UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE USA
CONSISTORY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Archpastoral Palm Sunday Celebration at St. Mary the Protectress Cathedral in Southfield, Michigan!
By Elizabeth Symonenko
“One week. You have one week to complete your homework assignment! Now, get to work!” Homework was the last thing the parishioners of St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, in Southfield, Michigan, had expected this weekend, as they happily greeted His Grace Bishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A.
The frost on the lush green grass vanished quickly under the Saturday sun, as everyone prepared to celebrate life. The Church joyfully celebrated the Virgin Mary humbly accepting to carry a life at the Annunciation, and thereby bringing about the salvation of mankind and eternal life. Coincidentally Saturday was also the commemoration of one man’s life. Lazarus, who having been in the grave four days, was resurrected by our Lord to reinforce mankind’s belief in that same eternal life.
His Grace delivered a powerful sermon, reminding the faithful to not put their faith in mankind, but, in God. He reminded everyone that no matter how well respected, how well loved, how well accepted you are by the public, it can all fade in an instant. One careless word, one look, one thoughtless gesture, and all the glory that took ages to garner vanishes in an instant. Society’s approval is transitory, and therefore, rather than wasting your time and effort, focus instead on the eternal Lord. He is a forgiving and loving God, and knows what is within your heart. He does not judge us by our paycheck or our social status, but, instead expects from us humility, kindness and a giving heart.
Upon the conclusion of the service, His Grace spent the afternoon with the faithful of the parish, sharing a light lunch and inviting everyone to a lively and informative discussion. During the dialogue, Bishop Daniel, once again reemphasized the words spoken during his sermon, to love on another, to do good to each other and to help everyone. However, in order to help someone else, one must first help themselves. This is not to be interpreted as being selfish or greedy, but, in allowing oneself to flourish in order to be able to help others. If a person neglects themselves, they will not have the energy to go out and do good to others. If one does not earn money, they will have nothing to donate to the needy.
The afternoon quickly passed in joyous and fruitful discussion, and before anyone realized the day had faded, it was time to prepare for the Evening Service. Joining Bishop Daniel, and Fr. Paul, were Reverend Andrew Rogers, from Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Dearborn, and Very Reverend Andrei Alexeiv from Holy Ascension Serbian Orthodox Church.
As the setting sun peaked through the windows of the cathedral, the service began, quiet and reverent. The darkened sanctuary served to accentuate the sun’s rays as they illuminated the smoky incense and created tendrils of multicolored light swirling slowly and adding mystery to the powerful prayers being read. The voices raised to the Lord in supplication, echoed from the walls and everyone present felt the beauty and strength that is found only within Orthodoxy.
The cathedral filled early as the faithful arrived eager to celebrate the Palm Sunday Feast day. An hour before the expected arrival of Bishop Daniel, the church was filled, many taking the opportunity to go to Holy Confession. First in line were seven year old Zinoviy and Anya, as they went to their very first Holy Confession. Having given their Confessions in the presence of Fr. Paul, the children fell to their knees on the solea to pray to God that He should forgive them their sins, and bless them and their families.
The faithful, bundled against the still chilly breeze, poured out of the cathedral and congregated at the front of the church with anticipation and excitement. As young girls sprinkled rose petals, His Grace, along with the Reverend Protodeacon Ihor Mahlay, visiting deacon from St. Vladimir Cathedral in Parma, Ohio, rounded the corner to joyfully greet all those gathered,. The children of the parish’s chapter of the Junior Ukrainian Orthodox League, and students of the Lesia Ukrainka School of Religion and Ukrainian Studies, greeted their beloved bishop with roses, and were rewarded by a gracious group hug! While huddling with the children those gathered nearby could hear his wise words to the youngsters, instructing them to enter the church and remember to pray for their parents and loved ones. Having kindly distributed his collection of roses back to the children, His Grace turned to accept the greeting from Olga Liskiwsky, parish council president, and Georgia Kereliuk, president of the St. Olga Sisterhood, as they greeted His Grace with bread and salt.
Upon ascending the steps in to the cathedral, His Grace was once again greeted by parish pastor Very Rev. Fr. Paul Bodnarchuk. Having gratefully accepted Fr. Paul’s warm greetings, Bishop Daniel led everyone in to the sanctuary amidst the glorious and stirring hymns sung by the parish choir, led by Mykola Newmerzycky.
As the Divine Liturgy joyously progressed, the cathedral filled to capacity. After the reading of the Gospel, His Grace descended from the altar to deliver his sermon. Standing in the middle of the sanctuary, reminiscent of a shepherd amidst his flock, with his shepherd’s crook, His Grace, moved everyone with his sermon. He reemphasized the meaning of Great Lent. It is a time of self-inspection, self-improvement and self-deprivation. However, he asked, how many of us have changed for the better within the last 40 days? Great Lent is not about food. It is easy to fast from meat and dairy products, but, it is harder to fast from vain thoughts, greed and being judgmental. What good does it to do us if we fast from eating meat, and yet devour our neighbor? Instead of self-sacrifice we often focus on self-satisfaction. We avoid eating the beef burger, yet overfill our stomachs with soy burgers. We congratulate ourselves for abstaining from milk, while consuming soy milk. Are we actually fasting? Are we actually denying ourselves anything? What a wonderful world this would be if we were all truly Christian. There would be no need of armies, there would be no war, there would be no strife. If we were truly Christian we would put others first, we would never dream of bringing harm to anyone, nor they to us. Peace would reign upon this land…if we were truly Christian.
If we allow it, life has a way to change us. Our experiences, our travails and hardships, our successes and efforts, all work to influence us. It is up to us to choose whether that influence is for the good of our souls, or to their detriment. Bishop Daniel briefly expounded about an iconographer who had a hard time envisioning the faces to depict on his icon of the Mystical Supper. He happened upon a man who resembled Christ. He had the same long flowing hair, neatly trimmed beard, wise and gentle eyes, and exuded love and kindness from every pore. He chose this man to sit while he masterfully painted Christ at the head of the table. Within a short while he had managed to locate subjects for eleven of the twelve apostles, however, completion of his work was delayed when he could not locate someone with the evil nature of Judas. His work sat unfinished for ten years until he happened upon a man, so vile of nature, with such keen and shrewdly narrowed eyes, who exhibited all that is evil in man, and asked this man to sit as a model for Judas. Only after the man agreed and they spoke for some time, did the painter realize that this was the same man who had sat for him ten years before, and had been his model of the image of Christ. In ten short years, this model of purity had morphed into a model of evil.
His Grace not only instructed, but, begged us to watch what we do, how we act, and how we react. Every one of our thoughts and deeds is shaping our future. We need to cultivate patience, even while sitting for what seems ten impossibly long minutes at the drive through waiting for our coffee with soymilk. We need to realize that every single human needs our respect, and that if we do not see Christ within someone, then we have muddied our souls and have blinded ourselves to the good that is within everyone.
As most of the woman visible wiped tears of remorse from their eyes, and men audibly sniffled, Bishop Daniel reminded us that as we celebrate Palm Sunday, the forty days of Great Lent are over. If we haven’t fasted, if we haven’t prayed, if we haven’t done what we had wished to accomplish during Great Lent, it is now too late. Lent has come, and Lent has gone.
However, all hope is not lost. We have before us six days before we anticipate joyously celebrating the Pascha of our Lord. Six days. While six days seems such a short peroid, let us remember that God created the world in six days. Let us create a new world around us and within us, in these next six days. If we didn’t realize we needed to accomplish something before Pascha, if we hadn’t known we had an assignment given to us, we now know. There is no excuse not to complete our homework. His Grace instructed us to pull out our notebooks, sharpen our pencils. We have six days. On the seventh, we will receive our score for the assignment we turn in. Therefore, open those books, open your hearts, go out and turn in the best homework assignment you have ever completed.
With this resounding advice echoing in everyone’s ears, and within their hearts, Bishop Daniel completed his sermon and the Liturgy continued, louder and with more force and enthusiasm, as everyone immediately began to work on their assignment. The children of the parish gathered at the front of the sanctuary to sing the Lord ’s Prayer. Their gentle, and innocent voices brought smiles to everyone present.
Having given Holy Communion to hundreds of faithful, and while the Prayer of Thanksgiving was being read, the children took bunches of pussy willows and began distributing them to all the faithful in the church. Slowly the noise level within the church increased, from silent to muffled whispers.
As everyone held up their branches, His Grace Bishop Daniel emerged from the Altar carrying a Cross, decorated with palms and pussy willow branches. As the bishop recited the prayers of blessing, the parish children, waving their willows, congregated in the main aisle of the church, forming a tunnel of branches. The energy in the cathedral was almost palpable as His Grace proceeded around the sanctuary dousing everyone with Holy Water. From the first recipient the energy flowed like a wild fire through the congregation, and the noise level reached a crescendo. His Grace proceeded around the perimeter of the church and climbed up to the choir loft, blessing everyone. The choir burst into loud hymns of celebration, as the crowd could no longer contain themselves and burst out in cries of joy, while raising their branches up high. The walls of the cathedral reverberated with the noise emanating from the people as they made a “joyous noise unto the Lord”. Sounds of joy echoed from every nook and cranny. People were once again so moved that tears were streaming freely and unabashed down their cheeks, washed away by the Holy Water and replaced my smiles. The faithful were laughing and crying all at the same time. The noise and joy was such that one almost expected to see the cathedral doors swing open and Christ enter riding upon the back of a donkey.
Hosanna in the Highest!Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
Everyone present wished the day would never end. Experiencing such a myriad of feelings, from joy, sorrow, remorse, to humility and hope, left everyone wanting more. As the crowd shifted from the cathedral to the church hall, the sanctuary returned to its usually silent and reverent state. The joyous echoes filtered up from the chatter in the hall, as a reminder of earthly life, mingled with the heavenly.
Protodeacon Fr. Ihor Mahlay gave a short discussion on the state of the orphanages in Ukraine, and the need for assistance. His Grace echoed his request and asked that everyone do what they can, and remember all the orphans in their daily prayers.
As His Grace bid everyone farewell, the faithful left the heavenly realms of the church and returned to the earthly world, resolute to complete their homework assignment before the six days were up.
With open hearts, and a renewed determination the faithful have a busy week ahead as they study and prepare for their exam.
Thank You, Your Grace, for mentoring us, educating us, giving us hope and helping us with our assignment, so that we can turn in a good grade and joyously greet the Resurrected Lord as we celebrate Pascha. Eis Polla Eti Despota!