Every Sunday is a special day, but Sunday the 19th of December 2021, was even more special than usual. The parking lot of the St. Andrew Memorial Church in South Bound Brook, New Jersey overflowed with cars this morning. As the faithful quickly made their way through the chill morning air, their warm breath created puffy white clouds behind them. Mothers hurried after their running children calling to them to zip up their coats against the cold, but their words fell on deaf ears as the youngsters rushed across the grass and up the steps to the brightly illuminated church.
The narthex was already filled with people of all ages, who had come to join in the celebration. This day the parishioners were not only celebrating that parish Patronal Feast Day of St. Andrew but were expecting a special visitor as the Church commemorated St. Nicholas this Sunday. The latecomers quickly peeled off their jackets exposing their beautifully embroidered Ukrainian vyshyvanky. Children quickly assembled by the door as the bells began to chime and they could see His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, splendidly clothed in gold and red vestments, approach the church and begin to ascend the steps. Quickly the director of the St. Andrew Parish Ukrainian School lined up her students and passed out red roses to each child. The doors opened and Archbishop Daniel walked in and smiled as he spotted the youth gathered before him. Timidly the children approached and greeted their hierarch, each one handing him one of the roses. His Eminence graciously accepted the flowers and then reached down to embrace the youngest of his flock in a large group hug.
Standing behind the children, and smiling at their interaction with their shepherd, stood Fr. Andrii Drapak. His Eminence stepped forward and venerated the cross presented him by Fr. Andriy, who had stepped in for Fr. Siwko who was absent due to health reasons, then turned and blessed those gathered in the church before entering further into the Nave.
The saints reflected in the icons which covered the walls of the church, gazed down upon the faithful which had filled the tiny church to capacity. Most adults had their heads bowed in prayer, as many parents tried to contain their children which had gathered near the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the corner of the church, and were either resting on the floor, tumbling off their chairs, or pulling on their mothers’ hair.
As a voice from the altar proclaimed, “Let us be attentive!”, even the children who had been making noise quieted down. His Eminence stepped out on the ambo and read from the Gospel of Luke 17:12-19, retelling the occasion when Christ entered a village and from afar ten lepers called to Him for mercy. The Lord healed all ten, but only one returned to thank Him. Closing the Gospel Book and placing it back upon the Altar Table, Archbishop Daniel stepped out into the Nave to deliver a moving sermon.
The Lord instructed the ten men with leprosy to go show themselves to the temple priests. In those days individuals who were ill with leprosy were shunned. They were not permitted inside the city walls and had to survive away from their family and loved ones. It was the priests who would decide if the individual had recovered and was healthy enough to return to life within the city, and with their family once again. Therefore, Christ instructs them, as if they were already healed, to go and show themselves to the priests. On their way to the temple, all ten men are healed. With laughter and joy, they happily wave their once rotting arms over their heads and remove their bandages as they run towards the temple, eager to resume their public lives, and become members of society once again.
Nine run off to the temple, but, the tenth stops, glances at his healed skin and repaired flesh, and humbly gazes back at Christ who still stood in the distance watching. The man turns his back to the city and the temple, and comes to Christ, falls to his knees, and bows at the Lord’s feet, thanking Him for the gift of healing. Jesus raises this man, who is a Samaritan, considered unclean by the Jews, and solemnly makes a statement, that there were ten men who were healed, but only one returned and gave thanks. He sends the Samaritan on his way, explaining that he has been healed by his faith.
His Eminence continued that we often find ourselves in a similar position as these ten men. Perhaps we are not ill, nonetheless, we face some sort of struggle in our daily lives, and we pray for God’s mercy upon us. The Lord hears and grants us His mercy, healing our sickness of heart and body; giving us a way out of our predicament; opening our minds to discover an answer to our woes, and while we rejoice and put our troubles behind us, we too often do not give credit where credit is due. It is important to realize God’s hand in our lives, and to acknowledge Him and thank Him for the daily miracles He performs in our lives.
Too often people only turn to God in times of trouble, and then only to beg Him to take the troubles away. However, obstacles in life often help us to become better people. Pride is transformed to humility through difficulties. Therefore, not only should we remember to thank God when He answers our prayers, but our gratitude ought to be endless in every situation. Certain flowers only bloom if there is a cold frost in the Winter, and diamonds can only shine if carbon is exposed to extreme heat and pressure. Therefore, we need to humbly accept the difficulties that come our way, knowing that if we persevere, if through it we allow our faith to grow, that we too will shine brightly.
As babies slept in their mother’s arms and on their father’s shoulders, the adults bowed their heads and recollected how many times their troubles were erased and tried to remember if they had thanked the Lord. As the Divine Liturgy continued, and the choir, under the directorship of Dr. Michael Andrec, sang the hymns, their voices weaving an ethereal thread from the heavens down to surround all the faithful, the people refocused, and humbly thanked the Lord for everything, the good and the bad.
As the curtain behind the Royal Gates closed, the adults gently gathered their children and nudged them to get in line for Communion. The youngsters stood in a haphazard line, pushing, and shoving as children do, while their parents tried to calm them. Mothers with babes in arms, gently tried to rouse the sleeping infants and prepare them to partake as well.
His Eminence stepped out with the Chalice as the pre-Communion prayers were recited and with a gentle smile upon his face bent to carefully administer the Body and Blood Christ to the little people. Young and not-so-young humbly approached the Chalice and partook of the Eucharist, feeling re-energized and bolstered by the Holy Sacrament.
As the Divine Liturgy concluded, His Eminence once again stepped out into the Nave, this time flanked by clergy and Altar servers carrying icons. These icons, sponsored by the parishioners, were written by an iconographer in the Ternopil region of Ukraine had had only recently arrived in the U.S. The largest icon of the group was of the Birth-Giver of God – Intercessor for the Innocent Victims of the Holodomor in Ukraine. On the icon the Theotokos, with a worried expression, holds the Christ Child, while below them the scorched earth stands barren. To her right is represented the first Holodomor Monument erected in Ukraine, while to her left is the oldest monument to the Holodomor in the United States – the very Saint Andrew Memorial Church in which everyone was currently gathered.
Archbishop Daniel explained the significance of each icon, focusing on the center one, and prayed that the Mother-of-God safeguard Ukraine and all the world from such disasters in the future. His Eminence blessed each icon, sprinkling them with Holy Water, and then turned and generously sprinkled the children who had crowded in behind him. The youngsters squealed and laughed as the icons were returned into the Altar, and Vladyka stepped back up on the Ambo.
As everyone settled down, His Eminence reminded them that this day we also celebrate St. Nicholas, and thus if the children have been good throughout the year, it is possible that the saint himself might stop by for a visit. The little heads of the children bobbled up and down as they tried to reassure Archbishop Daniel that they had in fact been very good children this year. Smiling at them His Eminence called out… and immediately the doors of the church swung open, allowing a cold blast of air to come roaring down the center of the church. As if descending from the heavens upon that breeze, Saint Nicholas, dressed in golden vestments entered the church and walked down the center aisle. The children’s eyes grew wide as they gazed up at the saint, wondering if he knew that they perhaps had been naughty once or twice throughout the year.
Saint Nicholas turned to face the children and their parents and asked them a few questions. To impress him, some children had prepared poems which they happily recited in an effort to gain the saint’s approval. Svyatij Mykolaj was convinced that those gathered within the walls of St. Andrew’s Church were deserving of gifts. He first turned to Archbishop Daniel who stood on the ambo, and approaching His Eminence presented him with the first gift. With gratitude Vladyka accepted the gift and watched as the saint then turned his attention to the children who were patiently waiting, with hands outstretched, to receive a gift as well. Having given presents to all the children, St. Nicholas posed for a few photos, before once again leaving. He expressed his regrets at not being able to spend more time with the parishioners, but he explained that there many other children he still needed to visit that day, and with a final wave, the doors once again opened, and he disappeared into the cold breeze outdoors. The children escaped their parents’ grasp and ran after him, but, when they got to the doors, the saint was nowhere to be seen. Amazed, the youngsters ran back to their parents, who having led them up to venerate the cross and icon of St. Nicholas, once again fought to pull jackets on their squirming little bodies. With smiles and laughter, the faithful began to exit the church and return to their homes. The parents once again chased after their excited children, pulling up their hoods, and trying to zip up their coats, but the kids were too excited and ran circles around their parents, who eventually gave up and simply laughed with their offspring.
Thus, with joy and happiness the memorial church emptied, and once again stood as a lone beacon, a reminder of the horrors mankind can inflict upon fellow man. And yet not all hope is lost, as the echoes of the children’s laughter still echoed through the grounds, filled with excitement and hope for a bright future.