Ukraine’s Holy Week Like No Other
Christians of different traditions begin Lent on different dates. For Ukrainians of all denominations, their spiritual pilgrimage this spring started on February 24 at 4 AM. War and Lent have been deeply intertwined this year.
Lent is a time to discern evil, especially in one’s own life. Understanding violent and destructive passions is difficult amid the modern world’s comfortable, soft circumstances. For centuries, the Church’s tradition has helped us detach from worldly comforts during the Lenten journey through fasting, prayer, and works of charity. The war in Ukraine has given Lent a deeper resonance. Violence and suffering, sin and evil, compassion and sacrifice, virtue and heroism reveal themselves. War was something known to the monks of Constantinople and Jerusalem who wrote the prayers and hymns for our Lenten journey. And it was known to generations of our ancestors. But now we experience war in Lent first-hand.
His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, also reflected on Ukraine’s violence-hewn Lent in his address on April 5, 2022, the 41st day of the war.
The Christian faith teaches us not to turn our eyes away from God who became human, from God whom humans dishonored, crucified, and killed in the most shameful way. The Christian faith teaches us to honor the wounds of Christ, to kiss them, because we know that by His wounds we are healed [cf. Isaiah 53:5], as the Prophet Isaiah writes.
These days Ukraine is experiencing her Golgotha, her crucifixion. Today I ask all of us—all Christians of the whole world, all people of goodwill—not to turn your eyes away from the humiliation and suffering, the death and wounds of Ukraine. . . . Just a few tens of kilometers from the center of Kyiv we see today hundreds of dead who were shot in the back of the head. We see the wounds of the Ukrainian people.
This Lent has made reality clearer to me than ever. The work of evil, the wicked will of the Enemy of humankind, and the frailty of our human nature are on display. We witness Adam’s grab. Adam had all the trees and their fruit in the garden of Eden. God the Giver gave Adam everything he needed. And yet, he decided not to live with God and be like God the Giver. Despite being forewarned, he decided to grab that which would lead to his death.
Grace amid Horror
Today we witness the leader of a contemporary empire that extends across eleven time zones grab for more. Unprovoked, he decides to invade a sovereign, independent country. In the account of Christ’s Passion, we see that Judas, blinded by greed, stretches out his arm to snatch silver in exchange for the Savior. These are different episodes of the same story of human sin. All of them lead to death.
Yet Easter gives us hope for salvation and new life. God repeats and renews His gift. Amid the brutality and horrors, there are many signs of grace. In this world, which is characterized by compulsive self-reference and the dictatorship of relativism, we see people giving their lives for others and for the truths of dignity, freedom, and justice. Ukrainians are demonstrating that greatest love defined by our Lord in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As we recall and celebrate the salvific sacrifice completed on the Cross, we see the sacrifice of our contemporaries—brothers and sisters in Ukraine, military and civilians—who are willing to give their lives to protect the innocent. Through their sacrifice, we get a glimpse into the sacrifice of the Son of God once more.
Holy Week’s rich liturgical traditions help us understand reality. As Father Alexander Schmemann noted, in our liturgical celebrations, we do not merely remember past events. The power of liturgy is that it “transforms remembrance into reality.” Lazarus Saturday, celebrated by Byzantine-rite Christians on the day before Palm Sunday, places before us the reality of death. “It stinketh,” Jesus is told as he approaches Lazarus in the tomb. Schmemann writes that at the grave of Lazarus, God encounters Death, “the reality of anti-life, of destruction and despair.” Jesus weeps “because He contemplates the triumph of death and destruction in the world created by God.”
At the beginning of April, the world was shocked by the dreadful images of bodies and violence discovered in Bucha, Borodianka, Irpin, and other towns near Kyiv; these were people Russian soldiers slaughtered during the weeks of occupation. We see death’s ugly face. And we weep as Jesus did. In the recent words of Bishop Erik Varden, “His tears show him aggrieved, indignant at the scandal of death’s reign in beings made for immortality, who long for paradise lost and lost friendship. Having wept, he goes up to Calvary to work our redemption.” The deaths Ukraine is experiencing bring the reality of Christian liturgy into full view.
After Jesus’s glorious entry into Jerusalem, we begin Holy Week by remembering the Lord’s last days on the earth before his salvific Passion and death. But the death on Great Friday will not be the closing of our week. Holy Week will be crowned by the feast of the Resurrection. The Resurrection provides all-important perspective on the suffering that Jesus, the Innocent One, endured.
Why Do the Innocent Suffer?
Those who walk through Holy Week in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition read passages from the Book of Job. Job, the righteous one in whom God’s heart delights, of whom He is proud before the angelic court. On Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we hear about Job’s unspeakable trials: all his possessions are destroyed and all his children are killed. In the end, he is stricken by leprosy, a disease that excludes him from society and leaves him on the margins. Leprosy makes his body decay while still alive. Why does this just and righteous man suffer such terrible evil? Why is Ukraine enduring the terrible evil of war and invasion? Ukraine cries out with Job: why are we experiencing this suffering? What have we done to “deserve” this?
Readers of the Book of Job will not find direct answers to the righteous man’s question. God speaks, revealing His greatness. God fully answers Job’s question only in His Son’s Passion. No one can understand why the innocent suffer. So God offers His solidarity as the answer. God is with us in suffering and death; therefore, we must strive to be with God, to be honest with Him, and to seek Him. Place before Him the millions of displaced adults and children, the young soldiers who fell in battle, the thousands of innocent victims in Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other cities and villages that were bombed, besieged, and occupied. It is only in communion with God that we can find meaning.
Entering into the Triduum
On Holy Thursday the bishop washes the feet of twelve priests. This gesture illustrates Christ’s love as the foundation of the Church and all relations within it. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). By washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus shows his readiness to die for them. Every bishop should ask himself: am I ready to live and die for my priests? I ask myself: is the washing of the feet a performance or is it a symbol that reflects reality? Schmemann puts before us an even more radical question: “Each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ’s love and accept it as my life, or do I follow Judas into the darkness of the night?”
Holy Friday again puts before us the reality and darkness of death. It seems that Evil triumphs. The Innocent One is condemned to death. However, in Jesus’s death we witness not only an act of hateful killing, but an act of divine love. As Schmemann wrote, “[B]ecause His dying is love, . . . the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness.” Most people flee from death. For those without faith, death is a depressing, dooming dead end. With Paschal faith, however, we overcome this most fundamental and anguishing fear. We understand that God has a destiny for us, a destiny of solidarity with Him. His solidarity with us in death allows us to overcome it in Him.
When there is a consciousness of this destiny, something supernatural occurs. People realize that death is not the greatest danger. There is something worse. One can sell out. One can betray. On the other hand, one can willingly sacrifice one’s life for something higher. There are some principles, some truths, that are worth not just living for, but also worth dying for.
Jesus lived the truth of the Father, and He died a human death for the relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit. Through His incarnation, the Son came into complete solidarity with a groaning humanity. God goes where we are most terrified and leads us out of Hades.
Today Ukraine is going through its Calvary. We entered Holy Week knowing that it will not end with the triumph of death. Life will shine forth from the tomb, the place of death and corruption—the tomb in which today we lay to eternal rest the bodies of the victims of this horrific war. Today we cry like Joseph of Arimathea at the sight of the death of the Innocent in Great Friday’s Vespers: “How shall I bury you, my God? Or how shall I wrap you in shrouds; with what hands shall I touch your immaculate body? Or what songs shall I sing at your departure?”
It may seem that evil and death will win. As Ukraine is being crucified by the enemy, millions of its people go through the same experience of darkness and a sense of the absence of God as Jesus did on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the cry we hear from many in Ukraine.
But paradoxically, at the end of this furnace of suffering, there is the peaceful act of giving oneself into the loving hands of the Father: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The Liturgy of the Triduum is full of paradoxes. Walking through the prayers of Holy Week, we contemplate the paradox of the Righteous One’s suffering and entrust Ukraine to the embrace of the loving Father.
From Great Friday until the prayer of the Midnight Office at the Tomb, which is followed immediately by the Matins of the Resurrection, the faithful venerate a tomb of Christ with the Shroud in the middle of the Church that represents the cold and dead body of the Savior. The beautiful service of Jerusalem Matins is the burial service of Jesus and a meditation on the Son of God’s death and descent into Hades. This service allows the faithful to share the mourning of Mary, the Mother who lost her only Son, just as Ukraine is losing her sons and daughters. Then suddenly, at the ninth ode of the canon we hear Jesus speak to his Mother: “Do not weep for me, Mother, as you see in a tomb the Son whom you conceived in your womb without seed; for I shall arise and be glorified, and I shall exalt in glory without ceasing those who with faith and love magnify you.” Today we live through the horrors of the deaths of tens of thousands. Today, we hear the consoling words of Jesus, even though the glory of the Resurrection has not yet come. But we know it will.
We are finishing our Lenten pilgrimage. We know the destination point: the Resurrection. Along the way, there is passion and crucifixion. Let us not doubt that God is with the suffering and that His truth, peace, and love will prevail.