It is shortly after 4:30 am on Ukrainian Easter Sunday morning and still dark outside as I stumble out of bed and struggle to make the journey from the land of dreams to the land of the living. I wash and dress quickly, then set about preparing the Easter basket with the traditional foods that our parents had taught us were the prerequisites for the occasion – an Easter bread known as Paska, some ham, kobassa, baked cheese, eggs, horseradish, bread and salt. The basket is enhanced by the presence of some colorful Ukrainian Easter eggs known as Pysanky, as well as some barvinok (periwinkle) garnered from my mother-in-law’s garden here in Oshawa.
I make my way to the church just in time for the 5:30 am Easter service. There is a light rain falling and I am hoping it stops before we do the blessing of the Easter baskets outside in the church yard after liturgy. Inside, the church is dimly lit with only flickering candles, and half filled with parishioners quietly praying or lost in their own thoughts while waiting for the service to begin. Promptly at 5:30, a candle-lit procession led by the priest, his attendants, the church choir and then all parishioners make their way outside for the ritual circling of the church. Normally we make three circuits around the church, but in view of the continuing rain, Father Hladio decides that one circumnavigation will be sufficient, and after the traditional prayers at the church entrance, we retreat back to the warmth inside.
The first part of the Easter service consists of the Paschal Matins. We have an excellent choir and the church is soon echoing with the chants of “Khrystos Voskres” (Christ is Risen), as sweet smelling incense permeates the air. This is the part of the Eastern Byzantine Orthodox church service that I like the best. I close my eyes, breathe in that biblical scent of myrrh, and let the chanting take over my neural pathways, trying hard to turn off the perpetual urge to think, and just trying to feel the moment.
By the time the Matins, and the first hour is over, the church is almost full. Everyone present proceeds up to the front to be kissed three times by our priest, Father Hladio. He presents everyone with a symbolic colored Easter egg.
The main Easter service begins at this point. It is a ritual that has been repeated virtually unchanged for over a thousand years in Ukraine, and for the last several centuries, in all the far flung lands to which fate and circumstance has cast Ukrainians, either willingly or not. For most of that time, the language used was Old Church Slavonic, however a changing and more progressive ethos has, over the past century, persuaded the church fathers to switch to the modern Ukrainian vernacular.
Frequently during the service, Father Hladio interjects with energetic exclamations of “Khrystos Voskres”, to which everyone responds with “Voisteno Voskres” (Truly He Is Risen). Our parish has learned to respond with energy, since they know that if he deems the response inadequate he will admonish them with “Say it like you really mean it!”
By the time Communion rolls around, the church is standing room only. It is a sad fact that on special feast days like Christmas and Easter, the number of people that come to church at least doubles. For the blessing of the Easter baskets, it often triples. Even minimal or non-believers are somehow drawn to observe the traditional rituals taught them by their parents and grandparents.
As the services draw to a close, the church empties and everyone proceeds to the tables that have been set up in the parking lot. These are soon filled to overflowing with Easter baskets both modest and extravagant. Candles are lit and re-lit, but the ever-present rain soon makes that a futile endeavor. Nonetheless, the blessing must go on.
Father Hladio makes the rounds and vigorously sprays holy water, mostly on the baskets, but more than occasionally, he eagerly drenches unsuspecting parishioners whom he feels especially worthy of consecration. Normally after the blessing, people would linger and socialize with friends and acquaintances they may not have seen in some time, but the inclement weather prompts most people to beat a hasty retreat to their cars and thence on home to partake of this holy meal.
Another Easter has rolled around, and in respect to all of my ancestors and in reverence to my core Christian beliefs I have once again taken part in a tradition that has been taking place for almost as long as the Ukrainian people have existed. I cherish the continuity.
Khrystos Voskres! Christ is Risen!