As the sun rose over the Metropolia Center of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA on Saturday April 14th, the faithful began to arrive for the St. Thomas Weekend events, which began with a Divine Liturgy celebrated by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel in the St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Memorial Church in South Bound Brook, NJ.
The morning sun peeked in through the upper windows of the church, illuminating the halos of the saints depicted on the icons, and bringing them to life, while casting its warm rays over the faithful as they joined His Eminence in proclaiming the good news of Christ’s Resurrection.
As always, after the Gospel Reading, Archbishop Daniel’s sermon left everyone speechless. In fact, when he concluded speaking, and returned to the Altar to continue the Liturgy, you could have heard a pin drop. His Eminence spoke of the day’s Scripture Reading from the Gospel according to John, Chapter 3, where the Forerunner reiterates his joy at the fact that people are starting to go to Christ to be baptized, instead of to him. St. John stated that it was Christ’s time to “increase” and his time to “decrease”. With this Vladyka Daniel reminded us how important it is for us to carry on our legacy passed on from the relatives and loved ones whom we had all gathered in South Bound Brook this weekend to honor and pray for. Our ancestors fought and died to preserve and pass along our Faith, and as their influence on the world “decreases” with their passing, ours “increases”, as they pass the baton to us to continue the race. It is now up to us to preach the Faith, and not only to do so by reading and quoting Scripture from the Bible, but, in preaching the Bible through our acts of mercy and kindness.
With the service concluded, re-energized and filled with new commitment, the faithful exited the church, pausing on the steps to chitchat with friends who had driven in from various locations to participate in the weekend events.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, almost glowing as his white vestments reflected the sunshine, joined the faithful outdoors and walked through the cemetery stopping at various gravesites to pray and pronounce the good news of the Risen Lord, sprinkling them with Holy Water. All through the cemetery could be heard “Christ is Risen!” in English, Ukrainian, Romanian, Polish, and Portuguese. From every corner came the words proclaiming the Resurrection. The living sharing in the joy of salvation with the departed…
As the sun beat down, the children ran among the gravestones playing hide-and-seek, while the elderly perched on benches seeking respite from the hot sun under blossoming magnolias and fruit trees, reminiscing and sharing stories about their friends and family members who were buried at the cemetery.
Once the gravesites were blessed, wary travelers sat and wiled away the hours enjoying the company of friends over a tasty meal at the Pokrova Sisterhood Hall. While some remained in the hall, eating and telling stories, others walked over the bridge to the Ukrainian Cultural Center to check out the many vendors which were selling a wide variety of wares. The St. Sophia Seminary bookstore had many items for sale including religious items, seminary polo shirts and books. Other vendors were selling gold and silver medallions, earrings and necklaces, as well as embroidered shirts, scarves, and T-shirts; while still others sold pysanky, paintings, and various Ukrainian traditional ornamentation. Here too, was found food for the hungry with a variety of scrumptious items to pick from including varenyky, halushky, and kovbasa.
The festivities continued in to the late afternoon, with the entire Metropolia Center abuzz with activity. As the mini-bus shuttled visitors from the various parking locations to the cemetery and back, groups of people pitched tents and enjoyed time with their families in the sunshine, playing games, sharing stories, and simply enjoying time together.
As the afternoon wound down, everyone headed to the St. Sophia Seminary where they were treated to a barbeque of hot dogs and hamburgers with all the fixings. Free-will donations were being accepted for the Ukrainian Orthodox League and their worthwhile projects. As the final burgers were served, and the sun began to wane in the west, the faithful climbed the steps to the St. Sophia Seminary to participate in the Vespers service taking place in the Three Holy Hierarchs Seminary Chapel. As the faithful awaited the commencement of the service, they quietly whispered, prayed or simply sat in silence, absorbing the holiness present in the chapel. Everyone rose to their feet as His Eminence Metropolitan Antony and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel entered, venerated the icon and proceeded in to the Altar. As the service began the seminarians were accompanied in singing the responses and hymns by the laypeople gathered around them. The atmosphere was other-worldly, as the incense twirled in the air, caught on the breeze from the open door, flowing around the faithful like a living entity.
All too soon Vespers concluded and the faithful quietly departed the chapel either returning to their homes, or hotels with raised spirits, anticipating Sunday’s St. Thomas Sunday celebration.
As much as Saturday was sunny and hot, Sunday began rainy and cold. However, the strong winds and drizzle did not stop the faithful from arriving early and filling the St. Andrew Memorial Church beyond capacity. Awaiting the hierarchs’s arrival, the faithful crowded the Narthex, children holding roses, Pani Lesia Siwko holding the traditional bread and salt with which to greet the bishops, and Very Rev. Yurij Siwko, parish pastor, awaited with a cross and holy water. As the final confessions were being heard in the corner, the bells began to joyously toll, announcing the arrival of the much awaited hierarchs.
The anticipation grew as young and old squeezed forward to get a glimpse of His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, His Eminence Archbishop Jeremiah of the Ukrainian Orthodox Eparchy of South America (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina), and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel. As the hierarchs entered and were greeted, even more faithful ascended the steps and squeezed in to the already overflowing church.
While Metropolitan Antony was humbly being vested in the center of the Nave, the deacons read the prayers of vesting, as the choir, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Andrec, enhanced the already poignant moment with, “Thy soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed thee in the garment of salvation...”
As all three hierarchs stood in the center of the Nave, flanked on both sides by the ranks of the clergy, standing in before countless faithful who jostled for position behind them, one could not help but equate the scene to Generals, flanked by their Lieutenants, leading their soldiers in to battle, and to final victory and salvation.
Before commencing the Divine Liturgy, the hierarchs blessed the newly installed icons in the church. The main addition was the Pochaiv icon of the Mother of God, which is suspended in front of the Iconosts, and can be lowered for veneration. As the choir sang and the hierarchs prayed, the icon was slowly lowered, the movement itself being surreal, as if the Mother of God, where herself descending from the heavens to stand before the faithful who were beseeching her to intercede for them before her Son. Many eyes began to shine with tears, and sniffles could be heard throughout the Nave, as the faithful stood mesmerized.
In addition to the Pochaiv icon, there were two additional new icons, one being the “Savior of Chornobyl” and the icon of Venerable Fathers of the Monastery of Kyiv Caves. Taking turns blessing the various icons, the hierarchs also blessed the two new banners hanging on either side of the Solea, one of the Pokrova of the Mother of God, in honor of the parish sisterhood, and the other depicting St. Andrew, patron saint of the parish.
With the hierarchs having blessed the new icons, the deacon proclaimed “It is time to begin the service to the Lord,” and with the Metropolitan’s blessing the Divine Liturgy began. The service ebbed and flowed, the voices of the choir spinning around those gathered, echoing off the tall walls and descending to join the voices of the faithful who were singing in the Nave below.
Having listened to the day’s Scripture Reading from the Gospel according to St. John, everyone heard how St. Thomas had doubted that the other Disciples had in fact seen the Risen Lord, and stated that he would not believe until he placed his hands in the wounds inflicted upon Christ during His crucifixion.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel expanded on the reading during his sermon stating that we have a tendency to focus on St. Thomas and his doubts, but, we need to instead focus on the wounds and scars on Christ’s body. Vladyka stated that those wounds still exist today, and new ones are constantly being created by nobody else other than us. New wounds are created when we kill other humans by starting wars, undergoing abortions, killing our neighbors by lack of compassion or assistance, by cruel words, lack of empathy and an overflow of pride and self-righteousness. His Eminence implored us to change our ways, to nurture life, to help others, to put aside our ego and pride, and to work at sacrificing in order to help someone else. He asked that we not be afraid to do or say the right thing. We need not look at St. Thomas, but, at ourselves, and stop our own doubts, for if we continue to act the way we are, it shows a profound lack of faith and belief in the Lord and His teachings. It shows our doubt in the Lord’s existence and sovereignty. With these words His Eminence quietly turned and walked back in to the Altar, once again leaving his flock speechless in the wake of his sermon. Everyone knew that to a certain degree they were all guilty of his accusations, and therefore were left to ponder just how deeply they had wounded the Lord.
Traditionally, after the conclusion of the Liturgy the hierarchs would lead a procession of the faithful through the cemetery, however, due to the inclement weather the Panakhyda was served inside the church. Feeling a gust of cold wind, the faithful turned to see the doors open and a contingency of Ukrainian-American veterans enter carrying flags representing various branches of the Service. As they lined up on either side of the Nave, the hierarchs emerged to join them and pray for the souls of the departed faithful of the Church. The army of God and the army of Man joined forces to remember those who had fallen in battle, those who had sacrificed in life, and all those Orthodox Christians who had fallen asleep in the Lord.
At the conclusion, once again the Pochaiv icon was lowered so that everyone had the opportunity to venerate the icon. Young and old shuffled forward, humbled at this chance to present their love, respect and petitions before the Mother of God. One by one each came forth with respect and awe, until everyone had their chance. Slowly the church emptied as the faithful departed to find their way to the gravesites of their loved ones, and share with them the good news of Christ’s Resurrection.
Those who remained followed the hierarchs down to the Holy Resurrection Mausoleum to participate in the service at the tomb of Patriarch Mstyslav. In the enclosed space once again the incense from the censor swirled around and illuminated by the lights in the tomb took those gathered beyond the realm of the living.
Climbing the steps back out in to the open, the hierarchs, led by the veterans, flags snapping wildly in the wind, possessed to the National Ukrainian-American Veterans Memorial monument situated in front of the church. At the conclusion of the panakhyda His Eminence Archbishop Daniel – himself a veteran, along with a senior veteran, placed a wreath before the memorial.
With services concluded the faithful spread through the Metropolia Center. Some went to the sisterhood hall for lunch, others went to the cultural center, while yet others remained in the church to say their private prayers before the icons.
Sweet endings for the pilgrimage were to be had at the Seminary, as they hosted an “Ice Cream Social”. Young and younger gathered to enjoy a bowl of ice-cream with a variety of sprinkles. As they delighted in the tasty treat, everyone enjoyed each other’s’ company. All too soon, the ice cream was gone, and it was time to leave. With hugs and kisses, and promises to stay in touch, friends parted ways, going home with new and fond memories of the celebration. As the cars drove away, people rolled their windows down to wave goodbye to those remaining behind. The words “Christ is Risen!” was carried on the wind throughout the Consistory grounds and echoed throughout – from the cemetery to the Cultural Center, from the Consistory to the Sisterhood Hall….and on the wind, if you listened carefully, you could hear “Indeed He is Risen!”