The sermon delivered by the ELCL Archbishop Janis Vanags on the 93rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, Ecumenical worship service at Riga Cathedral 18th November, 2011.
For German translation click HERE.
The 18th of November is a national holiday, the brightest moment in the midst of autumn darkness when we display the national flag, wear crimson-white-crimson ribbons on our lapels and decorate the Occupation Museum with a poster, „I love Latvia!” What is meant by this? Do I love the land of Latvia? Do I love the state? People sometimes emphasize the separation of loving the land from loving the state. It is, of course, easy and nothing new to love the land of Latvia - the mild nature, gentle hills and valleys, beautiful forests, along with the sea and the rivers. Love for our land is depicted in Latvian folk songs, poetry of the classics, and many other songs. The nation was allowed to love the land in all times when under German, Swedish, Polish and Russian rule. Even during the Soviet occupation it was not forbidden to love the land of Latvia. The new, the unusual, even the unbelievable now, is the chance to love the state of Latvia. It is something special even to talk about the Latvian state, where Latvian language is the only state language, where Latvians can form relationships with other nations - free people with free people; where we can elect the Saeima and also dissolve the Saeima when necessary; where we can think, read, write and speak without fear; where we can have faith, pray and serve God with clear consciences. During the many centuries of our history, for only 50 years have we had the chance to love the state of Latvia. There was longing for our own state in all Latvian national awakenings. Soldiers of the Freedom fights fought for the idea of Latvian statehood. It is the state of Latvia we defended on the barricades. Today we are celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia.
Even though it is not a major anniversary, it is noteworthy because of the important historical moment we are experiencing. It is as important as the awakening 20 years ago. We are again at a turning point in Latvian history. Together with Lithuanians, we are the only Balts left. Looking back on the history of the Baltic people, there were many of them in the past! Prussians, Galindians, and Yotvingians are more often mentioned. However, even the names of Sudovians, Dainavians and Poleksians are unfamiliar to many. Even though the culture and language of Yotvingians are extinct, there is a dictionary still available of 208 Yotvingian words. Old Prussian language has been restored by experimental linguistics. Some specialists are able to communicate in it. Isn’t it exciting? On the other hand, it is difficult not to think about the fact that both the language and the nation were once living. At a certain point in history they became just material for study for historians. Galindians, for instance, left this country and went further on into the world. They have left their track near the present territory of Moscow and in France. Some believe that the Galician area in France was named after the Galindians. Today, since the last population census ten years ago, the population of Latvia has shrunk from 2.3 to 1.8 millions. Only a little more than a half of them are Latvians and half of those are above the age of 40; it may not be alarmism to think that we have reached a similar point in history. Did you know that long ago comb-fosette ceramic culture and boat-shaped stone hammer culture existed in Latvia? (They were our ancestors.) I wonder what name historians will give to our culture. In which countries, East and West, will they find evidence that Latvians had once been there? Will it be as interesting for experimental linguistics to restore Latvian language as it was with Old Prussian language? These are deeply disturbing questions that may not seem likely to come true, but it happens that living nations become extinct and there are warning signs of such a historical moment approaching swiftly. It is so close we can feel its breath.
How do we react once we feel it? Some citizens of Latvia choose something like euthanasia. „Maybe I love this country,” they say, „But I don’t love the state. I will cheat it as it cheats me. If the life here is so bad, let it all go to hell. When everything falls to pieces here, I will simply leave the country.” The choice is often expressed very emotionally in Internet comments. There is no need to deny that the comments contain a sense of justice. However, there is another choice too. Last week when visiting the congregations in North Vidzeme, I met with representatives of the local municipalities, schools, culture and businesses. It was truly refreshing to meet such active, optimistic people who, despite the crisis, think about the future of Latvia and work hard for the sake of the common good; they are a true blessing for their neighbours and feel satisfaction for their work. Everybody who wants Latvians to continue existing as a nation has to understand that it is impossible without this country and without loving the Latvian state. This answers the questions, why do I need the independence, why do I need the state. Other ethnic groups of Latvia may have a future without the Latvian state, but Latvians do not. Latvia does not need euthanasia. Instead, Latvia needs revival and renewal.
The nation expressed its longing for renewal electing the new Saeima. There are now many new faces in the parliament raising new hopes. However, Jesus says: „Do not put new wine into the old wine-skins.” New faces do not guarantee change if the track stays the same and so do habits and principles. Let’s bear in mind, that after new elections the staff of the civil service stays the same and they often determine things there. New faces in the cabinet are not a solution. It is necessary to have new ideas, new principles, new ways. For long-established structures, it is difficult to change. They tend to defend themselves and the existing situation. Maybe the awareness of being too close to extinction will motivate everyone work together and bring about change for the better. There is no going back.
In fact, new is often well-forgotten old. When people came to John the Baptist and asked what they should do to escape from the wrath to come, he suggested ordinary things. For example, he said to tax collectors, not to collect any more than they were required. To soldiers - security forces of the time - he said: „Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” In a word, to every man, according to their rank he suggested that they act in a fair way and do their best fulfilling their duty. Everybody should do what they have to do. That is a big step away from the danger of extinction. However, there is often the question „What shall we do?” The higher and the more responsible the position, the more important it is who they receive encouragement or, more importantly, instructions from.
Well into the 20th century, coal miners used to take canaries with them into coal mines. The reason was not sentimental but purely practical. The thing is these birds are very susceptible to the harmful effects of toxic gases. When there were dangerous gas build-ups in a mine, they were the first to react stopping singing, choking and dying. It was a signal to the miners that they were in danger and had to escape. Even those who did not feel anything suspicious knew it was high time to get out of the mine. „Canaries of a coal mine” of our society are those who feel like drowning men now and are the most vulnerable. They who have no other choice but to become migratory birds and fly away. They are the warning signs. There is no need to wait for some oracles from somewhere like clouds of Mount Olympus, where the influential and deity-like live their no earthly lives. Moreover, we should not regard them as poor little creatures, poor little canaries in a cage and help them mercifully. What we have to do is realize first that they serve as important warning signals. If they start choking, it means that all society, the whole state, is in danger. Everybody has to make haste out of such a condition, even those who do not feel any difficulties yet. If somebody asked when the point of extinction reached us, the answer would be: it reached us while its warning signals went unnoticed.
Not all of us feel like drowning men, but even the prosperous often do not feel safe and happy. At a time favourable to them they have bit more than they can chew. At some point some of us thought, „I want this much, I need some more, and then I will be happy.” When the dreamed-of amount was obtained, it turned out to be too heavy to carry. Retaining it demands a lot, therefore, every day is lived in fear and stress. It is all about our choices. We chose to develop our Latvia into a consumer society according to a Western model, not foreseeing the problems the Western world was going to experience. Now we have plenty of goods to consume, of course, if we have money. Moreover, the consumer society eventually turns a person into a commodity and estimates each person’s value according to their ability to earn and spend. People are only as important as their ability to compete in the consumption marathon. Those of us who accept these terms, consumer society drives into a merciless race and stress where the status and purchasing ability becomes ones identity. The person thinks, „If I purchase that, if that and that belongs to me, I will deserve respect and will be able to respect myself. Then I will feel happy and fulfilled my dreams.” However, retaining the obtained demands from the person shedding blood, sweat and tears within the race of making a profit and living in fear of a salary cut or redundancy. All news about consolidation and economic shrinkage comes as the last trumpet signaling the end of their world; days are spent in apocalyptic anxiety.
Without trying to idyllize Soviet times, do you still remember how glad you were for purchasing a good book? How we used to attend Poetry Days? What excitement we felt when opening the forbidden door of a church and entering it? It was not entertainment; it was an oasis, nourishment for the soul, refuge and salvation from Soviet ideology. Ideology of consumer society deserves nothing more than being escaped and finding refuge from. Simply stepping out of the race. Refusing to look for identity and respect somewhere where it imposes on us our place. Jesus said: “ But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.” Not humanitarian aid falling down from heaven (although in real need it, too) but peace of heart, satisfaction and feeling safe. It is something we are yearning for even when walking the wrong ways.
Especially those whose high position and calling not only envisages working for the common good, but also gives the chance to take good care of themselves first, should free themselves from the dictate of consumer society. Without inner freedom, the new faces are subjected to the old risks and „the old faces” are not able to change. There is a Christian method of meditation when a person is sitting in silence and learning to ignore all thoughts roaming around and through him or her. To stay focused on God, the person repeats some sacred word. A similar exercise might be useful to gain inner freedom from the ideology of consumerism. In silence learning to ignore thoughts and ideas bombarding consciousness, staying focused on God and repeating to oneself: “I don’t need much… I don’t need much…” or maybe even „I have already obtained too much… I have already obtained too much…” one will feel the tension easing up and inner freedom and comfort amplifying. Then you notice that you can still help somebody else or support some good cause. Latvia has enough resources to satisfy all needs but not enough to satisfy everyone’s desires, ambitions and passions.
I have often heard that patriotism has worn thin in Latvia. It is true, but not because people would not want to be patriots of their country. They simply lack motivation and strength. Goethe once said that a person who has a goal can endure anything. Latvian Riflemen survived the Freedom Battles and did the impossible because they had a goal: an independent Latvian state. They were patriots. It seems that when establishing our country we have chosen the wrong goals. The Bible says that God has determined times and boundaries for nations, not for people to consume goods and become commodities, but to seek the Lord and live and move in Him and become His offspring. Latvia is a country God has given to us. Therefore, Latvia is the most suitable place for us to discover each one’s spiritual nature, divine origin and calling. All this is worth being a patriot. However, if one is involved in the race of consumption, there will be time and strength only for the perverted form of patriotism that does not demand any effort or brainwork - hating foreigners. It must be mentioned, too. Patriotism does not mean that we can regard ourselves better than others and superior if compared to other nations. True patriotism means working for the welfare of one’s nation and for the future of one’s country. Jesus said: „Every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. A stronger man will come and despoil the house.” Latvians do not have a dog’s chance if they have to fight with the economic crisis, with the demographic crisis and against other nations living in their country. It is true that the past supplied many reasons for embitterment, but the future demands reconciliation and working together for the sake of Latvia. It is included in the programs of the integration of society in Latvia but, to achieve it, it is necessary to understand with all of one’s heart and mind that patriotism does not mean hating and pushing aside foreigners, but serving the future of the nation or at least not disturbing those who are doing that. In Latvia, we need reconciliation and common work for the sake of such a state where the Latvian language, culture and nation itself are protected and where we are united with citizens of other nationalities by a common vision of our Latvia. To treat them as friends and colleagues for shaping Latvian, democratic and European state, is one of the most difficult, and also one of the most crucial and necessary tasks. Cooperation among different denominations and Christian organizations of other nations in Latvia is a good example that it is possible if only there is Christ who unites people for a common idea.
More than 20 years ago I met a Christian missionary whose story is still vivid in my memory. Due to his missionary activity, he was imprisoned in some Asian country. The jailers were given a strict charge to keep him from any religious expression. Most of all he suffered because he could not pray and praise the Lord as he was used to do. Nevertheless, he found a solution. This man volunteered to clean the toilets of the immense prison. The stink there was ghastly, so jailers kept away from there. Thus, the missionary got a chance to be alone with God. Scooping and shoveling the filthy and stinky hole, he prayed aloud to the Lord, sang psalms and lifted up his voice in praises. Christ could comfort and cheer him even in the toilet hole of one of the world’s most brutal prisons.
I have never been at such a low point in my life and probably neither have you. Our country is not even close to such a low point but it is good to know that Christ can strengthen and uphold people even in such misery. He is able to do it and does it regardless of conditions. Moreover, the best thing is that when having a living relationship with the living God, you feel that He always has some reserves. No matter what awaits you in the future, He has reserves to help you get through everything. We can long for change in our country, family or within ourselves. We wish we had never needed the immense loan and consolidation after consolidation. We wish so many people had not left the country. We can wish we were not so old and ill. We can wish our spouse or child had not died. We can wish all that, but is it possible to achieve? Most often it isn’t. And what then? Die in bitterness? Say that everything can then go to hell? A better option is to remember that Christ can offer comfort and peace in any situation. What Christ gives, no one can take away from us. It does not depend on decisions of other people. Christ gives it to you and it stays yours. It does not mean there is no need to work to save and support your country, but we can do it being freed and supported by Christ. Only a spiritually enlightened person is able to act adequately and change the situation around him or her for the better.
Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the Truth that sets us free so that our future leads us into life. On a national holiday, we are used to asking whether we love this land or this state. At this fateful historical turning point there are three things for the nation to love to be able to look into the future with hope - your land, your state, and Christ. God bless Latvia. Amen."
Translation: Liga Aboltina