On May 22, 2022, as the brightly colored lilacs swayed gently in the morning breeze, filling the air with a sweet fragrance, the faithful of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, paused to enjoy the perfumed air before ascending the steps to the church.
Stepping inside, they were greeted with the Hours being read, as His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA censed all the icons in the church. As the faithful lit their candles, the Royal Gates swung open, and His Eminence began serving the Divine Liturgy, accompanied by Rev. Mark Phillips, and assisted by the seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, some of whom also joined the choir.
The Sunday Gospel reading was from the Gospel of St. John 4:5-42, the retelling of Christ’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. Returning the Gospel to the Altar, Archbishop Daniel stepped down into the nave to deliver a moving sermon.
His Eminence told of the time during the Second World War when an Army Chaplain tried to minister to a soldier who refused to believe, did not wish to speak with the chaplain, and even made every effort to avoid him. At one point the local bishop came to visit and asked the chaplain how things were going, to which he replied and told him about the soldier who is avoiding him. The bishop sought out that soldier, then he sat down and spoke with him, not for five or ten minutes, but, for over an hour. The chaplain was amazed, and when the bishop stood and the soldier left, he asked him what did he say to the soldier? What words of wisdom and theology did he share, that the man sat and spoke for over an hour with him? The bishop smiled and told him he first asked how the soldier’s mother was doing, then they exchanged a few jokes, and then the soldier opened up and spoke with him.
On this occasion the bishop had built a bridge between a soul in search of something, a person who was lost, and himself – the hierarch of the Church.
Christ is often referred to as the Supreme Bridge Builder. That is what the Lord does when He works with His creation. He built the final bridge between humanity and Almighty God. We must go over this bridge in our lives. Some of us happily skip along over the bridge, full of strength and zeal, eager to serve the Lord, while others just go through the motions of living life, unenthused.
Christ built the bridge, and it is there for us to walk over. He has even erected signs along the way. Much like we see along our streets informing us how to reach our destination, where we can find rest areas, where we can turn in case of trouble to reach the police or hospitals, so the Bridge of Spiritual Life also has signage. We have the Gospels to guide us, the Church Fathers, saints and martyrs to show us the direction. When we are tired and burdened our rest area is Confession where we can unburden ourselves and lighten our loads. The Eucharist feeds our souls and strengthens us to continue along on our journeys.
We need to step off the busy highway of life, which leads us in circles, and embark upon our journey over the bridge. We need to slow down and refuel our souls. As we pullover for coffee at Starbucks, we need to pull over and refuel our souls, stimulate them. We need to refocus on Christ, His Teachings, the Saints, the Martyrs, and get inspired and enthusiastic about our journey.
…The problem with society today is that some of us feel we are irrelevant in this world. Most of us exist, but we do not live. We wake up, go through our morning routine, prayer, breakfast, get ready for work, go to work, come home, clean, cook, put the kids to bed, go to sleep, only to rise in the morning and repeat. We repeat this week after week, month after month, year after year.
But when do we begin to live? What does it mean to live our lives?
The Lord gives this woman the chance to live. Like her, He gives us a chance to make a choice. Choose to be different in the world in which we live. To be so different that people will look at us and say we are weird in how we live our lives.
…The Lord did not “fit” into society. He was different. He chose to be different, and He calls us to be different. He preached kindness and mercy. He healed and helped. He calls us to follow His example. He calls us the Salt of the Earth. As salt, we are not only to act as a preservative, but we are also to add flavor to this life. Our flavor is the flavor of Orthodoxy, the flavor of Christianity, of kindness, simplicity, and of self-sacrifice.
Offering of ourselves, extending mercy, is what defines us as Orthodox Christians. While good to know, our knowledge of theology, or being able to name all the icons hanging on the church walls, does not alone make us good Christians. Orthodoxy is not about all these externals. It is about the way we preach the Word of God through our daily routine; it is about how we live our lives.
…The Lord calls us all to come to the Well of Life and drink some Living Water. He calls us to strike up a conversation with someone, to ask about their family, their lives, their troubles, and how we might assist them.
We are not to sit by as sponges, absorbing everything around us, with the misguided concept that we are the center of everything, and everything is for our own consumption.
The Lord calls us to empty ourselves. He calls us to self-sacrifice, to simplicity, kindness and mercy. We claim to be Orthodox. We wear our crosses; therefore, we identify as Christians. As such we must be like Christ. We must build bridges, and we ourselves have to walk across the bridge. Therefore, keep an eye on all the signposts along the way, follow the directions, and if you get lost, stop and reevaluate your location and return to the path and continue upon your journey.
With these deep and contemplative words, Archbishop Daniel returned to the altar and the Divine Liturgy continued. As the time for Communion approached, the faithful eagerly lined up, realizing this was a rest area along their journey across the bridge, where they could reenergize and recalculate their journey.
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence greeted Fr. John Haluszczak, explaining that he was actually visiting the parish to celebrate Fr. John’s 30th anniversary. However, sadly, Fr. John was not with them this Sunday, due to contracting the CoVid-19 virus. Looking into the phone over which the service was being livestreamed, Archbishop Daniel greeted Fr. John, who was watching, and wished him a speedy recovery, promising to visit the parish again soon once Father was recuperated, so they could celebrate his anniversary with him.
Intending to present the UOC of the USA Centennial Medal in the presence of her father, His Eminence nonetheless, bestowed the medal upon Kira Senedak for all the hard work and dedication she has shown over the years for the youth of the Church. He explained that he initially had planned to present the award to her in 2019, but, then the pandemic hit and it has been sitting on his desk for the last two years awaiting this very moment. As he pinned the medal to her lapel, the faithful burst out in boisterous “Axia”!
Turning to his left, Archbishop Daniel thanked Fr. Mark Phillips, of St. Anthony of the Desert Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, who was in town visiting with family, and came to concelebrate Divine Liturgy with him. His Eminence explained the mission parish is undergoing a few renovations, and then invited everyone to hop a plane or take a long drive to New Mexico to celebrate with Fr. Mark once the church repairs are completed.
Thus, a lovely Sunday morning came to a conclusion as the faithful milled about, lingering to speak with old friends and catch up with their hierarch. Wishing Fr. John, a speedy and complete recovery, and congratulations on his 30thAnniversary! Mnohaya Lita!