UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE USA
CONSISTORY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Joyous Celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior with His Grace Bishop Daniel, in Southfield, Michigan
By Elizabeth Symonenko
While the temperature outside hovered around 0o F, it was warm and welcoming inside the parish of St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, in Southfield, Michigan. As the setting sun darkened the church interior, the Christmas lights shimmered and sparkled, reflecting the twinkle in everyone’s eyes, as they gathered, eagerly anticipating the proclamation that “Christ is born!”
Everyone’s excitement was palpable, and made all the more joyous because this year joining in the parish’s Nativity celebrations would be His Grace Bishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A.
As Great Compline commenced, the choir’s voices ebbed and flowed harmoniously, enhanced by the squeaks, giggles and cries of little children. From young, to younger, everyone joined as one, to greet the newly born Christ Child.
As are all Orthodox services, this one was steeped in symbolism and reflected deep spiritual meaning. Parish pastor, Very Reverend Paul Bodnarchuk, began the service in the darkened nave standing before the closed Royal Gates, solemnly reading the first of “Six Psalms”. "I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety." (Psalm 4) These particular six Psalms are grouped together and are significant, for Tradition teaches us that these will be the Psalms that will be sung by the angels during the Last Judgment. As the words of the Psalms echoed off the cavernous walls, the faithful stood silently and listened keenly to the words, contemplating their own mortality and eternity.
With the completion of the Six Psalms, the choir sang, “God is with us! Understand, all you nations, and submit yourselves, For God is with us.” With this the Royal Gates opened and His Grace Bishop Daniel, along with Father Paul, Ruslan Rolnyi (seminarian at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Bound Brook, NJ), and the Altar Servers proceeded to the narthex. From the back of the church, Bishop Daniel prayed not only for those present within the church, but, for the entire world.
As the solemn service came to an end, the clergy made their way to the front of the nave, where the troparian of the feast was sung, and bread, wheat, wine and oil were blessed, signifying the blessing of all the world's goods: “Lord Jesus Christ our God, you blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the five thousand. Likewise bless these loaves, wheat, wine, and oil, and multiply them in this city and through your whole world. Sanctify your faithful who will partake of them, for you yourself bless and sanctify all things, O Christ our God, and we give glory to you with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.”
Having concluded the service, His Grace Bishop Daniel took the opportunity to share some wisdom with those present. He explained that the greatest gift anyone ever received was the gift of the Creator incarnating for the sake of our salvation. While we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on this day, the significance is not only that Christ was born, but, that God took on flesh to save mankind. We often lose focus of this fact, and focus instead on gifts and gift giving. We recall the shepherds, the angels singing, the magi traveling great distances, bearing gifts for the newly born King. Yet, we seldom contemplate the deeper meaning behind the Incarnation.
While we enjoy receiving and giving gifts, Bishop Daniel asked that we reprioritize and update our “Christmas List”. Instead of spending money and giving popular electronics, games, toys, etc. we ought to give a gift that is priceless. We ought to give of ourselves. His Grace made everyone wonder when he stated that while we joyously celebrated the Birth of Christ, there are those, perhaps even sitting among those in the church, who are so bogged down with worries and troubles, that they cannot freely celebrate the Feast Day. Their hearts are too heavy to rejoice at the “Good News”. It is our duty to give these people a gift. Our gift should consist of a smile, a kind word, or a hug. Our kindness might mean the world to the person in despair.
Bishop Daniel instructed those listening to keep the word “joy” central in their lives. “J” stands for Jesus, “O” is for others, and “Y” is for you. Always put Jesus first, then others, and finally yourself. We are not to be selfish. Instead, we are to put others and their needs before our own. As God sacrificed Himself for us, so should we sacrifice ourselves for Him and for others.
With His Grace’s words still echoing in their minds, everyone shuffled forward quietly to venerate the icon of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, while the choir, led by the choir director Mykola Newmerzyckyj, beautifully sang traditional hymns of the Nativity. Everyone was given a commemorative icon of the Nativity by Father Paul, and then was anointed by Bishop Daniel. The sweet scent of the oil encircled each person, only heightening the spiritual experience.
With hearts filled to the brim, everyone filed down to the parish hall in order to now fill their stomachs. The traditional Ukrainian Holy Evening (Svyat Vechir) is steeped in tradition. For weeks the faithful have been fasting from meat and dairy. The Nativity Fast, also known as Philip's Fast (or the Philippian Fast/Pilipivka), as it begins on the day following the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle (November 28), is a chance for the Orthodox faithful to prepare for the birth of Christ. By fasting, we “shift our focus” from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, and so on, in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. In other words we are JOYful, as we prepare for the birth of Jesus.
As everyone located their assigned tables, and chatted happily with their neighbors, they commented on the traditional table decorations. In the middle of each table bits of hay were strewn about. The hay reminded those sitting in the warm building, surrounded by loved ones, and preparing to indulge in a delicious supper, that Christ, our God, entered the world humbly, and was laid in a manger filled with hay.
Everyone rose as Bishop Daniel entered, and stood as Father Paul’s young daughter walked up to the window to see if she could spot the “first star” of the evening. Traditionally, if a family is not able to attend church services, they would nonetheless, not sit down to supper until the children spotted the first evening star, representing the Star of Bethlehem leading the Magi to the newly born Christ Child. Having received Sophia Bodnarchuk’s confirmation, that indeed the first star was high up in the sky, the festivities commenced. Father Paul, as head of the household, carried in a sheath of wheat known as a Didukh (the wheat reflects Ukraine’s rich wheat fields, and symbolizes the gathering of the family), and Pani Dobrodiyka Angelina carried a kolach (sweet loaf of braided bread) which represents the eternity of God, and placed them on a central table. Following her parents, Christina Bodnarchuk entered, carrying a dish of kutia. Kutia is a wheat pudding, consisting of boiled wheat and honey, with the wheat representing the staff of life, while the honey is symbolic of the spirit of Christ. Andrew Smyk, parish Vice President, who emceed the dinner, asked that Bishop Daniel light the candle, and then holding to tradition throw a spoonful of kutia up towards the ceiling. Ukrainian custom dictates that the amount of kutia that sticks to the ceiling is representative of the amount of “good luck” and blessings that household can expect in the coming year. His Grace obliged by giving it his best effort, and ensuring that the parish would be fruitful in the coming year.
Still standing, everyone joined in the prayer led by His Grace Bishop Daniel, before sitting down to a traditional 12 dish Lenten meal, prepared by the St. Olga’s Sisterhood, who led by Sisterhood President Georgia Kereluik, had worked for days preparing for this evening. The 12 dishes represent the twelve Apostles of Christ. The meal began with kutia (representing Christ, the Staff of Life), followed by borsch, varenyky, fish, etc., and concluded with uzvar, a compote of dried fruits.
With stomachs filled, everyone leaned back to enjoy the Vertep (Nativity play) organized by parishioner Maria Zelenko and members of the Lesia Ukrainka School. Vertep performances date back to the late 16th century and describe the story of Christ’s birth, with songs, poems, and some added humor. Everyone was enthralled with the performance, which left them laughing and filled with good cheer.
The evening concluded with those gathered singing traditional Christmas carols, hugging, and exchanging gifts before they all bundled up for the long drive home. Among the gifts, were $2,000 presented to Bishop Daniel from the St. Olga’s Sisterhood, by Mrs. Wara Siryj for the orphans in Ukraine.
The joy felt the night before was rekindled on Christmas day, as everyone gathered once again, in the nave to celebrate the Nativity of Christ.
His Grace, Bishop Daniel, was greeted with a cross by Very Reverend Paul Bodnarchuk, parish pastor, in the narthex. Parish Council President, Olga Liskiwskyi, along with Wara Siryj, representing St. Olga’s Sisterhood, greeted His Grace with traditional bread and salt. On behalf of the Junior Ukrainian Orthodox League, Lexi and Lily Powers presented Bishop Daniel with a bouquet of flowers, welcoming him to the parish.
Belying the freezing temperatures, the sun shone happily through the stained glass windows, illuminating the nave in warm colors, and making the Christmas ornaments sparkle and dazzle. In to this myriad of color and warmth entered the bishop, stopping in the center of the nave. The bishop stands in the middle of the church, among the people, not only in humility, but, as a beacon of hope, and an icon of Christ. It was thus, as the crowd grew and filled the nave, that Bishop Daniel stood in the center, his white festal vestments almost appearing to glow in the sunlight, as the Divine Hierarchical Liturgy commenced.
As the service continued, Bishop Daniel ascended to the altar. Rivaling the angels, the parish choir spun their voices around and among all those present, transporting them in to the ethereal world. All the senses were engaged – the sense of smell enjoyed the scent of the incense which rose “as prayers” to God, the ears were filled with song and prayer, the eyes beheld the beauty of the shimmering halos of the saints depicted on the many icons, the sense of touch was engaged while making the sign of the Cross and while reaching out to your neighbor to touch them, shake their hand in peace, before the recital of the Creed, and taste was satiated with the sweetness of Holy Communion.
Having read the Gospel, His Grace once again descended from the ambo and stood among his flock. He took a moment to reiterate the importance of the Feast Day. Bishop Daniel reminded us, that we are not to be focusing on receiving gifts, but, on giving gifts - the main gift being ourselves. We are to help everyone we come in contact with today, because God has placed them in our lives this day, for He expects us to cheer them, assist them and save them. People are starving for attention, they crave the human touch. We are to fill that need and to help them with a kind word, a hug, or just a smile, to let them know they are not alone, and that JOY still exists in the world.
As the service concluded, His Grace was pleased to honor four members of the choir for their dedicated and selfless service to the Church, by presenting them with Blessed Hramoty (Certificates). With tears in their eyes, the four recipients, Dr. Jurij Rozhin, Dr. Ivan Kernisky, Wara Siryj and Paulina Krajdub (who was absent), humbly accepted the great honor, with Dr. Rozhin humbly insisting there had been some sort of misunderstanding, because he didn’t feel himself worthy.
Upon the dismissal, everyone filed up to venerate the handmade Blessing Cross Bishop Daniel was holding, which contained a relic of the True Cross of Christ. What an amazing and awe inspiring opportunity. Many people were visibly in awe, as they approached with joy, and trepidation. All worries were set aside, as His Grace leaned in and displayed what he had asked of others – sharing a kind word with each person, smiling, inquiring about their health, their children, their jobs, making everyone feel important and cared for.
Once again smiles filled the church, as the people, singing carols descended to the church hall for a light potluck lunch. While waiting for His Grace, everyone smiled and joked; chit chatted and hugged friends who had come from far and wide to celebrate Christmas together.
Having prayed and blessed the meal, His Grace stated that he was pleased to see that someone had brought a wide variety of sushi to the potluck luncheon. The laughter continued as everyone filled their plates and sat enjoying the meal with old friends and new. The lunch was highlighted by a visiting Vertep, who sang Christmas carols and performed the Nativity Play. The funds they collected were to be used towards various charitable needs in Ukraine.
Everyone sat for hours after the meal concluded singing carols, laughing, talking and just enjoying each other’s company. The parish truly was one big happy family.
Before everyone dispersed towards their homes, Bishop Daniel invited them to Liturgy the following day, celebrating the Synaxis of the Birth-Giver of God.
The day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast day of the Synaxis of the Mother of God, when the liturgical life of our Church directs the attention of the faithful to the holy person of the Theotokos. Its goal is to present to us her holy personality and to highlight her great contribution to the salvation of mankind, and more specifically, the important role she played in the mystery of the Holy Incarnation.
Joined by Father Paul Bodnarchuk, and Very Reverend Andrei Alexeiv, from Holy Ascension Serbian Orthodox Church in Ecorse, Michigan, Bishop Daniel celebrated the Divine Liturgy, surrounded by a handful of faithful.
In his sermon Bishop Daniel placed emphasis on the Mother of God, making note of her silence and her love. He stated that nowhere in the Gospel do we hear what the Virgin Mary had to say. She was merely there, having humbly accepted God’s will for her, to care for, nourish and raise the baby she bore, Christ, her and the world’s Savior.
His Grace reminded everyone of the value and deeper meaning of a mother’s love and the affect her touch has upon her children. He asked that we all, mothers, and non-mothers, male and female, all emulate her willingness to serve, to heed God’s call, and to protect that which is precious. Bishop Daniel remarked that every newborn child will either cry or smile and giggle. He instructed us to listen for the Christ Child’s joyous giggling and to take that happy sound with us, out in to the world, and share that joy with everyone we meet.
Bishop Daniel took a moment to thank Father Paul, the parish council, the choir, sisterhood, and the Jr. U.O.L for coordinating his visit and for working together to make the celebration of the Nativity of Christ truly joyous.
Liturgy concluded all too soon, and everyone was hesitant to leave. Having venerated the Cross, and shared a few final words with their hierarch, everyone bundled up to head out in to the big cold world. However, they were leaving as different people than when they had arrived. For now they carried the happy giggles and laughter of the Christ Child within their hearts, taking it with them to spread the joy to the world beyond. If you listen carefully you can hear the soft laughter. Listen to it and let the happiness of Christ enter and lighten your heart, and lead you to joyously do the good works you were destined to do.
Thank you Your Grace Bishop Daniel for giving us such a special gift – the gift of your effervescent presence, wisdom, kindness and caring. Eis Polla Eti, Despota!