Sunday, October 10, the sun shone brightly upon the little parish of the Dormition of the Birth-Giver of God Ukrainian Orthodox Parish, in Jones, Oklahoma. Today was a special day for the parish that was celebrating its 102nd anniversary, as this day they would be blessed with a hierarchical visit by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the Diaspora.
Turning the corner, Archbishop Daniel, who was walking in procession to the open church doors, looked up at the crosses atop the golden domes as they glowed in the morning light. He smiled as his eyes settled upon the many happy faces awaiting him at the entrance. Smiling, His Eminence reflected on the amazing history of the parish which was a good reflection of Orthodoxy in the New World. The faithful who filled the church came from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and races, being composed of not only Ukrainians, but, also of American-born faithful, as well as people from Lebanon, Greece, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Belorus.
Climbing the steps, His Eminence was warmly greeted by Parish Board President, Maura Baker. Following the ancient Ukrainian tradition, she approached the hierarch holding a lovely long embroidered towel, upon which was a round loaf of bread, with salt. The round loaf of bread (Kolach) is a symbol of eternity and represents hospitality, while the salt reflects Christ’s words, “You are the salt of the earth”. Graciously accepting the greeting, and commenting on the beautifully baked bread, Archbishop Daniel stepped forward to the awaiting priests. Presenting him with a cross, and holy water, was parish pastor, V. Rev. Stepan Bilogan, next to whom stood Archimandrite Raphael Moore, emeritus. Smiling at the clergy, His Eminence venerated the offered cross, than with a smile turned and blessed everyone with holy water, before proceeding into the Nave.
As the Divine Liturgy commenced, the clergy dressed in gold, seemed to glow as they entered and exited the Holy Altar. The sun poured in through the windows, lighting the interior of the church. The wooden ceiling and floor led the faithful, who filled the church, to easily imagine themselves standing within the safe confines of the Ark which in Noah’s time brought creation to safe harbor, and such the new Ark, the Church, once again brings those safely found inside it, to safety and salvation.
The day’s Gospel Reading, according to the Gregorian Calendar, was from Luke 7:11-16, retelling of the time that Christ resurrected the widow’s son. Closing the Gospel, and returning it to the Altar Table, His Eminence stepped out on the ambon and delivered a moving sermon.
He told of an instance he witnessed in New York City. The city is busy, bustling with people, tourists from all nations, businessmen rushing to work, taxi’s honking, hawkers selling their wares, rats scurrying about, garbage littering the streets, and a constant cacophony of noise. However, as you approach this one busy corner, at the crosswalks of life, you can hear a single voice yelling over the din. Standing there, blind to the sideways glances and pointing fingers, stands a man holding a Bible, and yelling out, “I was once lost, but now I know God!” Nobody hears his message. The few who do notice him simply laugh at him, because even as Christians they have an expectation of Christianity – you dress up and go to church on Sunday. But this man doesn’t care, because he is happy for, he knows God.
New York is filled with people escaping their previous lives, and they all collide. Today, in the Gospel Reading we heard of another collision. A collision of life and death. Death is exiting while life is entering. Archbishop Daniel continued, explaining that in those days women had few rights and were not even permitted to leave their home unaccompanied by a husband, or other male relative. For her to even go to the local market, she needed to be escorted by a man. Therefore, this woman who was already a widow, relied heavily on her son, her only remaining male relative, not only for her livelihood, but, for the most basic of human needs. Without him, she found herself at a great disadvantage, with the remainder of her life passing in misery. She wept, mourning not only the loss of her beloved child, but, wept in fear and hopelessness as she was now a woman alone.
As death and hopelessness, in the guise of the funeral procession exited the city, they collided with hope, and life, as Jesus Christ, along with his Disciples entered. Death crashes into Life. The Lord hears the widow’s weeping, and realizing her dire situation, and before she even asks for help, He has compassion on her and tells her not to weep. He reaches over to the casket, touches it, and tells the young man to “arise”. Touching the casket, or the body of the dead person was viewed as taboo, rendering the person spiritually unclean and in need of several weeks of purification before being permitted to return to society. Yet, Christ, is life, and life does not fear death, and so the Lord touches the casket, and brings life to where death was. The boy wakes up, and the Savior reaches over and picks up his living body and returns him to his mother. Not only does He return to her a son, but He returns to her hope, and life.
His Eminence expounded that we too often spend our lives in darkness, feeling alone, overpowered by despair, and anxious about our futures. His Eminence paused and gazed around at all the slightly nodding heads. Stepping down from the ambo, stepping closer to the people, he stated that we need to remember that Christ is always on the path to meet us, and He is our one true Salvation.
The despairing widow represents the past, the dead young man, are all the people who had yet to encounter Christ. The Lord touches him, and he lives. Thus we, touched by the Lord, live. However, each day we need to decide – will we walk in the procession of light and life with Christ, or will we choose to walk along the path that will take us further away from Him?
It is a question of faith. Will we, the Christians of the 21st century proclaim that we believe in this miracle? Because if we do not believe, if we are merely observers of Christianity, we would say that raising someone from death is an impossibility. In the physical world this would be true, for we cannot bring back to life a person who has died. However, in the world of faith, in the supernatural world, in the world in which we truly believe in Christ Jesus, our Savior, we know He can bring life back. We know He can say to us “Rise Child of God,” and even though we are spiritually dead, we will arise and live in Him… if we believe.
Each of us experiences spiritual death. We lay in our caskets every day. In numerous monasteries, monks have the tradition of preparing their casket for burial, while they still live. They keep these caskets in their cells, and at night they lie down to sleep in them, as a symbol of death; that they are dying to the world through the night, and will be resurrecting in the morning, to proclaim the existence of the Lord once again to the world.
Each of us goes to bed each night, positioning ourselves in our own caskets of life. Each evening we are to put our fingers together and make the Sign of the Cross physically over our beds, stating that tonight we commit our souls and our bodies to God, and ask for His mercy that we should arise in the morning. In the morning when we awaken, we make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves, thanking the Lord for the blessed night, the rest we received, and asking for His blessing throughout the upcoming day.
This decision we make daily, with every word we speak, and every action we take identifies which path we walk. Let us choose life. Let us choose Christ. With one final long look at the people who were now sitting mesmerized, Archbishop Daniel returned to the Altar and the Divine Liturgy continued.
As the choir sang angelically, the remainder of the service, the people prayed, contemplating His Eminence’s words, and their own actions and life choices. When the Royal Gates opened, and the Eucharist was presented, they made their choice this day to follow Christ, as they humbly got in line to partake of Holy Communion. The words spoken by Fr. Stepan, “The servant of God partakes of the precious and all-holy body and blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, unto the forgiveness of sins and unto life everlasting,” held a deeper meaning, as having partaken they too felt resurrected this day, and fully alive.
As the Divine Liturgy concluded the faithful feeling energized and strengthened, came up to receive a blessing from Archbishop Daniel, who having blessed each person, exchanged a few words with them, and gifted them with a lovely icon, and prayer card. The icons represented various saints and angels. Kissing them reverently, the faithful held them close to their hearts as they made their way to the parish hall to enjoy a delicious lunch.
The hours wiled away as the young children settled on the carpet and played with blocks, and the adults sat laughing and catching up on the latest news about family and friends. Throughout the afternoon His Eminence walked from table to table, getting to know his flock better, praying over them, bestowing blessings, and sharing hugs and words of encouragement. Having shared a pleasant afternoon, their bodies nourished, and their souls overflowing, the faithful began to depart for their homes. Their laughter echoed in the parking lot, as the last of the cars departed, leaving the golden domed church to bask in the setting sun. With such a rich and diverse congregation, the parish promises to be around for another century or more. May the Lord bless the parish of the Dormition of the Birth-Giver of God with many blessed, happy, and prosperous years!