Easter is one of the most important days for Orthodox Christian Ukrainians – and a celebration for non-observant Ukrainians as well. The day typically involves – like many Ukrainian holidays – heading to a relative’s house to eat food, share stories, and of course – dig into the famous Easter cake. But with the country under quarantine due to the coronavirus, Ukrainians’ Easter plans have had to change. Hromadske takes a look at what people have planned this Easter, and how church authorities have reacted to the pandemic threat.
An Easter Without Church
Easter, beyond being a family holiday, also carries great weight in Christian theology, and is considered to be one of the holiest days for that religion. And church leaders in Ukraine can usually rely on thousands-strong crowds flocking to churches to observe the traditional Eastern rites.
This year, however, those crowds may be missing, despite the calls from Orthodox leaders like Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In an address on April 14, Onufriy defied a tacit agreement between the government and religious authorities to avoid gathering observant crowds at churches, and instead called for the faithful to still attend church on Easter – despite the risk of pandemic.
“This year, the celebration of Holy Easter is especially for the viral disease spreading across the globe. That’s why I’m telling you, my dear brothers and sisters, that the churches will conduct Easter services,” said the Moscow Patriarchate metropolitan.
And while the Moscow Patriarchate has agreed to also broadcast services over the air – like the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church – it seems the tacit agreement is in utter shambles.
His statement has raised the ire of government authorities, especially after Palm Sunday – a Christian feast day which this year fell on April 5 – saw a crowd of thousands gather at the Orthodox holy site of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov angrily tweeted, following the event, that “irresponsibility and disrespect towards people’s health has nothing to do with God!” And following lax police enforcement of quarantine norms during the Palm Sunday gathering, Avakov said that three clergymen have been charged with administrative offenses, and that quarantine regulations would be strictly observed during Easter.
And, during an interview with hromadske, an advisor to the Interior Minister, Yuriy Tandit stated that the Ministry was ready to take wide-ranging action against disobedient churches.
“Our plans are wide. Tomorrow (at the time of broadcast, April 14 – ed.) will show. We’re gathering information. We can’t close the churches in order to stop services being held there. Services will continue inside churches and Easter liturgies will be streamed online… we, of course, will now not only closely watch the situation, but also react harshly,” said the Ministerial advisor.
And most Ukrainians seem to have sided with the government, not Onufriy, on taking their Easter celebrations to church – a poll conducted by sociological survey group Rating on April 10-12 revealed that 85% had decided not to attend church this Easter. But the same survey reveals some good news for church leaders – at least 64% plan to watch service broadcasts.
Even some of the Moscow metropolitans own clerics have sided against him, with Metropolitan Pavlo, the head of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, saying that he’d underestimated the extent of the pandemic, in a comment to the Reuters news agency. Hearing those words from Pavlo isn’t exactly surprising – Pavlo himself has been diagnosed with coronavirus, and the monastery has been shut as a result of over 90 coronavirus infections being registered amongst the clergy there, turning it into an epicenter of disease in Kyiv, and two monks at the Lavra have already passed away from COVID-19 complications.
Celebrating the “Great Day” At Home
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, has himself called on Ukrainians to stay home this Easter. Almost the entire police force will be out patrolling on Easter Sunday, ensuring that people and clergy respect quarantine regulations and stay home for the holiday. Different Christian confessions have offered different ways to observe the holiday, in accordance with their own religious beliefs.
Most confessions have called on their parishioners to stay home and follow services online, but many, including the Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, have said that they “cannot” turn away faithful that come to the church door on Sunday – but that those people must respect “sanitary norms.”
The Moscow Patriarchate is the only major confession in Ukraine that has completely broken with online-broadcasts, with Metropolitan Klyment, in a comment to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, saying that the church will not hold online or broadcast streams, because those will not count as “praising God.”
But for the non-faithful Ukrainians, Easter still represents a day of celebration – embodied in the famous Easter cake. Around Easter time, these cakes fill shop shelves and windows, and the babushkas selling goods from small street-side stalls switch to selling these sprinkle-dotted cakes.
While these cakes are traditionally baked at home and then taken to church to be blessed, this year, blessed Easter cakes will be delivered straight to Ukrainians' homes – thanks to Easter cake delivery programs implemented by some churches. The Office of the President stated that as of April 13, Ukrainians had already ordered over 14,000 blessed cakes to be delivered this week – and as Easter Sunday draws near, that number will undoubtedly grow.
And while Ukrainians will most likely not be gathering for large family Easter feasts, they’ll adapt and adjust, just like most churches – perhaps even holding the traditional family dinner online, and forging a new tradition in the process.