“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21)
For some time now, I’ve been regularly attending Saturday night Vespers and the occasional Divine Liturgy at a Byzantine Catholic parish not too far from Guelph, Ontario: St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brampton. I initially went out of curiosity. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition and my exposure to other Catholic traditions was close to nil. In fact, for a very long time I thought that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was like the Polish Church – they have mass, like our Polish mass, but in Ukrainian! This was the extent of my familiarity with the Byzantine tradition until about four years ago, when I had the chance to study early Church history, especially the development of liturgy in the East and West.
Some of you may have heard on the news recently that St. Elias Church was completely devoured by fire on April 5, 2014. When I found out about the disaster, I went into a state of shock for about half an hour. The magnitude of the disaster didn’t truly sink in until I had the chance to make the rounds of the remains of what used to be the Church. It was heart wrenching. I cannot truly put into words what I felt. All I can say is that it was difficult to face the truth.
It was not an easy visit. The church that I came to love was a heap of ashes; all that remained were the main wooden beams, still smouldering. Its beautiful hand painted (in the Byzantine tradition we say “written“) icons: destroyed. All the fine liturgical vestments: destroyed. Hymnals and Divine Liturgy books: destroyed. Everything was destroyed but two items: the chalice containing the Eucharist and one of the books of the Gospels, saved by a brave fire-fighter.
In addition, Saturday evening Great Vespers were not cancelled. The Church community gathered at the Church Rectory, which thankfully was a safe distance away from the Church. Many members of the local Brampton community came out to Vespers to support the parish. The whole house was full! This is the praying Church! This is the Church that survives persecution and martyrdom! This is the Church that rises to new life, for her rock is the Risen One, the one who conquered death itself! It reminds me of the hymn that we often sing during the Easter season:
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,As I was hanging around the rectory after the disaster, I witnessed a very moving exchange between the pastor and a parishioner. A man came into the living room with a large bag of carefully wrapped objects. “What in the world can this be?”, I asked myself. Very carefully he began to take out his personal icon collection. He offered these icons to Fr. Roman and the community, that they be used during the temporary liturgies at the local Catholic school and later for the new church. What a gesture! What self-gift and generosity! And it has only been maybe two to three hours since the burning! Indeed, the Church cannot be quenched by physical flames. No disaster can take away our love and our ability to give of ourselves.
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
The cross of Good Friday shows us the greatest injustice ever. The Christ, the Son of God, the innocent one, was nailed to a cross. Indeed this is the tragedy of all of history: God came to his own and his own rejected him and killed him! At the same time, it is the victory of all of history. The cross of Christ speaks to our disasters and our crosses too. Christ says: there is no way to life without your cross. There is no joy of the Resurrection without the gloom and pain of the crucifixion.
For us who are still carrying our crosses and who sometimes are crushed by these same crosses, the message of the cross is this: face your cross, do not turn away and run. It is only when you face the reality of your life, your cross, that you will find God, true joy and peace. Once you come face-to-face with your cross, you are then given a very difficult choice: to respond to it with love and goodness or to respond to it with hatred and evil. It is our Garden of Gethsemane. This is the battle that needs to be fought within, with the help of God’s grace. If we choose love and goodness, then we will redeem our cross, we will participate in Jesus’ own choice and victory – repaying evil and injustice with love and goodness. We will find peace and joy.
It is this that I witnessed last Saturday when I went to see a suffering, cross-bearing, community. The Lord did not disappoint them; they received the strength to face this cross with faith, hope, and love. I too was strengthened by their witness and for this I am thankful.
If you would like to help St. Elias in any way, please see their website for more information. Let us keep them in our prayers.