After torrential rainfall and thunder that shook the earth all night, the Sunday morning of April 23rd dawned bright and sunny, as if washed clean overnight. The birds chirped happily in the blossoming trees as the faithful began to arrive for Divine Liturgy at the St. Andrew Memorial Church on this St. Thomas Sunday. Soaring skyward, the Memorial Church, built to represent a candle flame lit in memoriam of the over 7 million lives lost during the Stalinist famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33 is the first Monument commemorating the Holodomor (death due to starvation) in the United States. Today, as the Orthodox Church prays for all those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, attending Divine Liturgy within the hallowed walls of this monument held its own significant meaning.
Many of the faithful arriving this morning, had also attended Divine Liturgy the day before, as the St. Thomas Weekend Pilgrimage activities kicked off on Saturday. During Saturday’s service, celebrated by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, and attended by His Eminence Archbishop Jeremiah of South America, accompanied by the seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary who beautifully sang the responses and hymns, the faithful not only prayed, but, were blessed with incredible spiritual edification. During his sermon, Archbishop Daniel had explained that in the Gospel (John 3:22-33) John the Baptist joyously and willingly steps back from the attention of the world, in honor of the Messiah whom he preached, Jesus Christ who has now entered into His mission, preaching, healing, baptizing. It is the duty of each of us, baptized in Christ, to also preach Christ to the world, which is getting more and more difficult as society pushes its lack of morality, its warped understanding of freedom of choice, and its agenda upon our communities and nations. None the less, we are to be firm in our belief and are to defend the teachings of the Church, which were true 2,000 years ago, as they are true today.
As we rejoice in the Resurrected Lord, continued Archbishop Daniel, the Orthodox Church teaches us to pray for our loved ones who have reposed in the Lord. Our Traditions on Saint Thomas weekend are of old. In ancient times, the Early Christians would visit the graves of their loved ones the week following Pascha, to share with them the Good News of the Risen Lord. We continue this tradition today. However, over time our adherence has shifted from the spiritual, that which benefits the souls of the dead, to the convenient and enjoyable. The Church demands of us that we follow in the steps of the first Christians, in that we fast, confess, and commune, having partaken of the Holy Eucharist, having taken on Christ, we can then go and preach Christ to the living and to the dead. Only after having attended morning Liturgy are we truly prepared to share the joy of Christ with the others. Sadly, over time, more and more people choose to entirely skip Divine Liturgy in order to get a better parking spot at the cemetery, and get a head start on the festivities. His Eminence asked that everyone first prepare themselves spiritually and only then take the joy of the Risen Lord to the graves and share it with their departed loved ones. As Christians we must never forget that all things are done in Christ and through Christ, otherwise they are nothing more than empty gestures.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Daniel read a moving prayer over the Artos which was resting in the center of the nave. His Eminence explained that this Artos (most-special Prosphora) with an icon of the Resurrection of Christ on it, represents the Bread of Eternal Life which is brought out on Pascha, and rests in the church all of Bright Week, follows sacred Tradition. The custom of having this bread in church dates back to the time of the Apostles, who always left an empty place at the head of the table to honor the memory of Christ. Where He would have sat, they baked and placed a large round loaf of bread as it was their firm belief that He was invisibly present with them.
Pious custom teaches us to take this blessed bread as it is distributed on St. Thomas Sunday home with us, and treating it with reverence, as it mystically represents Christ, consume a crumb each morning with a sip of Holy Water as we start our days.
As the Liturgy concluded the faithful followed Archbishop Daniel outside as he headed to pray and bless the gravesites of the deceased clergy of the Church. Having exclaimed to them that Christ is Risen, and prayed for their peaceful repose, dousing the crosses and monuments with Holy Water, His Eminence wandered through the St. Andrew Cemetery praying, sprinkling the graves with holy water, and proclaiming the Risen Lord to all who rested in the hallowed ground.
The remainder of the afternoon, the faithful of the Church strolled through the cemetery, pausing to join prayers at various gravesites, catching up with friends who had traveled in from near and far, and spending a quiet afternoon in contemplation. At 3 PM people made their way to the Seminary which hosted a wonderful luncheon and Open House. For many this was their first time visiting the Seminary, and they were impressed not only with the architecture of the Victorian age building, but, with the knowledge of the students, and the beauty of the chapel. The golden iconostas, the relics, the shimmering icons imbued a sense of peace to those who entered the Seminary Chapel of the Three Holy Hierarchs, enticing them to linger and remain for the Vespers Service that evening.
Having spent a peaceful and spiritually edifying Saturday at the Metropolia Center of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, the faithful once again found themselves immersed in their Faith, their heritage, and their customs as they participated in Sunday’s activities.
Celebrating Divine Liturgy was His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora, along with Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy and President of the Consistory, and Archbishop Jeremiah of South America. The three hierarchs ascended the steps to the open doors of the St. Andrew Memorial Church as the bells pealed announcing their arrival. As they paused just outside the doors, those gathered within were mesmerized as the bright sun glinted off the hierarchs white vestments, making them veritably glow, like three heavenly figures who had deemed to visit mankind.
With flowers bobbing in their nervous hands, the children of the parish greeted the bishops, and then happily stepped into Metropolitan Antony’s open arms for a joyous group hug. The hierarchs were handed more flowers along with warm words of welcome from the elder of St. Andrew Memorial Church Mr. Roman and Dobrodijka Lesia, president of the parochial sisterhood, and finally by Protopresbyter Yurij Siwko, who expressed his delight at welcoming the hierarchs to the Memorial Church. As the hierarchs gladly accepted the flowers and greetings and expressed their well wishes, gratitude and blessings to the parish family, the faithful crowded around, craning their necks, and stretching out their arms to take photos.
As the hierarchs stood in the center of the nave, flanked by clergy who had arrived from nearby cities, surrounded by the faithful who had joined from near and far, the Divine Liturgy began. The choir, directed by Dr. Michael Andrec sang beautifully, their voices floating down as if from heaven to the encircle the faithful gathered below.
The Gospel Reading was from John 20:19-31 retelling how Thomas was absent when Christ appeared to the Apostles and therefore did not believe that they had really seen Him stating that until he himself was able to touch Christ’s wounds he would not believe the Lord was alive.
Stepping out on the ambo, Archbishop Daniel delivered a riveting sermon. He remarked that the Resurrected Christ first showed Himself to the women who had quietly followed Him. The men had become afraid when Jesus was arrested, some denied even knowing him, while all of them hid in a room with closed windows and doors, afraid the same fate that met Christ awaited them. During Bright Week we had read how Christ had joined two of His Disciples as they walked to Emmaus. One was Cleopas and the other by Tradition was Luke. Both of these men knew Christ, and yet neither recognized Him, until they sat at the table and He broke the bread. As they realized that Jesus lived they made haste to run back and tell the other Disciples. It is into this energized atmosphere, as the two retell what they experienced to the Apostles gathered behind locked doors and windows that Jesus appears before them. Yet Thomas is missing and does not believe that Christ lives. Eight days later, when Thomas is present, the Lord once again appears to the Disciples and shows them His wounds and scars, at which point Thomas believes.
Archbishop Daniel explained that we all have our scars from life, and that society continues to wound us and Christ by inflicting new wounds when unborn children are killed through abortion, even into the ninth month of gestation when the little life is viable. The world is constantly inflicting new wounds upon Christ, and upon us as we are the Body of Christ. However, even though we are wounded we are to persevere and continue to preach the truth, defend the innocent, and be an example to the world.
His Eminence stated that many people come to him and ask where is God when they see the horrors being inflicted upon Ukraine. Vladyka replied that God is there, with each person who is suffering, fighting, dying, and struggling to live. He is there making it all bearable and giving them the hope to stand up and keep on struggling to live. Without God’s presence the people would have given up long ago, but, with Him they are beaten down, but, they rise again stronger.
As Archbishop Daniel returned to the Altar the Liturgy continued, ebbing and flowing, as the faithful lost themselves in prayer. As the children gathered at the front of the church, the adults fell into line behind them, as they approached to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist held even more meaning this day, as the faithful pondered how Cleopas and Luke recognized Christ at the breaking of bread, how the Artos that had stood in the center of the church all week represented Christ’s presence. They approached with fear and love to also be part of this holy and mystical Sacrament.
Near the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful, having been educated the day before by Archbishop Daniel on the Artos, gently reached into the bowl which was offered to them by the altar servers and reverently took a piece of the blessed Artos which had been cut and placed in little baggies. Kissing the bread and gently placing it in their pockets and purses they fully intended to partake of little pieces of the blessed bread each morning.
At the conclusion of the service, Metropolitan Antony stepped out and addressed the faithful, thanking Archbishop Jeremiah for his participation this day, and welcoming all the guests who traveled to the Metropolia Center for the St. Thomas Weekend Pilgrimage. He reminded them that they are to be instruments of God, and having been filled with the Grace of God during their baptism and chrismation, and having partaken of the Eucharist they have all they need to face anything life presents to them. As such His Eminence reminded them that they are given a duty much as the Apostles were, to preach the Word of God, to bring light into the darkness, and to always keep Christ before them. Metropolitan Antony invited everyone to join the clergy as they gathered at the steps of the Memorial Church for the general Panakhyda as they prayed for the peaceful repose of the souls lost during the Chornobyl disaster, Holodomor, and the current genocide taking place in Ukraine today.
Quietly exiting the church, the faithful made their way down the steps where they gathered to participate in the Memorial Service. With bowed heads the faithful felt overwhelmed in the knowledge that so many lives have been lost. The moment was poignant as the faithful had spread out, some stood next to the vinyl banner depicting the horrors of the current aggression of the Russian nation against Ukraine, the tragic images giving more power to the prayers being said.
As the service concluded, singing Christ is Risen, the entire entourage, led by the hierarchs made its way around to the back of the church and down into the Mausoleum where the faithful gathered at the crypt of Patriarch Mstyslav. Fresh flowers lay upon the Patriarch’s tomb, as the smoke from the incense swirled about the heads of those gathered. It was a surreal moment, as if the curtain separating the living from the dead has slid slightly open and the two came together in prayer.
Having prayed for the peaceful repose of Patriarch Mstyslav, everyone ascended back up into the sunlight and once again processed around the church making their way to the Veteran’s Monument located on the property of the St. Andrew Memorial Church led by Ukrainian-American Veteran’s carrying various flags from all the Military branches.
At the Veteran’s monument, prayers were said for the peaceful repose of all veterans, especially those of Ukrainian heritage who had fought and died defending freedom, both on behalf of the United States and Ukraine.
As the services concluded, the faithful dispersed across the Metropolia Center. Some wandered back to the cemetery to slowly walk and visit the graves of numerous Ukrainian dignitaries, soldiers, artists and poets, who were buried there. Others walked across the picturesque bridge and made their way to the Ukrainian Cultural Center where they perused all the merchandize available from numerous vendors. While others made their way to the St. Sophia Seminary to enjoy an Ice Cream Social.
The Church grounds resonated with laughter and joy as people spent the afternoon in companionship and camaraderie. As the afternoon waned, the clouds began to roll in, and the thousands of people who had gathered this day, began to disperse. With final farewells the cars departed the grounds, as the people waved out their open windows to each other. As the sun slid behind the clouds, the words of hope and salvation continued to echo throughout the Metropolia Center. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!