Rise Up

I have always looked forward to the celebration of Ukrainian Easter.

It is the most important date in the liturgical calendar, marked with symbolic traditions, set apart in timing and practices from the Roman Catholic church. And with the scythe of war looming over every conversation and each gathering a poignant reminder, these moments of community buttress the struggles of the Ukrainian people.

On Holy Saturday, families flock to the church with decorated baskets, filled with the bounty to be shared Sunday morning, blessed by the priest in a short, simple ceremony. Each year, we would don our handmade vyshyvanka, and fill our basket with eggs, kolbasa, ham, butter, cheese, beet horse radish, surrounding a freshly baked paska bread, garnished with forsythia branches and pussy willows, watched over by a candle. We battled Toronto west end traffic to gather in the basement of the Ukrainian Church on Leeds when Baba was alive. Every half hour throughout the afternoon, a new ceremony begins.

We staked out our spot as the previous pilgrims are leaving, laying the special cover on the table, methodically unwrapping the plastic from each item before lighting the candle. The priest begins with prayers while a cantor sings the responses, sometimes joined by the people. He then proceeds to bless each basket with the families gathered behind. The priest seems to relish this aspect as he vigorously sprays everyone with the holy water, people wiping the excess from their faces, smiling, laughing.

A brief sermon follows before concluding with a hymn. Pictures ensue, greetings are exchanged and everyone vacates for the next gathering. Some complete the afternoon by moving upstairs to the church for quiet prayer and the veneration of Jesus lying supine in front of an empty cross.

This year, we attended the services at St. Nicholas parish where the rituals followed in the exact same order. People standing in a horseshoe shape with their baskets on the floor, typical of what would happen in Ukraine as the only difference. It is a lovely ceremony, eagerly anticipated each Easter.

Our family for the blessing of the Easter basket, St. Nicholas Church, 2023

For the first time, Olga and I attended the Easter Vigil on Saturday night marking the resurrection of Christ. I had attended the English service only once, in London, and cannot explain each element. The Ukrainian version was even more opaque to me; nevertheless, the atmosphere and the emotion spoke its own language.

The ceremony began with the Archbishop leading the congregation outside, encircling the church three times, stopping to sing hymns at the front door before reentering. The body of Christ is gone, the empty cross has disappeared. The Archbishop leads the people in prayer, the choir leads the people in hymnal song. Then suddenly, the normally solemn face and voice of a priest turns to the parishioners with a broad smile declaring, “Khrystos Voskres” to which the people respond, “Voistynu Voskres”. Three times, in succession. The last refrain the loudest with children shouting from the balcony so their voices are heard above the angelic song of the choir. I understood little else, yet it did not matter. The emotions transcended all.

Throughout the mass, as if walking the streets of a village, the priest paraded in and out of the sanctuary, skillfully swinging the thurible, spreading the incense, stopping at key moments to share the news: Khrystos Voskres! Voistynu Voskres! Khrystos Voskres! Voistynu Voskres! Khrystos Voskres! Voistynu Voskres! The outburst and refrain was repeated ten times by my count. All the while the Archbishop continued with the vigil prayers and the choir filled the church with hymnal song.

The final proclamation came from the Archbishop himself to end the service. This time the church erupted in thunderous unison as he walked up the aisle to the back and out onto the street. The congregation followed, breaking into hugs and handshakes and smiles, with family, friends and relatives. Christ is Risen, He is truly Risen.

The service was pure joy, a celebration which I have seldom witnessed in my years of attending church, an emotionally charged response in a difficult time. Its expression was honest and heartfelt, heralding the beginning of spring, a new birth and rejuvenation, a sign of hope and triumph, the promise of a new and better world.

Oh rise and show your power
(Rise up rise up) We’re dancing into the sun
(Rise up rise up) It’s time for celebration
(Rise up rise up) Spirits time has come

We want lovin’ we want laughter again
We want heartbeat
We want madness to end, we want dancin’
We want to run in the streets
We want freedom to live in this peace

2 thoughts on “Rise Up

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