Dry brittle leaves scurried across the pavement, pushed along by the brisk wind that blew from the cemetery, past the monuments and grave markers, capturing the quiet sighs of those who lay there, to finally ascend and swirl along the steps leading up to the St. Andrew Memorial Church where inside candles were quietly being lit.
It was the fourth Saturday of November, and the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, were joining the millions worldwide who would be united in time and space by common synchronized prayer. On this day at 4 PM in Ukraine, 9:00 AM EST in the USA, 1 AM in Australia, thousands would wake early, stay up late, pause their daily activities, gather in churches, at memorials and with loved ones, to commemorate a horrific event in the history of their families, in the history of Ukraine, and in the history of the world.
On this day the world sadly mourned and commemorated the 85thanniversary of approximately 11 million lives that were horrifically lost due to murder by starvation from 1932-33. The Holodomor was a man-made famine instituted by Soviet Russia against mostly Ukrainians. As the fertile land yielded a bumper crop, the peasants who collected the grain died of hunger, and were shot for taking a handful of seeds, while trainloads of harvested wheat were shipped to Moscow, and the excess that could not be shipped out fast enough was destroyed by dumping truckloads of wheat unceremoniously in the rivers to ensure it would not help sustain Ukrainian lives.
Millions died as the world turned a blind eye. However, on this day, the eyes of the world were wide open, as tears rolled down cheeks at the realization of the atrocity that mankind had committed upon fellow human beings.
With 9 a.m. nearing, people solemnly began to gather within the church. As the flame from one candle lit the next and the next, the darkened interior became illuminated by an ethereal glow. The light shined warmly on the faces of the faithful and cast dancing shadows upon the saints depicted on the icons, making it seem as if they too were slowly moving, and joining in the prayers.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, spiritual father of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA,silently walked to the center of the church, as the bell chimed the ninth hour.
Vladyka’s voice rose in prayer, “Blessed is our God always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.”
His Eminence was joined by numerous clergy from nearby parishes and countless parishioners who traveled from near and far to fill the church and pray for the repose of the victims of the genocide. With eyes sparkling in the candlelight, and heads bowed, everyone was moved when they heard the first toll of the bell.
“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”
DONG! …the bell chimed sorrowfully.
Shivers ran down people’s backs at the lonely toll of the bell.
“All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our transgressions. Holy One, visit us and heal our infirmities, for Your Name’s sake.”
Vladyka Daniel stood in the center of the Nave, illuminated by his candle, and those of the people around him. Before him on the tetrapod, next to the icon of St. Andrew, was a large loaf of bread with a candle in the middle glowing warmly and illuminating the sheaf of wheat tied with a black ribbon.
“With the souls of the righteous departed, Savior, grant rest to the souls of Your servants.”
The Seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary sang the responses, their deep voices reverberating through the church, and through the hearts of those in attendance.
“Have mercy on us, God, in Your great loving-kindness: we pray You, hear us and have mercy!”
Praying alongside the clergy and faithful was Consul Denys Semenovych from the Consulate General of Ukraine in New York. He along with all those present bowed his head to solemnly commemorate the needless and horrific loss of life,
“God of sprits and of all flesh, Who has trampled down Death; You have overthrown the devil and have given life to Your world: now, give rest, Lord to the souls of Your departed servants, in a place of light, a place of refreshment and a place of repose where there is no sickness, sighing, nor sorrow.”
On this Thanksgiving Weekend, as Americans sat down to hearty meals, enjoying the company of family and friends, and then headed out on Black Friday to shop for deals, it was a poignant dichotomy of lives. On one had we had gluttony and excess, and on the other starvation and need. A Black Friday of opulence and a Black Friday of mourning.
Vladyka Daniel read the Holodomor Proclamation of the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew who reiterated the true nature of Orthodox life, by stating, “As we pray for the repose of the victims' souls and for the healing of this painful wound in the conscience of your blessed Nation, we remind all people of goodwill that the Church does not tolerate injustice or any type of force that undermines social cohesion. Rather, it underscores the social teaching of the Christian Gospel and promotes diakonia and philanthropy. Orthodoxy's responsibility is to serve as a positive challenge for contemporary humankind, a God-inspired perspective of life and an expression of authentic freedom.”
Having read the moving words of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Vladyka picked up the loaf of bread lying before him. Having blessed it, he turned to those gathered and explained the importance of bread in the life of man.
Christ, is known as the “Bread of Life”, as He identified with the words in the Gospel of John 6:35 – “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.” Bread represents life and abundance. Vladyka made the point that in the United States we enjoy an abundance, and we are to share this abundance with others, as Christ has taught us.
Vladyka broke off pieces of bread from the large loaf and handed them to those gathered, encouraging them to take and eat the bread, and share it with others, and thereby share our abundance, share our Faith, shares our blessigs in this life, in commemoration of those who lost their lives. His Eminence beseeched that everyone having prayed for the peaceful repose of the 11 million victims of the Holodomor, having eaten of the bread of abundance and commemoration, now go out and share their blessings, and the teachings of Christ, transforming the world, and ensuring another genocide, another Holodomor, another atrocity would never be perpetrated against humanity, and against God.
The bell continued its slow, somber pealing, chiming 85 times, in honor of the 85thcommemoration of the tragedy that took place in Ukraine in 1932-33.
The chimes, mingled with the prayers, mingled with the tears, mingled with the very essence of all who were present, and carried on the wind, like a heartbeat, over the treetops, in to the town, around the homes, and beyond the business, to ring in the ears of all who would listen, and to remind them of the atrocity that occurred so that they would be vigilant and not permit a reoccurrence.
“May Christ our True God Who rose from the dead and Who has dominion over the living and the departed, establish the souls of His servants, who have been taken from us in the abode of the righteous – giving them rest in the bosom of Abraham and numbering them among the Righteous, through the prayers of His Most-Pure Mother, of the Holy, Glorious and All-praised Apostles, of our Venerable and God-bearing Fathers and of all the Saints, have mercy on us and save us for He is Good and the Lover of all mankind.”
Photos by Seminarian Yaroslav Bilohan
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko