“We’ll celebrate Christmas . . . and even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith will not be put out,” vowed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his speech before U.S. Congress last December.
Keeping that “light” burning has been his battle plan during this year of devastation and death in his Ukrainian homeland.
When he was elected president in 2019, Zelensky was an unlikely candidate. He was not a politician but an actor, best known as the founder of a popular comedy troupe and producer of feature films. But his anti-corruption campaign struck a chord with Ukrainian voters who elected the 42-year-old actor president in a landslide.
Not long after Zelensky assumed office, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear his designs to “reunite” Ukraine with its Russian homeland and began a massive build-up of troops and materiel along the border. Last February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. When the United States offered to evacuate him, Zelensky refused to leave: “I need ammunition, not a lift.”
What was thought to have been a quick annexation of Ukraine has turned out to be a long, painful and, frankly, embarrassing fiasco for the Russian military. Putin has not yet been able to counter Zelensky’s information offensive. Clad in his trademark olive T-shirt and sweatshirt, the media-savvy Ukrainian president has given countless interviews to journalists, keeping the Ukrainian plight before the world. He has addressed governments, making it clear that the Ukrainian fight is the fight of every democracy. He has marshalled humanitarian organizations to come to the aid of his people.
And his courage has been contagious among his own people. Zelensky is constantly traveling around the Ukraine, usually by train. His visibility to his people has been a principal reason why Ukraine’s “light” continues to burn despite the threatening darkness. TIME Magazine named President Zelensky its “Person of the Year” for 2022. TIME’s editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote that President Zelensky has “galvanized the world in a way that we have not seen in decades.” “Zelensky has been laser-focused on keeping the world’s eyes on Ukraine. The former entertainer understood that attention is the planet’s most valuable currency and all but cornered the global market. He did this through meticulous image-building and repetition in his message. He was blunt, sometimes sarcastic, and always to the point: we must save Ukraine to save democracy. In an alternate reality where someone else had been leading the Ukraine, there might or might not be a Russian flag flying over the parliament building in Kyiv. There would almost certainly still be a McDonald’s near Moscow’s Red Square, that symbol of post-Cold War globalization. Zelensky’s command of the weapons of the digital age meant that business leaders and politicians everywhere were forced to take notice and take a stand, whether they liked it or not . . . ”
President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine have been the “salt” of courage and generosity for one another; they have been a “light” to the rest of the world of the preciousness of democracy and the commitment needed to preserve it. When Jesus tells us that we are to be “salt for the earth,” he calls us to bring his compassion, justice and forgiveness into our homes, workplaces, schools and communities; our simplest acts of charity can be a “light” for our world and unmistakable signs of the presence of God among us. That’s why we’re here, in this church, part of this community: to be “salt” for the earth, to make God’s presence and grace realities in our own time and place; to be “light” for the world, illuminating the dark, hopeless corners of society with hope and peace.