The clouds rolled in thick and dark, casting the interior of the Protection of the Mother of God Cathedral, in Southfield, Michigan in to darkness. However, the deepest of shadows were soon dispelled by the brightness of His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, who arrived to celebrate Lazarus Saturday with the faithful. Joining His Eminence were seminarians from St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary Subdeacons Mykola Zomchak, Ihor Protsak, Yurii Bobko and Ivan Venhryn.
With smiles on their faces, barely containing their joy, the students of the Lesya Ukrainka School of Religion and Ukrainian Studies quietly entered the church and waited to greet their beloved hierarch. They were not disappointed, and soon found themselves encircled by the protective arms of His Eminence.
While parish pastor Fr. Paul Bodnarchuk was busy hearing confessions, Archbishop Daniel opened the Royal Gates and the Divine Liturgy commenced. The church slowly filled as people came in from the dark and rain, seeking solace and salvation.
As His Eminence read from the Gospel of John (Chapter 11:1-45), the children stood with lit candles listening and reliving the day that Christ entered Bethany knowing that His friend Lazarus had died four days before. He was greeted by the weeping sister’s of Lazarus, and the many people who mourned his death. Seeing their sadness, the Lord wept, but, then He went and having directed the tomb to be opened He called forth the dead man, who hearing his Lord’s voice arose.
Vladyka Daniel gave a sermon filled wisdom. He encouraged everyone to take this opportunity to live the life of a true Christian. It is not enough to simply come to church on Palm Sunday and take a willow branch home because it is tradition. We need to live Tradition. We need to not only come to church, but, take church with us, and transform our homes into little churches.
His Eminence urged everyone to take this opportunity as we enter Holy Week, to make an effort to not only fast, but, to make an effort towards our own salvation and that of others. We have six days left until we celebrate Pascha. Much can be accomplished in six days.
As the Liturgy continued the children gathered at the front of the church to sing the Lord’s Prayer. The young voices rose to praise the Lord, asking his mercy upon all.
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence paused to speak once more to the faithful. He stated that this coming week the world celebrates Earth Day, and this week the world also commemorates the 33rdanniversary of the Chernobyl disaster that not only polluted the earth, air and water, but, crippled and destroyed many lives. Vladyka asked that in honor of both events, and following the Lord’s directive, we make a conscious effort to better this planet. He asked that we conserve our resources, minimize our waste of water and resources, and work to preserve what the Lord has given us.
Therefore, in effort to commemorate the Chernobyl disaster, and “give back” to the earth, everyone followed Archbishop Daniel out in to the pouring rain to plant a tree. As His Eminence prayed, the rain watered the ground, and washed the earth clean. Concluding the prayers, Vladyka took a shovel and covered the roots with rich black soil, reminiscent of the black soil of Ukraine.
The children, soaked to the bone, with water pouring from their hair watched as His Eminence hung a colored egg upon the tree, and they all reached up and joined in, decorating the newly planted tree, and preparing it for the Paschal celebration a week away.
As the ceremony concluded everyone ran quickly inside to dry off and to enjoy a nice warm lunch with the Archbishop and Seminarians. As lunch concluded His Eminence took time to visit with the children in their classroom, answered their questions, shared stories, and gave advice that would help them through their lives. Apropos to the weather, His Eminence gifted each child a commemorative card which depicted two children shielded from the rain by an umbrella held by their guardian angel.
As the sun began to wane, the church once again began to fill as the faithful arrived for Vespers. The voices of the seminarians wound themselves among the flickering candles and traveled through the nave to gently caress the ears and the hearts of those gathered.
After the “Prayer at the Bowing of Heads”, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel descended from the Altar and processed to the narthex where he prayed and petitioned the Lord for mercy for all. The seminarians responded with “Lord have mercy!” repeated forty times. Having prayed for the faithful, for the Church, for the sick, for the government, for good weather and fruitful harvest, for the safety of the city and land, for the peaceful repose of the departed, and for peace in the world, His Eminence came forward and having censed and blessed the five loaves and wine (reminiscent of the five loaves which fed the 5,000) proceeded in to the Altar for the final prayers.
As the nave began to darken with the setting sun, His Eminence came and stood before his people, and delivered a sermon that left few eyes dry. Vladyka informed us that having resurrected Lazarus, Christ most likely resided in his household for the next month and half before proceeding to Jerusalem. This gave enough time for everyone to have heard the news of the miracle of the four day dead man coming back to life.
Vladyka emphasized that while tradition is good, waving pussy willows/palms in commendable, nonetheless, we need to not only go through the motions, but, live accordingly. We should not come to church on Sunday looking for Christ once a week, we should walk through the streets of our cities to find Him. Instead of us waiting for Him to come to us, why do not we make an effort to go to Him?
His Eminence mentioned how the Muslim faithful religiously pray five times a day. They will stop midstream, lay down their prayer rug and pray in the middle of the street if necessary. They are not ashamed to pray. Flying in an airplane it is common to see the Jewish man stand at the appropriate time, turn towards the holy city, don his prayer shawl and pray before the plane filled with onlookers. The eyes of strangers do not stop him.
So why is it that the Christian is afraid to even cross themselves before eating their lunch, or when their airplane is about to take off, or in any time of need? Why is it that the Jew and the Muslim pray five times a day, but, we can hardly get one prayer in a day. In the morning we are rushed, in the afternoon we are at work, and in the evening we are too tired. It is also our Christian duty to pray five times a day. Why don’t we?
Vladyka told a story of one church’s experience on Holy Friday. The priest aware of his parishes nonchalance decided to wake them up. Instead of the usual Epitaphio which displays the shroud of Christ on Great Friday, the priest instead had a coffin, which was decorate with flowers. As the faithful came forward to venerate the shroud of Christ, they were shocked and moved to tears, for as they bent down to look inside instead of seeing the face of Christ depicted on the Shroud, they saw the face of Christ depicted in themselves, for the priest had laid a mirror inside. Imagine the shock of seeing your face where you expected the crucified Christ’s to be?
His Eminence asked each of us if we were ready, or willing, to be in Christ’s place on the Cross. As He sacrificed Himself to save others, are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves to save others?
As we enter Holy Week, Archbishop Daniel, told us to make our own “journey from Bethany to Jerusalem” and to rethink our lives, to review our actions, to do a self-examination. When we approach the Shroud on Great Friday, may we be transformed. Having realized our sins, laid them at Christ’s feet, may we be resolute to live the life He wants us to live. May we be Christ-like in our daily lives, with our words, actions and thoughts.
As Vladyka turned and ascended back in to the Altar, everyone sat mesmerized, almost as if dumbstruck, not knowing how to proceed, for His Eminence’s words struck home, tearing at each heart.
Silence. In the short moments before Archbishop Daniel emerged once more from the Altar, everyone had seen their life from the outside in. Determined to make a positive change, to be even a little worthy to celebrate the Resurrected Christ in a week, everyone moved forward to be anointed by His Eminence. With the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and the prayers of their hierarch, change was imminent.
Before leaving for the evening, everyone gathered for a light Lenten supper in the parish hall, where they had the chance to spend some quality time with each other.
If was difficult for people to tear themselves away, for the camaraderie was comforting, and everyone enjoyed basking in the glow and the wisdom of their hierarch. However, everyone had an early start tomorrow for Palm Sunday.
With final blessings His Eminence bid everyone a good night and expressed his desire to see everyone in church Sunday morning.
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
Photos by Subdeacon mykola Zomchak and Elizabeth Symonenko