evil means encroaching humanity. God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself. Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment. As for your sins, what do your Scriptures say? ‘Learn to do good: seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless , plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ See, I haven’t forgotten: that may comfort you.”

Andrei replies, “I know, God is merciful and will pardon me. I shall offer the Lord a vow of silence. I have nothing more to say to people. Is this a good idea?”

“I have no right to advise you,” says Theophanes.

“Didn’t you go to heaven?”

“Lord! I can only say it is not as you imagine it on earth.”

Andrei asks Theophanes how long Russia’s suffering will go on.

“I don’t know. Forever, most likely,” he says, then turns to an icon of the Mother of God on the wall. It has escaped the torches of the Tatars.

“Yet how beautiful all this is!” Theophanes says, awe filling his voice.

The two men look around the ruins of the cathedral, beholding the beauty still present there amid the death and destruction. Snow begins to fall inside the cathedral, whose ceiling has been breached by the raiders. The faintly falling snowflakes come to rest on the holy fools, who is now sleeping next to the dead woman whose hair she braided.

“It is snowing,” said Andrei. “Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple”

The camera lingers on Durochka, her cheek bloodied, sleeping soundly among the dead. Fade to black.

In this scene, God speaks, in a way, through the holy fool. She maintains her innocence, despite the horror around her. By instinct, she makes beauty, almost in defiance of the blood-soaked ugliness around her. She is a sign to Andrei of what he must do. Remember, he has killed a man to protect her innocence (that is, to keep her from being raped). Now he must care for her; he’s all she has.

Theophanes, wiser now with the eyes of eternity than he was in this life, instructs Andrei not to lose sight of the presence of beauty, despite everything. Andrei wants to know what’s going to happen next, but Theophanes tells him eternity is not like that. It is a mystery. There is no rhyme or reason to these things. All we can do is to obey God by loving others (“Learn to do good, seek justice,” etc.), and not lose sight of beauty, which is a sign of His presence.

Theophanes tells Andrei that he is “committing a grave sin” if he refuses to paint. It’s the sin of despair, and of refusing responsibility for his gift as an artist. One doesn’t make art because it is “useful.” Theophanes used to believe as Andrei does now: that humanity is hopeless. Now, though, from eternity, Theophanes comes back with a message of hope. Evil is a sign of our fallen humanity — Andrei’s humanity too. We are guilty, and are nothing without God’s mercy. To be human is to endure other humans, and indeed to endure ourselves (e.g., Andrei’s guilt over having killed a man, even though he did it for a good reason).

“God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself. Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment.” The Greek is telling him that he should trust in God’s mercy, but also never forget his own capacity for sin. To live faithfully is to exist within that tension.

Above all, Theophanes seems to say, do not lose sight of beauty, despite everything. And you, Andrei, you have been given a gift of bringing beauty into the world, as a sign to the people of God’s presence, and of a world beyond the brutality of this one. It would be a sin to turn your back on that. (Andrei Tarkovsky, the director, once said, “Art would be useless if the world were perfect.”)

Andrei’s final line in this scene: “Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple.” Here’s what I think he means: if snow falls in a temple, it means that the barrier protecting what is holy from the natural world has been breached. To see snow falling in a temple is a sign of grave disorder and destruction. But as we see here, snow is beautiful, is light, is graceful. What makes snow falling in a temple so terrible is not only that it means something holy has been profaned and destroyed, but also that grace and beauty can emerge from that destruction.

Durochka, the holy fool, is a snowflake falling in the temple. So is the holy icon left untouched by the raiders. And so is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Andrei’s path through life is to bear witness, as an artist, to that terrible saving truth.

And the Armenian people? How do you redeem the suffering? I know what the Christian answer is — Andrei Rublev gives it — but how do you manage to hold on to that terrible saving truth when everything around you has been shattered? What witness do the survivors give to the living? I think simply surviving, and producing new generations, is a witness of some sort. But one wants more.

Ross Douthat’s Christmas column today is about remaining a faithful Catholic despite the moral collapse within the Church.  You might be offended by comparing what’s happening in the Catholic Church now to a genocide. Jesus Christ said (Luke 12:4-5) that one should fear losing the soul more than one fears losing the body. Every week on this blog, somebody in a comments thread writes about the mass falling away from the Catholic faith that they’re seeing in their family or community. At the very beginning of the scandal, my wife and I were in the Netherlands, one of Europe’s most secular countries, and met a family at mass. They were the only others there besides us who didn’t have grey heads. We introduced ourselves, and found ourselves invited to dinner.

Turns out the father of the family was one of 11 kids in his family — and the only one left still practicing the Catholic faith in which they were raised. Can you imagine that? The Catholic faith had been handed down through that family’s line over many centuries, but in a single generation, it died (except for our host and his wife and kids). Those siblings and their children still live, but they are lost to the faith — and depending on God’s mercy, perhaps lost to eternity.

Anyway, in his column, Douthat talks about the messy, scandalous family background through which Jesus of Nazareth came into this world. Excerpt:

Crucially, in claiming the divine is entering the world through this line of “murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars,” Matthew isn’t offering some particularly Christian innovation within the larger biblical story. He’s simply picking up what his own people, the Jewish people, already said about themselves: We’re the chosen people of the one true God, and to prove it to you here’s a long story about how awful and promiscuous and murderous and fallible we are, how terrible our leaders often turned out to be, and how we deserved every exile and punishment we received.

If you don’t find that message credible, well, I understand. But if you find it strangely compelling, then you’re close to the case for remaining Catholic at a time when the corruption of the church is driving a number of very public defections from the faith.


The idea that biblical religion has always proposed is emphatically not that you can tell whether a people is chosen by the virtue of their leaders. It’s that the divine chooses to act constantly amid not just ordinary fallibility but real depravity — that strong temptations as well as great sanctity are concentrated where God wants to work — and that the graces that define a chosen people are improbable resilience and unlooked-for renewal, with saints and prophets and reformers carrying things forward despite corruptions that seem like they should extinguish the whole thing.

The case for remaining Catholic in this moment, then, is basically that all this has happened before and will happen again

Read the whole thing. 

What is the snow falling in the Catholic temple this Christmas? That is, what are the signs of grace floating down from heaven through the traumatized church?

What is the snow falling in your own personal temple this Christmas?

Normally the narrative of Easter fits stories like the genocide of the Christians of Turkey, the Tatar massacre and temple-sacking dramatized in Andrei Rublev, and the other form of temple-sacking and spiritual massacre taking place in the Catholic Church today (and, indeed, in most churches struggling in our post-Christian era). You know what I mean: suffering, death, resurrection, all in one long weekend.

But I think the Christmas story also gives us reason to hope in the face of catastrophe. As Douthat points out, the Son of God was born under dodgy genealogical circumstances. You don’t expect the Messiah to come from such a messy lineage (but then, if we were God, we wouldn’t have chosen such a messy people as the tribes of Israel to bear witness to God in history, and to produce the Messiah; salvation came to the world through the Jews). We all know the story about Jesus’s scandalous conception, and his lowly birth in a cave in Bethlehem. We know too about the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, escaping Herod, who ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem.

For thirty years, the seed that the Holy Spirit planted in Mary’s womb, and that Mary lay in the manger after His birth, grew quietly in Nazareth. And then He changed the world forever. Today in my Orthodox church’s liturgy, my priest preached on Jesus’s genealogy, and warned us that God’s ways are not our own.

None of us know what is being born, even today. For Christians, though, we know Who is being born, and the terrible saving truth that the baby reveals. That little boy was born to die, so that humankind might live. His mother gave him birth, but she knew even in her moment of joy that her heart would be pierced with sorrow. We cannot separate them. I love David Bentley Hart’s idiosyncratic translation of the beginning verses of the Gospel of John, from his version of the New Testament, published this year:

The word “cosmos” makes all the difference, I think. Typically it is translated into English as “world,” but cosmos is so much richer. It connotes ordered reality. In other words, Christians believe that Jesus was the form of God’s rational activity in Creation. Creation, in the Christian vision, is not random, but ordered and purposeful. The incarnation and birth of the Logos makes explicit the meaning of it all, and indeed establishes once and for all that it has meaning.

Hart’s 2003 essay about Christ and nihilism speaks to the meaning of the life of Jesus. Here he’s talking about Jesus before Pilate:

It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.

This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled. Almost as striking, for me, is the tale of Peter, at the cock’s crow, going apart to weep. Nowhere in the literature of pagan antiquity, I assure you, had the tears of a rustic been regarded as worthy of anything but ridicule; to treat them with reverence, as meaningful expressions of real human sorrow, would have seemed grotesque from the perspective of all the classical canons of good taste. Those wretchedly subversive tears, and the dangerous philistinism of a narrator so incorrigibly vulgar as to treat them with anything but contempt, were most definitely signs of a slave revolt in morality, if not quite the one against which Nietzsche inveighed—a revolt, moreover, that all the ancient powers proved impotent to resist.

This is the snow falling in the temple: a baby born in a cave, whose fate was to suffer like us, and to die on a cross, and to rise from the dead. Suffering will go on until the end of time, but it will not have the last word, nor will the throat-slashers, the cathedral-sackers, the child molesters, the hatemongers, the profaners of all creation. Their time is short. They cannot steal redemption.

How beautiful is that baby in the manger, and the face of his mother. Keep that memory of them alive. Strive to see them present today. These images are like snow falling in a temple. A blessed Christmas to you all, especially those most in need of God’s mercy.

Armenian mother and child, on the road to exile, 1915 (armenian-genocide.org)

UPDATE: An Armenian-American reader writes:

In response to your Christmas Eve article which touches upon the Armenian genocide and the question how Armenians went on in the world after the genocide and kept their souls alive, this is not an easy question to answer. Armenian Apostolic churches are barely filled during service in both the diaspora and the Republic of Armenia. There is a very strong cultural sense of being Christian, but the only Armenians who in my experience had a deep sense of theology were Armenian Evangelicals. There is a famous Armenian rock song “Where Were You God?” written in Soviet Armenia and banned by Soviet authorities as any mention of the genocide in the ’60’s was restricted because it was seen as a form of nationalism. Here is a link to the song with English translation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ht2JXEAGTe4
It explains the theodical position of the “first Christian nation.” There is also a great amount of hatred of Turkey and Turks as a way to deal with such a national dishonor.

On a personal level, as an Armenian-American and great-grandson of genocide survivors, I believe that I cannot be both a good Christians and hate Turks. Learning about Ottoman and Turkish culture and history has been my way of dealing with what happened to my ancestors, as a way of forgiving what is unforgivable. Here’s a clip from a documentary which is about Armenian Evangelicals and Turkish Christian coverts finding ways to heal:



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now