The blizzard-like conditions from the day before, were a distant memory as the morning sun reflected brightly off the newly fallen snow. Birds chirped happily as they hopped among the bushes which lay dormant at the foot of the St. Andrew Memorial Church in South Bound Brook, New Jersey. The birds flitted away as the faithful began to arrive, their footsteps creaking loudly in the frozen snow, as their noses and cheeks quickly turned red in the cold breeze.
Inside the Memorial Church, the candles were already twinkling warmly, inviting all to enter the prayer room off to the side and spend a quiet moment in contemplation and prayer before God and His Saints. Not only the flames of the many candles twinkling joyfully, but the delicate strings of white lights decorating the lush Christmas Tree which stood in the nave, also twinkled, and spread joy to those who gazed upon them.
The bells began to chime loudly, making the people who were still walking outside step up their pace as the Divine Liturgy was about to begin. Today, was a pivotal day, and a magnificent celebration. In addition to being a Sunday, today the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA were celebrating their Prime Hierarch, Metropolitan Antony, as he celebrated his birthday, the start of his 50th year of priestly service, and his Name’s day.
With Metropolitan Antony present in the Altar, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the UOC of the USA, served the Divine Liturgy. His deep voice resonated up to the tall spire of the church dome, the prayers rising to the heavens above. The people bowed their heads and joined their hierarch in praying for good health for their loved ones, peace in the world, good weather, and a good defense before the Judgement Seat of Christ.
The Gospel Reading was Luke 18: 35-42, as well as from Luke 6:17-23 (in honor of St. Antony). In the first of the two readings the faithful heard how when Christ was walking near Jericho, He encountered a blind man. The blind man heard the commotion, and when he was told it was Jesus of Nazareth who was walking by, he yelled loudly to Him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even though those around him found him annoying and told him to be quiet, he ignored them and again called out to Christ. The Lord heard him, and asked that the blind man be brought to Him, then gazing down upon him, He asked what the man wanted of Him. The man said he wanted to have his sight restored. Christ restored his sight, and the man followed Him, with the people praising God in their wake at the miracle that He had done in their presence.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepped out on the ambo and delivered a moving sermon. He explained that this man was physically blind, but, even worse than losing our physical sight, is for people to lose their spiritual sight. A spiritually blind individual does not see the needs of others and feels no desire to help them.
He explained that every creation of God, every creature has its purpose. The chicken lays eggs, and the cow gives milk, and each knows its purpose and fulfills it, for the benefit of mankind. People also have a purpose, a divine destination.
As children of God, we have a purpose – to glorify God with our entire being, and to interact with the world in which we find ourselves. 104 years ago today, in 1918, 300 young cadets, felt the need to defend not only their homeland, but, their loved ones and neighbors, and 30 Kilometers outside of Kyiv, at the train station of Kruty to block the advance of a Bolshevik army of 4000 strong they gathered. Outnumbered by over 10 - 1, the young men put their very lives on the line to protect the lives of others. With little ammunition, they were able to hold off the advancement for the five hours needed for a treaty to be signed with Austria-Hungary reinstating the 1914 borders of Ukraine. One survivor of this battle emigrated to the United States, and upon his death, was buried at the St. Andrew’s Cemetery.
We honor the memory of these 300 young men who gave up their very lives to protect the borders of Ukraine. 104 years later we face almost the same situation, as the Russian forces amass on the borders of Ukraine threatening the country with aggression. Therefore, with the support of Metropolitan Antony, Archbishop Daniel invited all those of Ukrainian heritage who are located outside the borders of Ukraine, be it in the USA, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, etc. to take a moment and pray for peace in Ukraine.
With their physical eyes, the men and women defending Ukraine today, are watching for the approach of the enemy line, while with their spiritual eyes they must still see the humanity, and the image of God, even within their enemies. They must protect the sanctity of all human life.
The Lord tells us that we are to love each other to the degree that we are willing to lay down our very life to protect another. However, in order to fulfill this depth of calling, we need to train ourselves to “see” well.
While we are able to put on a pair of eyeglasses to focus our physical sight, we often need to focus our spiritual sight, as well, so that our spiritual eyes can discern truth, and to see the purpose to which we are called. Our physical eyes want to go to the local store and buy everything they see, while our spiritual eyes suffer. St. John Chrysostom states, “how can you see the Kingdom of Heaven,
How can you see the Kingdom of Heaven, when you forget about and ignore your God-given calling, and only focus on today, concerning yourself with material wants? His Eminence asked that we all took care of the focus of our eyes, not just our physical eyes, but, even more-so our spiritual eyes. He stated that we are all a wellspring of God’s goodness to the people in our lives.
The archbishop continued by mentioning that today we commemorate St. Antony of the Desert, a man who in his early twenties left all his worldly goods behind, entrusting his sisters to the care of a monastery, and dedicated his life to Christ. He fasted, donated the work of his hands to the poor, and tried to teach everyone how to live a godly life. He spread and encouraged Christian monasticism and became a leader among the Church Fathers. His Eminence wished that we would take the example of St. Antony, and go and sacrifice our lives for God, in whichever method He asks of us, for the good of our neighbors, and ourselves.
“We are being asked to pray today in order to ask God to protect the integrity of the borders of Ukraine, but, I tell you”, continued Archbishop Daniel, “that we are to not only to pray during church services for the wellbeing of our nations, but, we are to gather together as a spiritual army, as soldiers in the Army of Christ. The Lord’s Army is far greater than any tank or military force, stronger and more powerful than any worldly leader or general. The Army of Christ has the most invincible armor which exists. This armor is prayer. Prayer is knowing how to come before God, with the intercession of the Mother-of-God, and plead the cessation of harmful forces that are marching towards Ukraine. Therefore, be warriors of Christ’s Church. Pray. Put upon yourself the helmet of Faith, the Shield of Protection, pick up your weapons which are your prayer books, and pray. Find a free moment in the evening and read a prayer. While driving in the car, turn off the radio, and instead pray for peace and calm. Allow that prayer to become the wellspring of your personal strength, and through your efforts, help the people of Ukraine, during these difficult times.”
“Therefore, let us pray, and fight a spiritual battle, saving the lives of one another.”
As the Liturgy continued the Archbishop Daniel’s words still echoed throughout the church, and within the heads of those who had listened to him. Warriors of Christ. The deep responsibility slowly sunk in and made the words they recited during the Creed even more poignant than usual.
As the Divine Liturgy concluded, Archbishop Daniel having prayed for peace in Ukraine, asked that we take a moment to remember the 300 young souls who perished in 1918, near Kruty, defending their homeland from invasion. Calling for the Peaceful Repose of all who gave up their lives in defense of Ukraine, and that the Lord should remember them in His Kingdom, all those gathered bowed their heads and solemnly sang “Memory Eternal”/ “Вічная Пам’ять!”
With the conclusion of the service, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony joined Archbishop Daniel on the Ambo, where Vladyka Daniel, on behalf of all the faithful greeted him on his birthday, priestly anniversary and namesday, gifting him a beautiful Panagia and Cross with St. Andrew on it. He stated that all we ask in return is that the Metropolitan continue to teach us, pray for us, guide us and lead us, his spiritual children, through the path the Lord has set for us. With these words, Archbishop Daniel led everyone is loudly and joyously singing Mnohaya Lita/Many Years to the Metropolitan.
Stepping up to the Ambo, Dobrodiyka Lesia Siwko greeted Metropolitan Antony, presenting him flowers and well-wishes from the Pokrova Sisterhood. Accepting the flowers, His Eminence blessed each of the ladies from sisterhood, and took the opportunity to share a few words of thanks to all present.
Metropolitan Antony expressed his gratitude for all the gifts and flowers, but, stated that there is nothing he, or Archbishop Daniel, needs more than our prayers. It is wonderful to receive gifts, and to be remembered on anniversaries, but there is nothing more important to any bishop, than the prayers of their flock, as they endeavor to serve the Lord. His Eminence reiterated, that as hierarchs, and as Christians, they do not serve themselves, but serve Christ.
Following prayer, he stated that the greatest gift a bishop can receive is the knowledge that the members of their flock are dedicating themselves and giving of themselves to Christ. He said that he prays continuously that we realize and recognize just what it is that Christ wants of us. He asked that we all think how we can serve Christ, in what ways we can show we care to others, in what manner we can help our neighbors. We all have the ability to help someone. He asked for everyone’s continued devotion to God, devotion to living in His Name, a continue desire to take each moment of our lives, not only on Sunday mornings, but every moment try to determine what is the necessary step we must take to bring us closer to God, and to fulfill our purpose in life. We need to live like a Child of God, like one who is saved by Jesus Christ.
All he asked of his flock was their devotion to God, and their prayers, stating that these two things provide them all that they could possibly need or want. His Eminence concluded by stating how grateful he is for each of us, and for the opportunity to pray for each member of his flock, to serve, love, embrace, and lead each one in prayer. With the promise of continued prayers for his flock, His Eminence stepped back into the Altar, moved by the love he felt circulating through the church. The choir sang a moving prayer asking God’s protection for Ukraine, at the conclusion of which the faithful came up to venerate the icon of St. Antony, accepting a piece of antidoron, and taking a printed copy of the published Prayer for Ukraine home with them to pray daily before their icons.
Slowly the church emptied, as the faithful, having donned their Christian Armor, walked out into the world to do spiritual battle. The pitter patter of tiny feet echoed through the empty church as the last of the children ran around, trying to avoid their mothers’ efforts at zipping up their coats before heading outside into the cold. Focusing on the words of the hierarchs, the Church is not a museum, but the Living representation of the Body of Christ, with the children who had joined to wish their hierarch a happy birthday ensuring the future of the Church.
May God bless His Eminence Metropolitan Antony and grant him many blessed years! Mnohaya Lita!