As artillery boomed outside and fighter jets flew overhead, Orthodox Christians in a battered eastern Ukrainian town held a Christmas service in a basement shelter Saturday, vowing not to let war ruin the holiday.
Nearly all the congregants and all but one choir singer had already fled Chasiv Yar for safer territory, leaving just nine people to attend the service in a residential building that partially collapsed from shelling in November.
“Christ was born in a cave. You and I are also in a cave,” priest Oleg Kruchinin told the group, gesturing to the basement lined with exposed wires and pipes and lit with an exposed bulb.
“This probably has a special meaning: Do not lose heart, do not give up… Because the Lord was born in a cave, and we also celebrate Christmas in cramped conditions.”
Chasiv Yar is situated 10 kilometers south of Bakhmut, the hottest point on the front line, and has lived under the constant threat of bombardment for many weeks.
For the first nine months of the war, the town’s Orthodox Christians worshipped in a white-brick church with golden domes, even though the building had no underground shelter.
But two weeks ago, a missile landed in the churchyard and shattered its windows, forcing them to relocate.
“One of our parishioners lives in this house, and now, since her apartment is partially destroyed, she lives in the basement, and she called us here,” explained Olga Kruchinina, the priest’s wife.
The church has done what it can to brighten the space, placing a tiny Christmas tree atop a wooden cupboard, hanging white and red tapestries and wrapping tree branches around one pipe like a garland.
Kruchinina said she was proud of the effort, even as she whipped out her mobile phone to show pictures of the larger, more lavishly decorated trees that stood in the church entrance a year ago.
“For us, everything is going well,” she said.
“When I think about the military guys I know, they are in much worse conditions.”
During the two-hour service, worshippers did their best to tune out the war, flinching only once in response to artillery fire.
Lighting beeswax candles, they lined up to give confession and receive communion as the strong smell of incense filled the low-ceilinged rooms.
The choir, formerly 15 strong, featured just one member: 62-year-old Zinaida Artyukhina, who led the group in psalms that often became solo performances.
“Normally I sing the alto part, so it was difficult to lead,” she said afterward.
“It’s unusual here. Today is my first time here in the basement,” she added.
“Thank God that we gathered at all.”
In his remarks, Priest Kruchinin compared the plight of those who have fled Chasiv Yar to that of Jesus, whose family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod.
“Today, many of our parishioners also evacuated. But everyone prays today with us wherever they are, where the Lord saved them from bombs and shells,” he said.
“And we hope that just as the Holy Family returned to their Jerusalem, in the same way our parishioners will return to their Chasiv Yar.”
In the meantime, the church hopes to keep the basement open to worshippers like Nina Popova, 77, who walks 3 kilometers to the building every day to read hymns — even when the temperature falls well below zero, as it did Saturday.
“We will serve as long as there is an opportunity,” said Kruchinina.
“If this becomes point ‘zero’ (on the front line), then of course we will not serve. But we don’t want it to turn out like this.”