A Christmas reminder that some things are sacred.
Not long ago, Vladimir Grigorenko, the iconographer at St. Seraphim's Orthodox Cathedral in Oak Lawn, received a call from an editor at Time. Would Mr. Grigorenko create an icon for the magazine?
The image Time wanted was not one of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint. Time wanted an icon of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was a problem. In Orthodox Christianity, icons are not mere images of holy figures and events. Icons are revered as sacred objects, as windows into the world of the divine.
Mr. Grigorenko, who converted to Christianity in his native Ukraine during the last days of the Soviet Union, instantly refused. When he told this story to an American friend, the startled American responded that Time was likely to name Vladimir Putin its Person of the Year.
"If that happens," the American said, "you just gave up the chance to illustrate the cover of the year's most important issue of one of the world's most important magazines. You would have been famous. You might have made a lot of money."
"What's that to me?" Mr. Grigorenko said dismissively. Holy things are for the holy. Compromise was impossible.
Last week, Time did name Mr. Putin its Person of the Year -- and used not an icon but a photograph on its cover.
A small story, perhaps, but it tells a larger truth. Religion is everywhere in American public culture, especially in Dallas. In fact, Mr. Grigorenko loves raising his family here, because of this city's openness to religion. But that same celebration of faith -- indeed, the celebration of all noble ideals -- can too easily become profaned by commerce, by politics and by ordinary human ambition. Cynicism is not hard to come by.
And then you hear about someone like Mr. Grigorenko, raised in a communist home in the waning days of a totalitarian atheist empire, a man who knows from experience that fidelity to one's god and to one's ideals is a pearl of great price. With a simple act of refusal, he bears witness to the principle that, yes, some things are sacred -- and that if our ideals mean anything, we must guard them no matter what the cost.
Piety can open the door to worldly wealth and power. It's not supposed to be that way. Today Christians celebrate the coming of a divine king, born in the lowest of circumstances, who taught poverty and humility as the way to salvation. He asked, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
We still find ordinary men and women -- of all faiths, and good-willed idealists of no faith at all -- who hear the echo of that awesome question across the centuries and who tender the answer in their hearts. When the time of testing comes, they know what to say, for they've been living out the answer not just on special days but all year long.
Merry Christmas -- or, as they say in Ukraine, Srozhdestyom Kristovym!
Originally published December 25, 2007.
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