“. . . Celebrate the birth of Christ by being Christ for others! God has given us the grace to make sure others don’t feel alone despite physical distancing and much more difficult circumstances. Jesus fulfills Scripture through us when we realize more deeply that He dwells within us, helping others believe, sing and proclaim, “God is With Us, Understand This All You Nations! And Be Humbled, For God Is With Us!”
(excerpt from PASTORAL LETTER FROM THE UKRAINIAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS OF CANADA ON THE OCCASION OF THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD 2020-2021)
Here we are, beginning the new calendar year in an official lockdown. The pandemic rages and we look to our celebration of Rizdvo without the tumult of gatherings and community at our parish home. This year we reflect on the mystery and miracle of the Nativity in a greater stillness, perhaps even with renewed and deeper gratitude.
As yet, we keep to the Julian calendar—clinging to observances handed down from our ancestors. While we keep to these “old ways”, it is marvelous to recognize that the rituals of old actually carry the same life truths revealed today by our COVID world: irrefutable connection with nature, humanity, past, future, spirit.
Our Sviata Vechera (Holy Supper) incorporates ancient customs from pagan times—when people celebrated light in the depth of the dark winter. As Christians, our forebears recognized Christ as the light of the world. The symbolism of the rituals surrounding Sviata Vechera reflect our participation in the unfathomable mystery of God alive among us.
Perhaps we won’t be able to celebrate as usual, but we can consider the meaning of the traditional Sviata Vechera to honour and appreciate the wondrous wisdom of our heritage. Consider the scene: a seat at the table with an extra place setting—because we know that we are joined by our loved ones who have left this earth or are still to be born into it; a candle in the window inviting any travellers to join in our feast—because no one should be alone/lonely on this Holy Night. A didukh (grandfather; sheaf of wheat) in the corner—because the countless grains are a reminder of the countless souls who celebrate with us tonight. Our agrarian ancestors valued the earth and its fruits as God-given. Grain is a symbol of life.
This night’s festivity is cosmic: shared by heaven and earth. We watch for the first star to begin the meal. Our predecessors told stories of animals speaking and supernatural happenings. Hay under the table and tablecloth—God lying in a manger. We recognize animals and angels intermingled. This is reality. “God is with us”.
The setting of our Sviata Vechera places us in this cosmic event—participants in an occurrence that involves the entire created universe from the beginning to the end of time. It is awe-some and humbling. We can imagine others scattered throughout the world, also preparing their homes the same way—marvelling at the revelation. “understand all you nations and be humbled . . .”
Let’s reflect on the meal itself—the 12 dishes of the Sviata Vechera. While the exact recipes vary according to region and availability, there is meaning in the feast itself: teaching us still today that life is sacred—that we know God through our material existence on earth. Our life-giving food represents our life-giving God. 12 dishes for 12 apostles and 12 months to our year. The food is meatless because we feast on the final day of the pre-Christmas fast. These traditional foods derive from the Ukrainian land, from harvests that were stored and preserved (without electricity) in order to survive long cold winters: grains, mushrooms, root vegetables, dried fruits, fish from rivers or the sea. Common to all regions is the initial dish of kutia and the kolach.
Any animals in the household are fed and cared for before the Holy Supper begins. The kutya, a mixture of grain kernels, poppyseeds and honey, symbolizes life—bitterness and sweetness combined—creating a distinctive deliciousness. The eldest member of the household takes a spoonful of kutya and flings it to the ceiling: a further sign of life’s highs and lows—the more that sticks to the ceiling, the better the year should be! Perhaps another lesson here is that, of course, more honey will create more stickiness (a better year!). Clearly, we should try being sweeter in difficult times!
The Holy Supper begins after the greeting “Christ is born—Let us praise Him” and a spoonful of kutya for everyone. The centrepiece is the 3-tiered kolach, each loaf a braid of 3 strands—a symbol of Trinity, eternity, well-being. A candle rises from the kolach, reminding us that Christ is the light of the world.
The food we savour takes time and work to prepare; the love we have for each other and for life includes the longing for those not with us. Knowing darkness we can appreciate the light. Our Sviata Vechera is a brilliant tribute to the fullness, complexity, and mystery of life.
However we are able to spend sviat vechir—let’s remember that we are part of something bigger than us—we are part of wondrous creation. We are the body of Christ. May we all be born anew in His love this year.