As the wise magi had once packed their camels and traveled a long distance to greet the newly born King, so, on Monday, January 4th, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, also packed up his supplies, and joined by seven seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, set out on a thousand-mile journey to greet the Christ Child.
The journey would take them through six states as they made their way with anticipation across the Midwest, traversing mountains, descending into valleys, crossing rivers, driving along toll roads, avenues, and byways, spreading joy everywhere they went. Squeezed into the white seminary van were seminarians Subdeacon Yaroslav Bilohan, Subdeacon Pavlo Vysotskyi, Reader Andrii Vatrich, Mykola Stefanyk, Andriy Akulenko, Bohdan Motychak and Matvii Blyzniuk. For some this was their first time traveling across the United States and they eagerly gazed out the windows enjoying the beautiful vistas, cities, and complexes they passed.
Nearing the western end of Pennsylvania, His Eminence turned right at the Emlenton exit, and after driving a few miles along a twisting picturesque road, he stopped the van at the gates to All Saints Camp. The camp has always been the hub of young Orthodoxy, as generations of faithful attended various summer camps, training sessions, and long holiday weekends at the campsite. However, this year, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the camp had been idled over the summer. Getting out of the van to stretch their legs, Archbishop Daniel led the seminarians to the wooden church of St Thomas. To many of the young men, the church’s structure reminded them of many of the churches they had seen in Ukraine. They paused for a moment before the locked doors, bowing their heads in prayer of gratitude and for a safe journey, before continuing along the path to take in the beauty of the grounds. Below them, through the now bare trees, they could see the Allegheny River, cold and gray in the cool winter mist. Walking the path through the woods, everyone stopped before the various icons that have been posted along the way. The three new seminarians listened intently as the others told them stories of spending their summers volunteering at the camp.
With their cheeks red from the cold breeze, everyone was happy to climb back into the waiting van, and continue on their journey westward, leaving mountainous Pennsylvania, and entering the farm country of Ohio. Driving past wide expanses of barren fields, awaiting to burst forth with new crops in a few short months, they might as well have been driving across the vast expense of Ukrainian farmland.
As darkness overtook daylight, the van once again turned off of Interstate 80, and made its way through the brightly lit city of Parma, Ohio, pulling up at the Cathedral of St. Volodymyr. Eagerly awaiting their arrival was Very Rev. Fr. Michael Hontaruk – assistant pastor of the cathedral. Before entering the church, the seminarians paused outside to admire the mosaic of the “Baptism of Ukraine” above the entry doors. As Archbishop Daniel went inside the Altar to pray, the seminarians walked around and admired the iconography and architectural details of the cathedral. To Vladyka Daniel the cathedral hold many memories, as it was at this Altar Table where he was consecrated a bishop on May 10, 2008.
Joining the seminarians, he took a few moments to share his memories of that day with them, recalling how after Vespers, as the faithful who had traveled from across the nation to share in the event, had left for the evening, he spent the night locked inside the church, deep in prayer and contemplation.
Early Tuesday morning, January 5th, before continuing on their journey, His Eminence meet with Protodeacon Ihor Mahlay, President of the St. Andrew Society. During the meeting they discussed the various charitable projects the Church would undertake in 2021. With the new agenda solidified, Archbishop Daniel and the seminarians bid farewell to Parma, Ohio, and continued westward.
January 6th, the Eve of the Nativity, found the intrepid travelers pulling into Bensenville, Illinois, at the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Entering the church, Archbishop Daniel was warmly greeted by parish pastor Very Rev. Fr. Bohdan Kalynyuk, and assistant pastor, Very Rev. Fr. Andrii Shelvakh.
Great Compline began with Fr. Bohdan standing before the Royal Gates, in the darkened name, as the “Six Psalms” were read. "I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety." (Psalm 4) These 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 eternal salvation.
With the completion of the Six Psalms, the choir sang, “God is with us! Understand, all ye nations, and submit yourselves, For God is with us.” With this the Royal Gates opened and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, along with the clergy, seminarians and servers, proceeded to the narthex. From the back of the church, His Eminence 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 onto ages of ages. Amen.”
At the conclusion of the service, His Eminence came down to stand in the middle of the nave, to address the faithful. Whether they wore masks, or were maskless, His Eminence stated that it is important that these masks work to keep the wearer safe from viral infection, and yet we must be watchful of spiritual infection that might be caused by the pandemic, as well. People are losing their humanity, becoming more focused on themselves, and oblivious of others around them. We need conquer our fear, and with joy greet each other, reach out to others, and spread the Good News of Christ’s birth.
Having completed his sermon, His Eminence stepped back to the ambo, from where he greeted each individual who came up, anointing them with holy oil. With smiles and happy hearts, the faithful hurried to their homes, so they could enjoy the Christmas Eve Lenten meal (Svyata Vecherya).
They had one more stop to make before resting that evening. Climbing back into the van, the group traveled to Palos Park, Illinois, where they arrived at Sts. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, just as their Christmas Eve service was concluding. His Eminence entered the beautifully decorated church and spent some time with the faithful there.
Hosting His Eminence and the seminarians for the Holy Christmas Supper in their home was Fr. Vasyl Sendeha and Dobrodijka Olenka along with their children Antony, David and Amilia. Following Ukrainian tradition, the guests enjoyed 12 lenten dishes loving prepared by the family, starting with Kutia, and ending with Uzvar. The evening concluded with everyone joyously singing kolyadky (Christmas Carols) before retiring for a good night’s sleep.
Christmas morning found the sun shining brightly despite the chill breeze. Walking down the sidewalk of Chicago on their way to the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel was serenaded by birds who oblivious to the cold chirped happily in the trees. Ascending the steps to the church, Archbishop Daniel was warmly greeted at the door by parish pastor, Very Rev. Fr. Ivan Lymar, and assistant pastor Very Rev. Fr. Mykola Lymar, along with Protodeacon Andrii Fronchak.
His Vestments shining brightly in the sun’s rays that poured through the stained glass windows, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepped to the center of the Nave voice resonating through the cavernous cathedral, “Blessed is our God, now and always, and onto the ages of ages!” The Divine Liturgy ebbed and flowed, as the choir sang, and the faithful prayed. The interior of the cathedral sparkled and glowed, the lights twinkling merrily upon the decorated Christmas trees. As the service continued, the church filled as people flocked to celebrate the incarnation of the Lord.
Having read the Gospel, His Eminence descended the steps of the solea and stood once again in the midst of the faithful. Archbishop Daniel explained that the Magi had traveled to greet the newborn King, and gave Him three gifts – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. The Gold represents eternity, for Christ is the Eternal King. The Myrrh represents the suffering and sacrifice, and eventual death Christ will endure. The Frankincense represented Christ’s priestly status.
While we are not the wisemen, we nonetheless also have three gifts to give the Child. We are to offer Him our own suffering/sacrifice, prayers and our desire to touch each other’s hearts during this pandemic. For when we help someone in need, we gift them Christ, and we gift our kindness to Christ.
Vladyka Daniel commented that the angels told the shepherds of the new joy that has occurred. We need to stay faithful to this Joy. The word itself, JOY, tells us what is required of us. J – instructs us to put “Jesus” first, followed by O – putting “Others” next, ending with Y – putting ourselves (you) last.
Archbishop Daniel asked that even though we are living in unprecedented times of a pandemic, that we not forget who we are, and that as we celebrate the Nativity, that we put others ahead of ourselves. Many people are lonelier than ever these days, shut away in their homes, with little to no social interaction. Therefore, it is crucial that we reach out to them. We need to call, write, livestream, facetime, text, use whatever means necessary to touch the lives of others, letting them know they are not forgotten.
Today, the Christ Child, who is celebrating His Birthday, does not ask for a gift of electronics, or toys, or gadgets… but, for the gift of our hearts. Today, the Child embraces us all from the manger, and asks that we embrace each other.
Before concluding his sermon, Archbishop Daniel took a moment to greet all those who had joined the Divine Liturgy via the LIVESTREAM, including people throughout the U.S.A, Ukraine, South America, Australia, etc. Assuring everyone of his continued prayers, that the Lord keep everyone safe for all harm, he expressed his gratitude to all who were joining in these prayers, and wished them all happiness and joy, asking once again that they proudly and loudly proclaim to all the world that Christ is Born!
The Liturgy continued, as the faithful approached to partake of the Holy Eucharist. First in line where the squirming and giggling children, who with wide smiles opened wide to happily receive the Body and Blood of Christ, followed by the adults.
As the service concluded, the choir sang Christmas Carols, as the faithful lines up to get anointed by His Eminence.
Having partaken of the Eucharist, after fasting throughout the St. Philip Fast, it was now time to break the fast. Everyone filed in to the parish hall to enjoy a tasty lunch. During the luncheon the guests were entertained by a Vertep and short program put on the parish children. Soon everyone was laughing and singing, as tears of joy flowed down their cheeks.
All too soon the festivities concluded. However, the faithful were re-energized. Ready to go back out into the cold world, and warmly proclaim the Birth of Christ, the Birth of Salvation.
January 8th is the celebration of the Most Holy Mother-of-God, the Synaxis of the Virgin Mary. The Synaxis encompasses all the celebrations dedicated to her. Wearing blue vestments in honor of the Theotokos, His Eminence along with the Seminarians were greeted by Fr. Vasyl Sendeha, of Sts. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, where they would celebrate this day together. Seeing her beloved bishop, the youngest of the Sendeha family, little Amilia, came running to His Eminence and gave him a warm hug, squealing happily as he tickled her. That is the joy the world needs. The innocent joy of a child.
During his sermon this day, Vladyka explained the significance the Virgin Mary plays in our salvation story. Had she lost courage and said “no”, we would not be standing here today. But, the young woman that she was at the time, had enough faith in God, to speak a resounding “yes” to Archangel Gabriel, accepting the responsibility the Lord was offering her.
Our spiritual history is rife with heroism that we hardly give a second thought to. The young Mary agreed to be impregnated of the Holy Spirit, which could have been disastrous for a single woman in those times. The elderly widowed Joseph realizing this young woman was pregnant, may have ignored the vision the angel gave him in his dreams, and put her aside, exposing her to societal judgment, but, he did not. He had faith. So many people had faith, and acted upon it, so that we could be here today, with the hope of salvation.
His Eminence, holding an iPad referenced the modern Christmas Carol, “Mary Did You Know”, by Pentatonix. This song, in its lyrics, explains the touching reality of the young Mary’s acceptance of the Will of God.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy - Has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Would calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy - Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby - You kiss the face of God
Mary, did you know? The blind will see, the deaf will hear, The dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, The praises of the Lamb
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy - Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy - Is heaven's perfect Lamb?
That sleeping child you're - Holding is the great, I Am.
Archbishop asked that we all have such faith. It was not “easy” for her, and life, especially in a pandemic, is not easy for us. However, with faith in God, we must move forward, and live our lives, and with our lives proclaim the love of Christ.
As the Divine Liturgy continued, the sounds of children’s soft voices could be heard, as they cooed and giggled, tumbling over to the colorful Christmas trees that decorated the Nave. The church verily shown with joy, as the candlelight bounced off all the baubles and decorations. The wreaths decorating the doors and windows, hung heavy with red ornaments that glowed in the morning sunshine. The entire interior appeared otherworldly, as the faithful contemplated His Eminence’s words, realizing the strong faith and sacrifice the Virgin Mary had made.
At the conclusion of the service, His Eminence once again took a moment to speak to the faithful, assuring them that today, as we celebrate the Holy Mother-of-God, we give ourselves over to her protection, her intervention, her preoccupation with our well-being and salvation. With final words, His Eminence blessed the crowd, and prayed that the Holy Theotokos keep everyone safe beneath her Holy Veil.
Saturday morning, January 9th, found the occupants of the white seminary van back on the road, this time heading east, as the Magi who had found and worshipped the Christ Child, had embarked on their long journey home. Just as the wisemen had taken a different route home, so did the van. Even though they were tired, they were still singing Christmas Carols as they crossed the border out of Illinois and turned northward, into the State of Michigan, heading to the Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother-of-God, in Southfield which last year celebrated their 70th jubilee.
Taking advantage of the earlier pandemic lockdown, and the restrictions placed on occupancy, the parish board decided this was the perfect opportunity to work on some long overdue renovations. The Cathedral, which had been suffering a leaky roof for several years, was getting a facelift. In addition to fixing the ceiling, the walls were newly painted, new floors were laid, and now was the time to add some iconography to the baren walls. This required the input of an expert, and the parish pastor, Very Rev. Paul Bodnarchuk, along with parish board president, Iryna Smyk-Bickerstaff, eagerly awaited the arrival of Archbishop Daniel, so that they could make plans for the second part of the parish renewal.
Being warmly greeted at the door, His Eminence walked into the cavernous interior of the cathedral, admiring the marble flooring and heavenly blue walls. His Eminence met with Fr. Paul, and discussed various ideas with the parish board members. With everyone on the same page, and eager to begin the iconography of the cathedral, Archbishop Daniel and the seminarians stopped by the parish hall to do that which they do best – inspire through example.
No stranger to the poverty in Detroit, His Eminence had seen first hand during a previous visit to the parish how the homeless shelter beneath a local bridge, over the famous 8 Mile Road. Wishing to once again visit and assist these people, Archbishop Daniel, along with the seminarians, packed a dozen backpacks, filling them with essentials – warm socks, caps, mittens, sanitizer, lip balm, flashlights, protein bars, hand-warmers, etc. All these items, which seem so inconsequential, are important to those who have nothing.
Bidding farewell to the faithful in of the Southfield Cathedral, His Eminence along with the seminarians loaded their van with the care packages and headed out. With final waves goodbye, the van jauntily traveled along Woodward Avenue heading south, stopping once again under the bridge to spend a few moments with the homeless.
William, seeing the white van, broke out in a wide smile, remembering His Eminence from his last visit during Palm Sunday a few years back. He happily approached and graciously accepted the package. Soon, Kevin and Dale joined him, shivering in the cold. They were grateful for the gifts of kindness and love… and mostly for the fact that the Archbishop, being in the area, stopped to help them once again. His Eminence gave them worth, and let them know that they are not invisible to this world, as cars fly by, and people turn away, but, that they are visible, they are important, and they are loved.
With final hugs, His Eminence bid them farewell, assuring them of his continued prayers. As they all got back into the van, some of the homeless were already opening their packages, while others were wrapping themselves in warm blankets, and William stood and waved goodbye. With a cheery honk of the horn, and a wave, His Eminence drove off once again, heading south through Michigan before turning East and heading back home to the New Jersey.
Although tired from their weeklong journey, the occupants of the van had made a difference everywhere they had traveled, bringing with them joy, hope, and peace. The cities, towns, churches, and people they had visited, all sparkled brightly with renewed hope in these dark times. The van, like a shooting star, left a bright trail of light behind it. All the faithful who had partaken of the celebrations, were all spiritually reborn, strengthened, and comforted… and all the cities continued to resonate with “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”
Photos by Subdeacon Yaroslav Bilohan, Olena Lymar and Elizabeth Symonenko
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko