Ukrainian Catholics celebrate sorrow and joy of Easter season

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

Imagine not being able to celebrate Holy Week. Deacon Bohdan Hedz at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church in Syracuse grew up in Western Ukraine. He was born there in 1981 and while his homeland was under communist rule, his parents had him baptized in a secret location in his village.

“People take their faith for granted here,” Deacon Hedz said. “Nobody oppressed it, nobody took away your church.”

If he were to speak of Easter in his grammar school, Deacon Hedz would have risked being expelled. There were orthodox churches where one could worship but even then the KGB would be standing at the door, he explained.

Communism fell in 1991 and the church doors were opened again, Deacon Hedz said. Churches were filled once more and all the Easter traditions resumed.

Palm Sunday in the Ukrainian Catholic Church is traditionally symbolized with pussy willows, not palms. Chrism Mass takes place with the sacred oils blessed and transferred to parishes. Holy Thursday is the traditional day that the eldest woman in the family would bake paska, or Easter bread. The bishop washes the feet of 12 priests on Holy Thursday, usually the oldest priest and the youngest are represented, Deacon Hedz explained. A procession with a shroud ending at a representation of Jesus’ tomb is part of the Good Friday service. The blessing of the Easter foods will take place at the vigil on Saturday before Easter. The Resurrection Service takes place on Easter Sunday and then the real celebration begins.

“We do not kneel from Easter till Pentecost,” Deacon Hedz said. “It is a celebration of the Resurrection. We are not bound by sin. We do not ask for His salvation because we are free, He brought it to us. Jesus is with us until Pentecost when he’ll be lifted up.”

The Easter celebration would not be complete without the special traditions and foods that go along with Holy Week. The baking of the paska has its own traditions.

“The woman who does the baking must go to confession first. There are prayers that go along with the steps of baking the bread,” Deacon Hedz said. “The recipes vary from sweet to not too sweet.”

Then there are the beautifully decorated hollowed eggs, pasanky, that are delicately painted. Deacon Hedz said that even the tiny painting on the eggs hold meaning.

“The egg is always a symbol of life,” he said. “Each one has symbols. The black background represents the Passion and the overlapping bright colors represent the Resurrection. Wheat painted on an egg also symbolizes rebirth or Resurrection because wheat is the first crop that springs forth. Green is a joyful color and the sunflower is a traditional Ukrainian flower representing nature and life.”

The Ukrainian “horseradish” meal that is eaten at Easter represents the bitter herbs much like the Jewish traditional meal at Passover. Ukrainians eat the horseradish to remind them of the suffering Jesus experienced.

The bitterness of horseradish is soon overshadowed by the joyous ringing of church bells from Easter through the next several days in the Ukraine, Deacon Hedz explained.

“You can feel celebration in the air at Easter,” he said. “It may be strange to think of celebrating death but through Jesus’ death he brought us salvation so it is just the beginning, not the end. It is a celebration.”

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