National Independence, government of a country by its own people, is worth commemorating. Previous years the Independence Day of Ukraine was joyously celebrated at the Metropolia Center of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA with a festival following Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. However, much has changed since last August 24th.
This Sunday, August 28th, marked the 186th day of war in Ukraine. This year, instead of celebrating freedom, the faithful of the Church gathered to pray for freedom. In place of vendor’s stalls, a stage, a dance floor, and multicolored festival banners and flags, the grounds before the St. Andrew Memorial Church stood in solemn reflection beneath a dark gray sky, as even the heavens seemed to gravely reflect upon the happenings below.
As the faithful arrived for the Divine Liturgy, they paused for a moment from the top of the steps to peruse the many banners which now covered the lawn, depicting the horrors, the destruction, terror or war, and the death it has caused. It is with this heaviness of heart that they entered the dimly lit interior of the church, pausing before icons, and with tears in their eyes, lit candles beseeching the Lord to have mercy upon their ancestral homeland, and the people of Ukraine.
With His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora, in attendance, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy served the Archpastoral Liturgy, as the Church celebrated the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Virgin Mary. Several local clergy had traveled to join His Eminence, who was being assisted by several seminarians from the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, as well as many young altar servers.
The faithful, many dressed in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and dresses (Vyshyvanky), listened intently as His Eminence stepped out to read the Gospel from Matthew 18:23-35, in which they heard Christ liken the Kingdom of Heaven to a certain King who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. A servant was brought before him who was not able to repay the 10,000 talents he owed the King, therefore, the King decided to sell the servant, along with the servant’s wife and children, and all that they owned to settle the debt. The servant fell upon his knees and begged the king to give him more time, promising to repay the debt. Seeing the servant begging, the master was moved, and took pity upon the him, forgiving him his entire debt.
The servant, being forgiven such a great sum, happened upon a man who owed him a mere 10 denarii. He gruffly demanded the repayment, and when the man fell upon his knees and begged for more time, the forgiven servant did not in turn forgive, but, had the man thrown in prison until he repay him. When the King heard of this, he had the servant brought to him, and he admonished him for not being more compassionate, having himself been forgiven a far greater debt. Angry, the King now handed over the servant to be tortured until he repays the entire debt of 10,000 talents. Christ concluded the parable by reminding all who listened that so it will be with each of us, who does not forgive others.
Placing the Gospel back on the Altar Table, His Eminence stepped out to deliver his sermon. He explained that if that servant had simply forgiven the man the 10 denarii he owed him, how much better both their lives would have been. The value of a single talent of currency was at that time around 6,000 denarii, and this man owed him only 100, therefore, not even a single talent, when he himself was forgiven 10,000 talents.
At the end of the Parable, both men languish in misery, in a prison, from which it would be next to impossible to gain freedom. They are imprisoned until their debt is paid in full, and yet as they are locked away, they are unable to work and earn money in which to repay their debts. Their situation is hopeless.
On the other hand, had the servant forgiven the man his 10 denarii, the man would have gone about his day free and happy, and the servant would also have returned to his wife and family, rejoicing that he can start “over” without a huge debt hanging over him. But alas, his greed destroyed his joy, and his future. Forgiveness is the key to our own happiness.
His Eminence continued by reinforcing the importance of forgiveness and mercy. He explained that we call upon the Mother-of-God in times of trouble and need, for her intercession before Christ her Son. As a mother, she feels compassion and love for each of us. Her soft heart hears our entreaties and she in turn asks her Son to have mercy upon on us.
Archbishop Daniel explained that while she lived, the Birthgiver of God was well loved by all who knew her, for she lived her life with kindness. When she was made aware of her impending repose by Archangel Gabriel, she accepted the news with joy and humility, just as she had accepted his message during the Annunciation. The Apostles, except for Thomas, were miraculously transported to her bedside, so they could get a final blessing and share parting words before she fell asleep. When Thomas arrived three days after her repose, due to his grief at not having had a chance to see her one last time, her tomb was opened to allow him entry. However, instead of finding her body in the tomb, the interior was heavy with the sweet smell of flowers, and only her belt remained, her body having been taken up by Christ to Heaven.
Even though she no longer dwelt upon the earth with humanity, the Mother-of-God nonetheless, continued to love, empathize, and intercede for us. Many miracles have been attributed to her, and thus Ukrainians have always revered and honored the Most Holy Lady, and she in turn has honored Ukraine with her intercessions on numerous occasions.
His Eminence paused, and slowly gazed around at the people before him, before continuing. It is today, with grief, sadness, and concern in our hearts that we once again to her to intercede for us before Christ. We are not here today to celebrate Ukraine’s Independence, but we are here to pray for Ukraine’s Independence, which is once again in jeopardy. Archbishop Daniel continued by asking that as we mark Ukraine’s 31st year of Independence, everyone open their hearts and minds and earnestly, on bended knee, and with humbled heart, beseech the All Holy Birthgiver of God to hear our earnest petitions, come to our aid, and intercede for our ancestral homeland, granting our people victory and freedom once again.
Returning to the Altar His Eminence continued with the Liturgy, as the faithful stood and with tears in their eyes, lifted their eyes towards Heaven in silent prayer. The Seminary choir, under the leadership of Seminarian Roam Marchyshak, mimicked the heavenly angels, their voices carrying the prayers from below, to the heavens above.
As the Divine Liturgy concluded, His Eminence blessed flowers and herbs which had been brought on this day commemorating the Dormition of the Mother of God. In honor of the sweet floral scent of her tomb, and the flowers she was given by Archangel Gabriel, Orthodox Tradition has us blessing flowers and herbs on this day. These flowers may be later utilized for our own good, drunk as teas, added to our prepared foods, and burned in our home censers. Having blessed the flowers and herbs, Archbishop Daniel asked everyone to step outside for a Moleben on the steps of the church.
In addition to the parishioners many guests had gathered on the steps to pray for Ukraine, among them the Consul General of Ukraine, in New York, the Honorable Oleksii Holubov. As His Eminences voice rang out, echoing off the tall church, traveling through the nearby neighborhoods, where people paused and listened, and carried upon the breeze over the cemetery, where generations of Ukrainians rested, he prayed for the intercession of the Mother-of-God, and the Lord’s mercy upon Ukraine and her people, and peace for the world.
At the conclusion of the service, the Consul General spoke a few words, reiterating the gravity of this day, and the regret that we are not celebrating, merely observing Ukraine’s 31st year of independence from Russian rule, and Russian terror. It is with sadness that we once again see history being replayed as the Russia greedily tries to absorb Ukraine, her resources, and her people.
Stepping up His Eminence pointed to all the vinyl banners which had been erected upon the grounds of the church and asked the people to take a walk and look upon the travesty, the destruction, the horror of the war being inflicted upon Ukraine by Russia.
Slowly the people dispersed, half hidden by the banners, as they slowly walked among the images of war, pausing, wiping tears, turning away from the horrors depicted before them. Before the day concluded, PJ Parker of the Franklin Reporter & Advocate, interviewed Archbishop Daniel, who informed her the purpose of these banners is to remind people that the war is still happening, that people are still suffering, that innocence is being attacked and freedom is being defended. His Eminence explained that these images, many which were firsthand photos sent to him by the clergy in Ukraine, remind us that Ukraine is currently fighting for her freedom. This situation is sadly nothing new for Ukrainians, as we have a long and troubled history with our Russian neighbors, who have always coveted Ukraine for her rich soil, her natural resources, her access to the Black Sea, and her hardworking people. The Russian bear has a ravenous appetite.
Before going off the air, Archbishop Daniel thanked everyone for their ongoing support, asked for their prayers, and invited everyone in the listening audience to stop by the St. Andrew Memorial Church and take a look at these images which will be displayed for the upcoming weeks. With tears in her eyes, and a shaking voice, PJ Parker seconded the invitation, motioning to the images of war around her and asking everyone to come down, take a look, and keep supporting Ukraine in her fight for freedom.
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
Photos by Subdeacon Pavlo Vysotskyi and Valentyna Dovban