By PETER SMITH Associated Press
Many Ukrainian Americans observe Orthodox Easter this Sunday, but struggle to be joyful when their ancestral homeland has been torn apart by the Russian invasion. Reverend Richard Jendras of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said the holiday should be joyful. But he noted that this year it coincides with grim news from the warzone of death and destruction. Still, he said it is important to affirm that “good triumphs” over evil. Eastern Orthodox often celebrate Easter later than Western churches because they use a different method to calculate its date.
The rituals leading up to Easter are the same. The solemn Good Friday processions. Holy Saturday blessings of foods that were avoided during Lent. The liturgies accompanied by processions, bells and songs.
But while Easter is the holiest of holy days in the church calendar, marking the day Christians believe Jesus has triumphed over death, many members of Ukrainian Orthodox churches across the United States are struggling to invoke joy in times of war.
Many are in regular contact with relatives or friends who are suffering from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has devastated cities and killed thousands of civilians, according to the Ukrainian government.
“It’s a very strange Easter for us,” said Reverend Richard Jendras, a priest at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It should be a joyful celebration, and it’s all about new life, and yet here we are faced with the warning signs of murder and murder, genocide and death.”
Many believers are “walking around like zombies,” he said. “We’re following the Easter moves right now because that’s what we have to hold on to.”
Orysia Germak, a member of St. Volodymyr’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in New York, said news of the war brought back bad memories: She was born in a camp for displaced people after her mother fled Ukraine after the Second World War. World War, she mentioned.
“Easter is such a joyful occasion, but it underlines everything,” she said. “It’s surreal.”
Both cathedrals are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States, whose parishes include many people with recent or ancestral ties to the old country.
Most Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter last Sunday, but the Eastern Orthodox celebrate this Sunday. They usually do this later than Western churches because they use a different method to calculate the date of the holy day, which they call Pascha.
Some Ukrainian Catholics, especially in Ukraine itself, also celebrate this Sunday. But many Ukrainian Catholics in the United States celebrated last Sunday.
Among those celebrating Easter last weekend were congregants from the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest surviving Ukrainian Catholic churches in America.
Their priest, Reverend Mykola Ivanov, 41, came from Ukraine in 2005. His elderly parents are in the city of Lviv, which has been overrun by refugees from elsewhere in Ukraine; his older brother is fighting with the Ukrainian army on the eastern front.
At every mass since the start of the war, the service has included a “prayer for Ukraine”. It includes a call to God to crush the invaders who threaten the “Precious Land” of the Ukrainians.
For Orthodox Ukrainians, Easter is celebrated on both sides of the battle lines. Eastern Orthodoxy is the predominant religion in Ukraine and Russia, as well as in several neighboring countries. A schism among Ukrainian Orthodox – with one group asserting independence and the other historically loyal to the Patriarch of Moscow – has reverberated around the world amid competing claims to legitimacy. But the two main Ukrainian Orthodox bodies fiercely opposed the Russian invasion.
In the United States, many people with ties to Ukraine are watching the war closely and sending funds to individuals and aid groups there, said Andrew Fessak, chairman of the board of directors of St. Volodymyr.
While Orthodox people in America can celebrate freely, “our relatives and friends in Ukraine are under pressure from an invading army and are not as free to celebrate as they wish,” Fessak said. “They may not be able to get to churches. They may not be able to walk around town as they wish. They may not be able to have the traditional foods they might have at Easter.
And yet he takes courage in the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.
“The people of Ukraine have shown that they are very keen on maintaining Ukraine’s independence,” he said. “It is at least a great comfort to us, to see that there is such civic pride and such a sense of patriotism.”
Reverend John Charest of St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, said it was important to carry out historic rituals even in dark times – in part to defy the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who started the war by claiming that Ukraine has no historical legitimacy outside of Russia. Ukrainians say they are a distinct yet related group of people with their own language and traditions.
Even though believers in the United States may have “a sense of survivor’s guilt,” they have a duty to carry on the traditions that are so under threat in Ukraine, Charest said.
“We have to be strong now and we have to celebrate this holiday,” he said. “If we don’t celebrate our traditions, that’s exactly what Putin wants.”
Jendras said the holy day offers a timeless message: “We must look to evil before us and say no, good triumphs and will always triumph.”
Associated Press photographer Carolyn Kaster contributed to this report from Shamokin, Pa.
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