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Annus mirabilis and Tempus fungus

24 January 2009

“Tempus fungus — times are rotten” a relation wrote from Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1970s, which back then was a bit like Gaza recently, with bombs and soldiers everywhere.

What got me thinking about that was the reverse, when we had a synaxis (clergy meeting) at the office of the Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and one of the priests, Fr Ioann Lapidus, from Russia, was asked to say something about the late patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II.

Alexei became patriarch in 1990, and in his 18 years in office there were enormous changes in the church in Russia.

He gave some statistics that illustrated the difference between 1988, the year of the millennium of Christianity in Russia, and today.

In 1988 there were about 100 monasteries, 10000 parishes, 11000 priests, 2 theological academies, 3 seminaries.

Now there are about 1000 monasteries, 30000 parishes, 31000 clergy, 5 theological academies, and 40 theological seminaries in Russia and Ukraine, and the number of bishops has doubled. About 70% of Russians claim to be Orthodox Christians, though not all of them are regular participants in church life, and there is a great need for teaching.

Though times may be rotten, there are exceptions and one of the exceptions was 1989, the annus mirabilis in which dictatorships crumbled all over the world, and especially in Eastern Europe. Even in South Africa it was the year in which P.W. Botha stepped down, which was greeted with as much relief back then as the departure of George Bush as US president this week.

The miracles continued into 1990, with the unbanning of opposition parties in South Africa.

The words of Psalm 126/127 kept running through my head:

When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion: then were we like unto them that dream,

Then was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy…

They that sow in tears: shall reap in joy.

That time was indeed like a dream come true, a dream of freedom, justice and peace.

Of course it was too good to last. Dreams usually are.

In August 1990 came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which started the Gulf War.  In June 1991 came the Slovenian declaration of independence, which sparked off the wars of the Yugoslav succession, which lasted right through the 1990s. In August 1991 came the conservative coup attempt in Russia, which led to the break-up of the USSR.

The Cold War had ended, and after a brief hiatus, the annus mirabilis of peace and freedom, the Clash of Civilizations took its place.

But this year is the 20th anniversary of that annus mirabilis, and it is something worth remembering, at least for those of us old enough to remember it.

In the preceding post I compared the experience of a Christian group meeting in Centurion now with one that I was involved in in Durban 40 years ago. Nic Paton commented, suggesting that it implied that it was something that happened to youth in every generation, and that it was simply an endless repetition.

And that put me in mind of Billy Joel’s song We didn’t start the fire

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

It summed up the experience of the Cold War generation in the USA, and it was released in the annus mirabilis 1989.

It had no South African references, but one could add them:

D.F. Malan, apartheid, Suppression of Communism

Coloured voters, defiance campaign, Black Sash

Freedom Charter, Treason Trial, Bantustans

Sharpeville , Emergency, Republic, Native voters

Sabotage, 90 days, ethnic cleansing, station bomb

UDI, safari suits, Gunston, comb in sock, Namibia

Verwoerd stabbed, rearrangement, BOSS is here

cricket boycotts, rugby riots, keeping sport in politics

language riots, shooting schoolkids,

and so on.

And so things are different today. The youth of today can hardly remember the annus mirabilis, much less what went before. To us who lived through it, it was an annus mirabilis, a year of miracles, because we never expected to see it in our lifetime. We tried to fight it, but, as Alan Paton, the leader of the Liberal Party of South Africa, once told a Christian students conference, righteousness must be its own reward.  We tried to fight it, but never expected to see victory in the fight.

But victory came, and victory went.

Old evils passed away, and new evils arose to take their place.

But in between was the annus mirabilis, a brief vindication of hope.

Jesus did not heal every leper, and he did not make every blind man see. Lazarus was raised from the dead, and then became Bishop of Kittim in Cyprus, died and was buried again there.

Werner Pelz, in his book Irreligious reflections on the Christian Church, said “We are afraid of our problems because we fear that nothing short of a miracle can solve them, that nothing short of a miracle can save us. But we are never saved by anything short of a miracle.”

And sometimes, perhaps once in a generation, miracles happen to give us hope.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 26 January 2009 10:35 pm

    Those were heady days….

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