HEADLINES and newscasts from Moscow graphically portray a superpower fallen to its knees economically and teetering on a shaky base politically. The Soviet Union, after harvesting a bumper crop of 240 million tons of grain, faces severe shortages of food and is accepting aid from former nemeses turned friends. President Bush has just offered $1 billion in credit guarantees and other aid to help bolster Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev through what promises to be a difficult winter.
But the vivid pictures of empty store shelves and long lines of Soviet citizens awaiting food tell only part of the story - as a look at Soviet spiritual health will attest.
If any encouragement is to be found for the Soviet people during the Christmas season, it is likely to be in their new-found religious freedoms. At least on the spiritual front, reports are amazingly hopeful. For the first time, Christmas will be celebrated this year in Red Square from Dec. 20 to Jan. 7. There will be tree-lighting and cathedral bells heralding Jesus' birth. The Soviet Navy band is scheduled to play ``Silent Night'' and ``Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.''
Such an open display of religious worship would have been unheard of even two years ago. The recent dramatic growth in freedom of religious expression can be traced to the commemoration of the Christian millennium in 1988, marking 1,000 years since the official adoption of Christianity as the national religion of Russia.
Since that time, literally hundreds of Soviet citizens imprisoned for their faith have been released, cathedrals turned into museums during the Stalin era have been returned to the church, and seminaries have been opened. In September of this year, the Soviet Parliament passed new religious freedom laws allowing religious affiliation, education, charitable activities, and publications for the first time.
Glasnost has pulled back the curtain on the Soviet Union to reveal a society suffering from a spiritual yearning as great as any physical hunger. Seventy years of repressive laws limiting freedom of religious expression did not quench the spiritual thirst of the Russian people. If anything, the testimony of the thousands of Christians, Jews, and Muslims martyred by Soviet authorities only encouraged extensive underground faith movements.
New religious freedom has pushed the pent-up demand for religious material into the open - and Western religious organizations are working together to fill the void. In a way unprecedented since 1917, evangelists, religious drama troupes, and religious films are enjoying widespread exposure throughout the Soviet Union. Several weeks ago, residents of Kiev responded enthusiastically to the premi`ere of the film ``Jesus'' in their city and received thousands of copies of the Gospel of Luke in their own language from Bible Literature International, one of numerous literature ministries working to meet the need for spiritual materials.
But Western religious organizations have only begun to meet the seemingly insatiable demand. Newly bold church leaders have expressed a strong desire for more Bibles, and especially for instructional literature geared for children.
Even now, international missions arms are sending illustrated children's New Testaments as well as other family-related literature to the Soviet Union.
Unlike the food aid currently pouring into the Soviet Union, donations of religious material are designed to meet long-term as well as short-term needs. Much of the aid goes directly to local churches and seminaries which are nurturing a new generation of religious leaders. The long-term goal is to make the Soviet Union self sufficient, able to meet its own religious-literature needs.
The new religious openness has not been without some negative side effects. Increased anti-Semitism and other odious legacies of Russia's religious past have also been released from state oppression and are now rearing their ugly heads throughout Soviet society.
Similarly, the recent mysterious murders of a Latvian priest and a Russian Orthodox priest are painful evidences of lingering religious oppression. However, the new freedom offers fresh opportunities for healing these wounds and weeding out intolerance. Satisfying requests for religious aid is an integral and necessary step in repairing the delicate fabric of Soviet society.
As food shortages, civil-military unrest, and ethnic nationalism threaten to rend the Soviet Union asunder, a vigorous and healthy expression of religious freedom may be one encouraging promise for peace. Soviet citizens may find new hope as they hear and experience, many for the first time, the words that ushered in the Christ child: ``Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.''