On a momentous day in Ukrainian history, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) held its first Christmas service in Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – the largest center of Christianity in the times of Kyivan Rus – for the first time since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991.
Kyiv Post attended the memorable event on Jan. 7, along with hundreds of worshipers.
Return of the Ukrainian spirit
Ukrainians have celebrated Christmas twice during Russia's brutal war. Many celebrated on Dec. 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, with a further celebration on Jan. 7 according to the Julian calendar.
The Jan. 7 OCU Christmas Day service in the Assumption Cathedral began at 9 a.m. Despite the brisk outside temperature (-10 degrees Celsius) people gathered early in the morning in their droves.
To prevent the risk of provocations, nearly 3,000 policemen had been monitoring the Lavra and surrounding area. They checked the IDs of those arriving to attend the Christmas service and ushered guests through a carefully constructed security operation involving searches and metal detectors.
Perhaps for the first time in years, many foreigners, including reporters, came to the Christmas service. They scrutinized the ornaments of the Assumption Cathedral and the believers inside. One could hear English almost as much as Ukrainian.
Whilst going to his first liturgy in the Assumption Cathedral surrounded by guards, Metropolitan Epiphanius, the primate of the OCU, was smiling and joyful. "The atmosphere is positive," Epiphanius told Kyiv Post.
His presence stirred up excitement among those present in the cathedral. Even when the place was full, people kept on coming. Such a good turnout created a wonderfully warm atmosphere.
Cameras were everywhere, trying to capture every movement of the clergy and, especially, Metropolitan Epiphanius himself. To take the best shots, the media occupied one of the most important parts of the cathedral — the entrance to the Holy Gate believed to lead to heaven.
Believers, also seeking to immortalize the momentous event with their own photo memories, competed with official photographers and cameramen for a place near the Gate.
Amongst the people (albeit accompanied by guards) were Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Kyrylo Tymoshenko, and Minister of Culture of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko.
Security remained tight throughout the whole service, with officials largely blending in except for the earpieces that gave them away.
Inspiring words and happy believers
In his homily, Metropolitan Epiphanius encouraged people to turn to God and light. "Peace does not come out of nowhere. We must follow God, but not everyone is ready to accept this light," he proclaimed.
He also mentioned Russia. "We didn't want this war. We sought to live in peace and harmony with everyone. But the enemy broke the peace and invaded our land, spilling blood, sowing death and seeking to destroy our statehood."
He assured the congregation that the Russians will definitely be defeated, as truth is on the side of Ukraine. "We have already gained a moral victory," the head of the OCU reassured his attentive audience.
He acknowledged Ukraine’s military defenders, residents of the temporarily occupied territories, prisoners, forced migrants and volunteers.
"The fake and godless spirit of the ‘Russian world’ is leaving the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. And the spirit of true service to Orthodoxy and the Ukrainian people is coming back," he emphasized.
"What a historic event," whispered someone from the crowd.
The service lasted more than two hours. It was also broadcast to those watching from outside the cathedral walls.
Despite the cold weather, people were in no hurry to leave the Lavra after the service. "We feel uplifted" said one women from Kyiv region. Many were clearly glad that in Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, people were now praying for Ukraine and Ukrainian soldiers instead of glorifying Russia.
"The Russian spirit has left the Lavra. And it’s so nice to hear the Ukrainian language. We will definitely come to future services" a couple told Kyiv Post.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, representative of the President's Office, told Kyiv Post that this Christmas service was a historic event for Ukraine. As a sign of support for the OCU, he attended with his family.
"The history of Russians in the Lavra is over. This is the Ukrainian church, and it should stay this way" he said.
Significance of the UOC’s presence at the Pechersk-Lavra
For some 30 years, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church – or, as they have preferred to call themselves, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) had dominated the territory of the site.
The question of their future in the Lavra arose soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Since the end of 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) began inspections of priests of the UOC-MP and their monasteries, including Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.
The SBU has repeatedly reported on anti-Ukrainian literature found on the site, as well as on espionage by priests that has benefited the enemy. One priest of the UOC-MP has already been exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers.
The first Christmas service of the OCU in the Assumption Cathedral on the territory of the Lavra only became possible after the state refused to extend the lease of the Cathedral and the Refectory Church to representatives of the UOC-MP.
Surely enough, Pavlo Lebid – former Lavra vicar and archbishop of the UOC-MP – was opposed to this decision. But it was made clear to him: the Lavra is coming back home.
Lebid was present at the Lavra on the same historic day as the UOC’s Christmas service. Nicknamed "Pasha Mercedes" due to his love for luxury Mercedes cars, he could be seen arriving to the site in his traditional vehicle of choice.
Tkachenko told Kyiv Post after the service that a meeting of the interdepartmental commission is scheduled for Jan. 11. It should determine whether there were any violations during the use of the historical monument. Previously, illegal construction in the Lower Lavra had been repeatedly reported.
The state will soon have its say.
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