Streets filled with processions, baptismal vows renewed, babies plunged in water.
But this week, in Russia, lots of babies were being plunged into a river to commemorate a baptism that changed the course of history.
Sunday was the 1,031st anniversary of the acceptance of Christianity by Prince Volodymyr for his nation, Kyivan Rus’. The event now goes by different names, depending on where one lives: the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’, the Baptism of Rus’ Ukraine, or the Baptism of Russia.
In the late 10th century, Volodymyr (or Vladimir) ruled over the principality of Kyivan Rus’. While there were some Christians in the territory already, thanks to the 1st-century evangelization of the Apostle Andrew, and in fact even Volodymyr’s grandmother, Olha (Olga), was a Christian, Kyivan Rus’ was largely a pagan society.
Both Volodymyr and Olha are recognized as saints in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Volodymyr felt that his people would benefit from adopting one of the world’s major religions. But none of the reports he received from his envoys, who went to other lands to explore Western Christianity, Judaism or Islam, convinced him.
But then, when his legates returned from Constantinople and reported being so moved by the Divine Liturgy they had attended in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia that they “knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” Volodymyr decided to bring Byzantine Christianity to his nation. He himself was baptized in Crimea, right before marrying Anna, the sister of Byzantine Emperor Basil II. He then returned to Kyiv, where he proceeded to replace pagan monuments with Christian churches.
Over the next centuries, Christianity spread among the Slavs, particularly to the emerging kingdom of Muscovy, which in time was renamed Russia.
The Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ continues to be publicly celebrated annually. In Russia, in fact, July 28 is a public holiday.
In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was granted ecclesiastical independence by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in January, held a procession to mark the anniversary. Between 20,000-30,000 participants took part, according to Euromaidan Press.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sent a message of greeting, which was read at the celebration
“From the Church Of Constantinople, which gave birth to and revived the entire Ukrainian people and its quintessence — the Church consciousness — being a few meters from the place where the Holy Princess Olha was baptized, it is with extraordinary honor and joy that we convey Patriarchal blessings and our wishes to all God’s people and greet with a holy kiss His Beatitude Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv and all Ukraine, the good pastor of the Church of Ukraine, and all the holy bishops without exception who have gathered here,” Patriarch Bartholomew’s greeting said.
In the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych presided over the renewal of baptismal vows during Divine Liturgy in the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv. The rite of renewal on the day of St. Volodymyr’s baptism was introduced in 2006 by his predecessor, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar.
“The treasure of faith of Prince Volodymyr becomes the treasure of every Ukrainian, every son and daughter of Christ’s Church,” Archbishop Shevchuk said, according to the Church’s website.
And, according to Euronews, mass baptism rituals took place across Russia on Sunday. About 150 people from Yekaterinburg and neighboring cities attended the traditional annual open-air rites on the Chusovaya River in the Sverdlovsk Region.
The ritual was held in the village of Stantsionny-Polevskoy. “People taking part in the baptism ceremony were immersed in the river and donned white clothes to symbolize the purity of the soul,” Euronews said. “They were then anointed with holy oil.”
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