At the heart of the Ukrainian nation is Religious Faith – it is as inextricable from the nation as it is in the panorama of golden domes in Ukrainian cities and the wooden churches in the villages, both which punctuate the view, and speak to even the most undiscerning of the importance of Faith.
Legend ascribes that the first disciple, St. Andrew, preached, as part of his Gospel Mission on the banks of the River Dnipro in Kyiv. Later in 988, St. Volodymyr ordered the baptism of his people in the same great river – thus consecrating his entire nation unto God.
Liturgical celebration transforms the life of a Ukrainian family and of the wider community. At Christmas, the greeting Ukrainians offer one another, even prior to their wishing a ‘Hello’, is: ‘Christ is Born!’, to which the response is ‘Glorify Him!’. It is as if the commonality of the day has been transcended by the Liturgical event – the Divine birth. Likewise the same transcendence of the Christian Mystery occurs in the everyday salutation during the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ: ‘Christ is Risen!’ – ‘He has Risen Indeed!’ What would seem peculiar to most in the West is that these greetings go on for the entire Season of Christmas and of Easter. Few if any in the West would still wish one another a Happy Christmas, weeks after Christmas Day – but such great moments as the Birth of Our Lord are transformational.
In a world darkened with the stress of COVID – and the perennial threat of masks and lockdowns – the Christmas Season, asks us to pause and consider that amidst the questions of fear and mortality, there is a promise of a world to come, and of life eternal. At the birth of a child – there is a hope for the future. When we celebrate the birth of Our Lord – hope is over-flowing. In Him alone is our everlasting hope.
Christmas in the Ukrainian tradition is celebrated multi-dimensionally. After the Liturgy on Christmas Eve, the family Christmas meal commences after the first star appears in the night sky; a twelve course meal is prepared and set, with an extra plate set on the table for any extra guest who may come in to celebrate Christ’s birth as did the shepherds in Bethlehem. The extra plate and chair also symbolizes family members and friends who cannot be at the Christmas meal.
The Liturgy of Christmas Day, is an explosion of colour and sound. The Faithful attend wearing their vyshavanka – the intricately embroidered shirts; ancient chants and carols are sung. The news of Christ’s birth is spread across the community with teams of Carollers, going to visit and sing at all of the homes of the parishioners, knocking on the doors, reading Christmas poems, leading within the homes the carols, sharing drinks and food, and then moving on to the next home. Christ is Born! So Ukrainian tradition announces and celebrates. What is especially poignant is how the carollers go to visit parishioners who for ill-health, cannot attend the Liturgy, or visit those homes, where for other reasons parishioners have not been in regular attendance at Church. Christmas is a time of bringing together and of healing. So famous is Ukrainian Christmas carolling that the Ukrainian, Carol of the Bells is now sung throughout the world.
This year at the Ukrainian Catholic parish of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner in Maylands, we were able to celebrate with the Roman Rite Archbishop of Perth, the Most Reverend Timothy Costelloe SDB, who began his Christmas celebration with the Christmas Eve meal at the home and dinner table of the Parish Administrator, Fr. Ihor Holovko and his wife, Mrs. Olena Holovko, and with their daughters, Victoria and Sophia. In his homily on Christmas Day, Archbishop Costelloe said that he had been a little anxious to hear that there was to be twelve courses on the Christmas table!
On Christmas Day, the Church was filled with the Faithful – many of whom attended in their vyshavanka. At the door of the Church stood, Mr. Mark Petrowsky, and Mrs. Stephanie Parin, who, on behalf of the Parish held a platter shrouded with Ukrainian embroidery and on which was a specially baked loaf of bread (that had been baked by Mrs. Ludmilla Zemunovic), and a vessel containing salt. This is the traditional welcome in Ukraine for honoured guests. Bread is a holy food for Ukrainians, a product rising from the dark-soiled steppes, a sign of Christ’s prayer, of God giving what we need to sustain our lives, both physically and spiritually. (cf. Matthew 6: 9 – 13, RSV) Salt – symbolizes Christ’s teaching that the Faithful are the salt of the earth, and that we should not lose our ‘saltiness’ for we would lose both our Faith and Salvation. (cf. Matthew 5: 13 – 16, RSV) Thus the symbolic welcome greeting is for life: temporal and eternal. Fr. Ihor also extended words of: blessing, greeting and welcome at the door of the Church.
The Divine Liturgy was con-celebrated by: Archbishop Costelloe, Fr. Ihor Holovko, Fr. Richard Charlwood and with Sub-Deacon Paul Power, serving the Archbishop and priests. The large choir of the Parish, as always, sang beautifully under their expert Director, Mrs. Suzanna Prushynska. The Epistle was sung in Ukrainian by Mr. Bohdan Hawryluk, and in English, by Dr. Andrew Kania. The Christmas Irmos was sung by Mr. Alexander McLean. The two altar servers were: Timothy Kania and David Podgorny. The flowers and general decoration of the Church were set by Mrs. Luba Valega. Sr. Nicodema Zemliak had organised a group of children to lead the Procession into the Church. Mr. Bohdan Warchomij took photographs of the visit by the Archbishop.
In his Christmas homily to the Parish, Archbishop Costelloe made a number of salient points. First, the Archbishop thanked the Parish for his being invited to con-celebrate a Ukrainian Christmas Liturgy – especially so as it was the Archbishop’s first Liturgical celebration at the Parish. Second, he spoke of the importance of the Catholic Church understanding the universality of its Mission and Peoples; and that he invited both Eastern and Western Catholics to understand their integral place in the catholic nature of our Church. Third, in reminder that the Roman Rite was celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany – the Archbishop spoke about the Magi coming to give adoration to Christ in the manger in Bethlehem.
At the conclusion of the Liturgy Fr. Ihor, Fr. Richard and the Choir, sang Mnohaya Lita (literally ‘Many Summers’ – a traditional Ukrainian song for good health), in turn for the: Archbishop, the Clergy, the Choir, the Director of the Choir, the Pastoral Council and for the well-being of all the Parishioners. It was a joyous end – to a joy-filled Liturgy and an exhilarating commencement to Christmas Day.
It is on such occasions when both the Eastern and Western lungs of the Church come together to pray, that we can understand the words of St. Pope John XXIII recollecting when he first attended a Byzantine Liturgy: “As I joined with them in singing their grieving lamentations, which were the echo of centuries of political and religious slavery, I began to feel myself more catholic, more truly universal.” (Hebblethwaite, 1984, p. 120)
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania