The quiet town of South Bound Brook, New Jersey, awoke on a sunny, but, chilly Sunday morning of December 13th, to the joyful ringing of bells. The chimes echoed up and down the tree lined streets, the sleepy yards with their Christmas decorations, the highways and byways… calling people to arise and join the parishioners of the St. Andrew Memorial Church as they celebrated their Feast Day.
Mindful of the safety restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the faithful ascended the steps to the church, entered the warm interior, lit and prayed over candles that twinkled happily, dancing in the breeze of opening doors. People left behind their somber and worrisome lives, if but for a few hours, and joined in the heavenly celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
Serving this glorious day was His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, along with local clergy – Very Rev. Yurij Siwko, Rev. Vasyl Pasakas, and Rev. Vasyl Shak, assisted by Deacon Valentine Olynyk.
Before the commencement of the Divine Liturgy, the Royal Gates opened, and Archbishop Daniel descended to stand in the middle of the nave, surrounded by the clergy and faithful. Three young men appeared before him. These three were second year students, studying Theology at the Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary. The three, Pavlo Vysotskyi, Andrii Vatrich, and Maksym Zhuravchyk prostrated twice towards the Altar, and then turned and prostrated a third time before their bishop, before approaching him. Archbishop Daniel then laid his hands upon them and prayed that God help them along the path they have chosen.
Having concluded his prayers, His Eminence presented them to the faithful as the Church’s newest Readers. A reader is one of the minor orders of clergy within the Orthodox Church. Their essential roles are to read the Old Testament readings, and the Epistle during Divine Liturgy, Vespers, and other services. Having presented them to those present, Vladyka Daniel proceeded to vest them in their cassocks, which Readers wear as a sign of suppression of personal desires, and canonical obedience to God, their bishop, and the Church.
Having vested them, His Eminence took a moment to explain the magnitude of responsibility being a Reader involves. A Reader is responsible to share the message of the Lord with the people. It is not merely reading from a book, but, helping the listener to understand the message, and thereby, bring them closer to Christ.
Calling Reader Pavlo Vysotskyi to himself, Archbishop Daniel, vested him in an orarion, tying it around his waist, up over his shoulders (forming an X-shaped cross upon his back), and tucking the ends in front to also create an X-shaped cross over his chest. While doing this, His Eminence explained that Pavlo, with the blessing of Metropolitan Antony, was about to be set aside as a subdeacon, which is the highest of the minor orders of clergy in the Church. He explained that upon his ordination, Subdeacon Pavlo will be permitted to not only be in the Holy of Holies, the Altar, but, will now have the right to touch, carry, and participate to a greater level. Archbishop Daniel explained that the angels, the cherubim and seraphim, hover and fly over the Altar table hiding their faces behind their wings because they cannot gaze upon the brilliance of the Lord. So now, the orarion that he was tying about the body of Subdeacon Pavlo represented angelic wings, and he wished that the young man would also spiritually take flight, with joy, in the Altar. For while there are many vocations of importance in the world – doctors who save lives, teachers who instruct and shape the youth, etc. none has the privilege to hold God Himself other than the clergy, who in their hands hold the Chalice containing the Body and Blood of Christ.
With these words, that left the faithful pondering the magnitude of not only the orders of clergy, but, reaffirming that they too were in the presence of the Lord, His Eminence read special prayers, laying his hands upon the head of Pavlo. Once the prayers were concluded, the young man held the basin and water pitcher, as Archbishop Daniel washed his hands, and having dried them, laid the towel over Pavlo’s head and shoulders, which remained there as he made his way up onto the solea and stood before the icon of Christ, where he would remain until the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, deep in thought, and prayer, preparing himself to undertake his new responsibilities.
As the subdeacon took his place before the icon of Christ, Archbishop Daniel prayed, and the choir sang, transforming the faithful, who truly left behind the cares of the world, and joined the angels and saints in worshipping the Lord.
The two new Readers, Andrii Vatrich, and Maksym Zhuravchyk, read the Epistle, clearly, slowly and deliberately, as instructed by their bishop, so the people would not only hear the words, but the message. After hearing the Gospel from Luke 13 (10-17) about Christ healing the woman on the Sabbath who had suffered for 18 years, the faithful were privileged to hear a moving sermon by His Eminence. They heard about the Olympian Eric Henry Liddell who having trained his whole life, opted to sit out his 100-meter race, because it was scheduled for Sunday. His Christian convictions prohibited him from running on the Lord’s Day. Even though his teammates, the public, national government officials, all begged him to reconsider and compete for the glory of the nation, he refused. On Thursday, the man who was to run the 400-meter race was not able to run, and Liddell was given a second chance. He not only ran and won the race, he set a world record.
1 Samuel 2: 30 states, “…for those who honor me I will honor.” In other words, those who respect God, who follow His Commandments, them will God also honor.
In the Gospel Reading, it seemed there was only one ill person – the woman Christ healed. However, in fact there were two ill people. Archbishop Daniel explained that while the woman was physically ill, her spirit was alive and well, brimming with the Holy Spirit. However, the Pharisee who admonished Christ for healing the sick woman on the Sabbath, only appeared to be well. While his body was healthy, his soul was ill. He followed the law, but he had no mercy or compassion. He had lost his humanity.
His Eminence explained that every day we make hundreds of decisions, starting at the ringing of our alarm clocks (do we rise, or do we hit the snooze button), and continuing all day long. These seemingly small insignificant decisions, all have consequences and identify who we are, what we believe, and Whom we follow.
Archbishop Daniel recalled when he had driven through Washington D.C. and saw a man standing on the corner, holding a sign and a Bible, proclaiming though a loudspeaker that he believed in Jesus, and asking whether the people passing him also believed. Most people snickered and laughed at him. Others completely ignored him, pretending he was invisible to them. Imagine the courage that man had, to stand and proclaim God in the face of such adversity and ridicule.
As we celebrate the Apostle Andrew, we must pause and reflect upon his courage and decision making. He traveled a long way to Kyiv, and preached Christ to the Slavic pagans, who did not welcome him warmly, who did not want to hear about Christ, and who were hostile to his efforts… and yet, he continued. He climbed the hills, placing the cross upon the summit, and continued to preach to seemingly deaf ears. He made a decision to give his life to Christ, and having heard the Good News he had to share it with others.
We should be like Apostle Andrew, and build temples in our own lives, in our own hearts. The world has changed little from the time of the Apostle, and is still filled with people who need to hear the Good News; who need to be introduced to Christ, and brought to salvation. It is our responsibility as Christians to spread the teachings of Christ, to grow the Church, and to save humanity.
How could that man stand in the capital of the greatest nation on the planet and proclaim his faith; how could the Apostle Andrew preach Christ to the pagans who ignored and ridiculed him; while we are embarrassed to cross ourselves in public, to pray before a meal in a restaurant, to say “thank God”, or Merry Christmas? We are celebrating the Nativity of God Himself, why are we afraid to declare it? Why do we say “Happy Holidays”? What are we afraid of? Why are we embarrassed?
His Eminence explained that we live in trying times, as the pandemic surges, and the number of infections spike again, requiring the lockdown of society. Just this week, the hierarchs were forced to instruct a number of churches to close their doors, in order to safeguard the faithful who unknowingly come to worship, but, inadvertently spread the virus.
Vladyka called upon all of his flock to use the wisdom the Lord has given them, to wash their hands, cover their mouths with masks, take every precaution to save their lives, and to save the lives of those around them. It is our solemn duty as Christians, to put aside our ego, our pride, our self-assuredness, and to humbly take on the role of preacher and savior, and work to save all those around us, which at the moment requires us to take precautions to stop the spread of a deadly virus.
Wear a mask today, covering your mouth, so that in the future we can see each other’s smiles.
With these heartfelt words His Eminence returned to the Altar and continued the Divine Liturgy. As his earnest prayers enveloped the faithful, they all hushed and became introspective, listening and praying along with their hierarch with renewed vigor and commitment.
As the Cherubic Hymn was sung, the two Readers joined Pavlo Vysotskyi, who was still standing with the towel draped over his head, holding the basin and water pitcher, before the icon of Christ. The three moved to the end of the amvon, as Archbishop Daniel emerged to wash his hands, this time draping the towel around Pavlo’s shoulders before returning to the Altar. At this point all three seminarians entered the Altar, as the service continued.
The high point of the Liturgy was the partaking of the Holy Eucharist. The faithful came up in reverence, faith, love and fear to consume the Body and Blood of Christ for their salvation, empowering them to enact Christ’s teachings, and do His work in the world.
At the conclusion of the service, His Eminence presented the three young Seminarians with the official certificates documenting their tonsuring and setting-aside as Readers, and Subdeacon. He blessed each one, gave them wise words of advice, and assured them of his continuing prayers, and those of the faithful, for them, the future clergy of the Church, as they dedicate their lives to God.
Before dismissing the faithful, His Eminence greeted all those named “Andrew”, including two seminarians Andriy Akulenko, and Andrii Vatrich who was also celebrating his birthday, and all Andrews, wishing God’s blessings upon them. The choir broke out in a resounding version of Many Years/Mnohaya Lita, their voices winding up to the bell towers and echoing through the church, and beyond.
His Eminence reminded everyone that the following Saturday we would be commemorating St. Nicholas (Mykolaj), and asked that people show their love for one another responsibly, keeping a safe distance as they celebrate… and remember to check under their pillows to see if St. Nicholas left them anything. With joyous giggles everyone received their hierarch’s blessing, and with children laughing, and jumping around, excited that St. Nick would be visiting them soon, the faithful crossed themselves, with a final bow towards the Altar and walked out into the chilly morning air. As mother’s bundled up their children, and adults tightly wound their scarves about their necks, their cheeks were kissed by the chill breeze, but their hearts were warm, filled with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and the joy of having been in the presence of the Lord.
May His Eminence Archbishop Daniel’s wish come true, that next year, we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Andrew, the Parish Feast Day, joyously, with hugs and smiles, free from the threat of the pandemic. From his lips to God’s ears.
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
Photos by Seminarian Matvii Blyzniuk and Vlad Rudyy