On a warm and sunny late September morning, the beautiful parish of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Borough of Northampton, Pennsylvania, came to life as the faithful arrived and filled the church to capacity in order to joyously celebrate the 101st anniversary of the founding of the parish.
The parish had initially planned to celebrate their centennial in 2021, but with the pandemic still raging, plans had to be postponed. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that the faithful, joined by the local clergy, gathered, and eagerly awaited the arrival of their hierarchs to commence the long awaited, and well-deserved celebration.
Young girls, with colorful wreaths atop their curls, and wearing embroidered Ukrainian blouses (vyshyvanky) led the way to the church, dropping flower petals along the way, in an ancient tradition of welcoming a bishop. The hierarchs smiled as they crossed over the chalk drawing of colorful flowers drawn upon the pavement, along with a large WELCOME scrawled in many colors. As they neared the church and climbed the steps, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora, along with His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy, were greeted by the parish children who bestowed colorful bouquets of flowers upon them. They were next warmly greeted by the parish administration, and Rev. Oleg Kravchenko. Fr. Oleh is the newest pastor at the parish, following Very Rev. Myron Oryhon who served in the interim after the repose of much-loved Very Rev. Bazyl Zawierucha who served faithfully at the parish for almost 30 years.
As the Divine Liturgy began the hierarchs stood in the middle of the nave flanked by numerous priests who had traveled near and far to participate in this grand celebration. Joining them were the seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, from which many of the clergy present had graduated themselves.
As the time approached for the reading of the Gospel, newly ordained Deacon Pavlo Vysotskyi stepped up and read the Scripture from Matthew 10:37-11:1 in Ukrainian, followed by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepping out on the ambo and reading the Gospel in English. His voice echoed through the church as he read Christ’s words of explaining what true love is and instructing the listeners to love God above all else, and all others; and to take up their crosses and to follow Him.
As Archbishop Daniel returned the Gospel to the Altar, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony stepped out onto the Ambo to deliver a moving sermon. He began by reflecting on the teachings that often are taken to heart by people. For one people often repeat the teachings of Buddha and the four sorrows he identified as being unavoidable: sickness, death, old age, and being born.
He then quoted a well known saying of Mark Twain, who wrote, “A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other. Age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities. Those they love are taken from them and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last - the only unpoisoned gift ever had for them - and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed – a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever. Then another myriad takes their place and copies all they did and goes along the same profitless road and vanishes as they vanished - to make room for another and another and a million other myriads to follow the same arid path through the same desert and accomplish what the first myriad and all the myriads that came after it accomplished - nothing!”
His Eminence expressed that if we were to believe these sayings, we would believe life to be nothing more than a foolish dream. It is sad to say that many people feel exactly this way, as if there is no point to life, and life is almost meaningless.
However, along comes Christ today and He gives us a different point of view, declaring, “I am the Bread of Life, which has come down from Heaven and gives life to the world!” He negates the four sorrows of Buddha and corrects those who interpret life as nothing more than a foolish dream.
God is here to affirm our worthwhileness. He came so that we might be born anew to a living hope.
Metropolitan Antony gave an example of a family who had a little boy who was born blind. It took a long time for medical science to come up with a cure for the boy who lived in darkness for years until they began to slowly introduce him to light. Finally, the day arrived that he was permitted outdoors, and the bandages were removed, and the boy saw the world for the very first time. He squinted at the sunshine, as his mouth dropped open and he proclaimed, “Mother! Why did you not tell me how beautiful it was?” The mother replied that she had tried to explain, but, until he saw it, he was not able to truly comprehend it. The glorious vision of the beautiful sky would only be understood when his eyes had been opened.
And so, Christ can talk to us about transforming our deeds into deeds of light, but, until we open our spiritual eyes to see, we will never understand what He is trying to tell us.
His Eminence continued, by stating that the founders of this parish, along with the clergy, understood this. They came to a foreign land, a country that was hostile to them, and experienced what all new immigrants experience – suspicion, hostility, and being at the bottom of the totem pole. However, despite all the harshness they experienced, all the discomfort, they turned to the one source of goodness they knew from home – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
They turned to God, who had protected them and governed their lives back home and they brought Him with them to the new country. They put Him before their eyes, and regardless of the harshness around them, they kept their focus only upon Him.
They proved their devotion to God by prioritizing the building of churches, and the development of parish families. Here they could join their families, friends, loved ones, and strangers, and could get and give comfort, support, healing, and find someone to embrace them when they needed care.
Metropolitan Antony continued by inviting everyone to come to Christ, who is the living stone who was rejected by man but precious in the eyes of God. He stated that we are all like living stones and need to build ourselves into a solid spiritual house.
Looking at the people seated before him, His Eminence exclaimed that they are the chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people… who are to declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called us out of the darkness into the light. He stated that our baptism, was our anointing into the royal priesthood, and was a sign of our entry into the community of Christ.
The founders of this parish understood all this, and that even in our baptism, we are not initiated into a new life in Christ in isolation, but, surrounded by the faithful, to grow with them, supported by them, and helping each other. Christian life requires a relationship, among fellow Christians and with God.
While we gather to worship and praise the Lord, we who are lonely, hurting, depressed, struggling to find wholeness, and meaning in our lives, here we become God’s people in a special way, His chosen people. We are chosen for discipleship for ministry, for relating in a Christ-like way with other who are lonely, grieving, or struggling. That is what community is all about. It is a place where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into the temples of our own bodies, uniting humanity, and divinity, becoming one with God.
Metropolitan Antony told a story about prisoners of war who found themselves tired, weary, cold, and struggling to survive the brutality around them. It was every man for himself. Food was limited and the men squabbled over it. Hopelessness permeated the camp.
Then one day one of the prisoners gave his blanket to a wounded man who was shivering with cold, and then he gave a share of his food ration him and was even able to procure him some medicine. Due to the care, he showed this man, the wounded comrade survived his injuries. Seeing this, others began to emulate his actions, sharing their food and blankets. They began to know and care for each other. They formed Bible Study groups and worshipped together, and even began to create makeshift prosthetics for the amputees in the camp. Soon the entire atmosphere of the camp changed from bleak and hopeless, to bright and filled with hope and light.
What was it that made this drastic improvement possible? How could they have turned such a dire situation into something positive? The answer is simple. The prisoners became the Church. A community of Christ. The Church is not a building, but a spiritual home for a family united in a common cause. God beckons us to enter not occasionally but always. We are the chosen people, and we are chosen to minister to the world around us.
Early Christians were forced to worship in the catacombs to evade the persecution of the Roman army. They met to worship in unlikely places, hidden from the world, meeting with the Apostles and presbyters, who were sent to lead them in worship. They gathered and worshipped, and the very walls of the catacombs trembled around them from the zeal and anticipation of the faithful who had gathered to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. Having communed they no longer hid from the world but were directed to go out and boldly preach and minister to the world.
We are all called to be part of the priesthood and have been called out of the darkness into the light. His Eminence stated that the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the today’s parishioners knew that. Certainly, over the years there have been squabbles, disagreements, and even arguments among various parishioners, but the parish is here and celebrating its new centennial. Christ was with the parish, and the Holy Spirit inspired the faithful, bringing them together even after the worst of arguments and difficulties.
Metropolitan Antony recalled that he was often in the midst of such parish disagreements, however, when the meetings were over, he would always get up and ask who was going to join him for a cup of coffee. That seemingly inconsequential gesture cemented the fact that even though we may disagree, we are all part of the Church, and we still love and care for each other. We may argue, disagree, and be unhappy with each other, but we stills hare a common foundation which is Christ Himself.
His Eminence continued by stating that the founders of this parish knew that having partaken of the Holy Gifts they were now co-ministers in the world and had the responsibility to come and give glory and worship to God, and then with renewed strength they were responsible for going out into the world and changing it for the better, for you cannot receive Christ, and still not forgive someone.
He concluded by stating that this coming week someone will cross your path who is in need of your witness in Christ. Someone will need to have his or her worthwhileness affirmed by you, as a priest. You have been chosen to transform someone’s darkness into light. Because of you, someone this week will open their eyes, squint at the brightness, and see the glorious vision of a gracious God who has come to give us all light and promised us fulfillment through Christ our Lord, the Bread of Life. Therefore, go out and be those people you have been chosen to be. Be the one willing to reach out to someone, to invite someone to church, to pray with someone, to help someone, to affirm someone’s worth, to hug someone, and to share a smile with them, for you may be the sole source of another’s salvation. Therefore, be careful how you live your life because others are watching, and you may be the only Bible they are reading.
With these words, His Eminence returned to the Altar and the Liturgy continued. As the choir sang beautifully the faithful, still mulling over the words of their Metropolitan, felt emotional. At the Anaphora, heads were bowed in worship. The air seemed to glow as the rays of sunshine poured in through the deeply colored stained-glass windows casting an otherworldly aura over the scene. They could almost feel a slight trembling of the air, as they rose to their feet. Having prayed the Lord’s Prayer everyone quietly approached to partake of the Eucharist, and once again the worlds of Metropolitan Antony echoed through their minds. That having partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ, one could no longer possibly hold a grudge, retain an anger, or shun forgiveness. It seemed that for them their eyes had been reopened as they approached feeling lighter, free of the burden of previous grievances, and filled with hope and light.
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. Oleg Kravchenko thanked the hierarchs for joining them on this momentous and long-awaited occasion. He expressed everyone’s gratitude for their continued support and ceaseless prayers on their behalf.
The celebration continued as the faithful of the parish made their way to the Northampton Event and Banquet Center where they enjoyed a delectable lunch and great companionship in the presence of their Church Community.
After the meal, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepped up to the microphone and greeted everyone on the First Anniversary of their parish Centennial, and the beginning of their second century of ministry. In honor of the celebration, His Eminence presented UOC of USA Centennial medals, which are awarded for outstanding service to the Church. The recipients of these medals were the various church organizations: Faith, Hope and Love Sisterhood; the parish choir, the UOL Chapter, and the parish family at the banquet.
Before concluding the presentations, Archbishop Daniel reiterated the words of Metropolitan Antony, stating that the parish will face new challenges and difficulties in the coming century. The Church is constantly being challenged by modernity and secularization. People are being pulled back into the darkness by various social and moral issues. However, we are the priesthood, the ministers, and the chosen people of Christ. It is our responsibility above all else to hold true to His teachings, and to keep shining the light and showing others the way to salvation. His Eminence stated that he has every confidence that this parish is up to the challenge and will continue to play a vital role in society, and in the community in which it resides.
As the afternoon wound down, the Seminarians of the Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary sang several moving songs, concluding with Боже Великий (Almighty God). As the young men’s deep voices echoed off the walls of the banquet hall, everyone rose and bowed their heads beseeching the Lord’s mercy upon Ukraine. Many joined their voices to those of the seminarians, and the prayer rose as if on angels’ wings up to the Lord.
While some individuals lingered, enjoying a final cup of coffee and slice of cake, others began to bid their farewells and make their way home after a relaxing and fulfilling afternoon. As they stepped outside, they squinted against the sunlight, again remembering Metropolitan Antony’s sermon, and reaffirmed their commitment to keep their spiritual eyes open, and their hearts brightly shining the love of Christ. As they made their ways home, they were committed to searching out that someone whom the Metropolitan stated would need their attention, their assistance, and their guidance towards salvation.
With such deep faith and hope in Christ, the future is bright for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary parish in Northampton, Pennsylvania. May the Light of Christ, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit shine down upon the faithful and grant them all many joyous, prosperous, and blessed years as they enter their second centennial.
Photos by Seminarian Mykola Stefanyk
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko