Procession of the Confessors

29 August 15:26
Religious procession to the Pochaiv Lavra. Photo: UOJ Religious procession to the Pochaiv Lavra. Photo: UOJ

The UOC's cross procession has ended or rather happened like a miracle. Given the persecution, this is not just a prayer procession but something more. What exactly?

Despite all the bans and provocations, the cross procession from Kamyanets-Podilskyi to the Pochaiv Lavra did take place. The Union of Orthodox Journalists extensively covered this cross procession, providing videos and photos depicting how people arriving from other cities were confined by law enforcement in the train station building, how the police blocked the territory of the cathedral in Kamyanets-Podilskyi, how military conscription officers distributed call-up notices to men daring to participate in the cross procession, how the police confiscated the licenses of bus drivers transporting pilgrims, how anti-church activists insulted believers and threatened them, how the police blocked roads, forcing the cross bearers to walk through fields, how local authorities prohibited Ukrainian citizens from walking through their own country, and so on. There was a lot that happened.

But most importantly, there was a triumphant entrance into the Pochaiv Lavra by more than ten thousand pilgrims. There was joy that, despite all adversities, the cross procession was fulfilled, that God had orchestrated everything for the good, and that He accepted people's confession of faith in "…a crucified Christ, to Jews a stumbling block and to Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Perhaps, after some time, when church historians describe the current persecutions of the Church, the Kamyanets-Podilskyi to Pochaiv cross procession of 2023 will be hailed as a symbol of confessing the Christian faith in the face of persecutors. In many places today, believers stand up for their churches, defending them against seizures and unauthorized transfers to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. A heroic stand is being taken to ensure that the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra remains an Orthodox sanctuary, rather than transforming into a collection of secular institutions or a center of folk crafts. We don't know what the future holds for us. Perhaps more significant events will overshadow the importance of the cross procession to Pochaiv. But at this moment, it is a very resonant, clear, and open confession of the Orthodox faith in the face of persecutors.

And yet, people could have chosen not to participate in the cross procession. They could have just stayed at home. It wouldn't have been a betrayal. Men might have thought about the risk of receiving conscription notices at the military commissariat. Women might have considered possible provocations by anti-church activists. Children and their parents might have been concerned about the unbearable heat. And all participants of the cross procession might have worried about potential arrests, beatings, job losses, being barred from the Lavra, and so on. But still, people chose to go to Pochaiv! And this is a genuine confession of faith, reminiscent of the early centuries of Christianity.

Once, in one of his sermons, Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh said the following words:

"In the early centuries of Christianity, to be a friend of Christ, to be faithful to Him, loyal to Him, meant to be ready to say before those who hated Him, the persecutors of the faith He preached: 'I am one of them!' – and, if necessary, to suffer. And not just to suffer oneself, because in antiquity, to suffer for Christ was considered an honor, it was considered the most remarkable thing that could happen in life. There is a very touching story in the lives of saints. In Rome, a woman rushes towards the Colosseum and meets her acquaintance who stops her: 'Where are you running? Christians are being tortured there!' – 'Yes,' she answers, 'I want to die with them.' – 'But why are you dragging your little son there?' – 'Well, of course! Would I deprive him of the joy of dying for Christ?' That's how people thought in ancient times.

In our time, death doesn't directly threaten us, but we are constantly faced with the question: Are you with Christ or against Him? Even in the smallest things: Are you willing to lie? Are you willing to deceive out of cowardice or for gain? If you're willing to do this, you're not a disciple of Christ.

Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh

Are you willing to overlook another person's need because it's inconvenient for you or requires efforts you're not willing to give? You're not a disciple of Christ... To be a disciple of Christ doesn't mean to constantly perform heroic deeds; it means day by day, heroically performing small deeds; having thoughts pure and worthy of the love that God has for you; living righteously as much as possible, even in danger, even with risk; it means not being ashamed of your Christian name, being willing to say to people: 'Yes, I am a Christian; if you want to reject me, reject me, but I won't depart from Christ just to stay with you.'"

It is believed that these words precisely reveal the meaning of the cross procession to Pochaiv in 2023 and why people participated in it despite all threats and risks. Let us remember the words of Antony of Sourozh once again: "In antiquity, to suffer for Christ was considered an honor, it was considered the most remarkable thing that could happen in life."

For those who are not believers, not associated with the Church, and especially those who oppose the Church, this is hard to comprehend. They judge based on themselves and seek motives in the realm of material gain, ambition, or even religious fanaticism. However, the difference between true faith and fanaticism is well-known: believers die for their faith, while fanatics kill for it. And the current cross procession has demonstrated genuine faith in our people.

They walked not to prove something to someone, but to prove their love for Christ and the Mother of God. And if necessary, endure deprivation, face danger, be slandered, spat upon, expelled from the truth, yet confess their faith before the world. After all, by and large, none of those who came to the cross procession knew how it could all end. Adherents of the grinder and crowbar religion could have orchestrated anything. And we have already seen what they are capable of in various parts of our country. Faced with all these dangers, thousands of people declared: "Yes, I am Christ's; if you want to reject me, reject me, but I will not depart from Christ."

After the Soviet state turned its face towards the Church back in 1988, after they began to return destroyed monasteries and churches to the Church, after they allowed the free proclamation of faith and so on, the Church lived in relative prosperity. Many people who consciously turned to the Church asked themselves: did we truly turn to God, or is our going to church a tribute to fashion or a kind of aesthetic pleasure? These questions are quite natural, for even the apostles, after Christ's words "one of you will betray Me" (Matthew 26:21), began to ask: "Is it I, Lord?" (Matthew 26:22).

How can we verify whether a person (or, on a larger scale, a people) is true to Christ? How can we determine if they bring forth fruit before God or not? The Lord told His disciples the parable of the sower: "Behold, a sower went out to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them up. Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 13:3-9).

How can we know our soul: whether it is deep or not, whether it is thorny or stony?

All of this is understood during the hour of trials. When everything is good, when no one seizes the temples, when everything is beautiful and magnificent, it's comfortable and safe to be in the Church. This was the case for the righteous Job: "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east" (Job 1:1-3).

This strongly resonates with recent times when the Church was not particularly troubled. But then an event happened, and it happened not on earth, but in heaven: "Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, 'Where have you come from?' Then Satan answered the Lord and said, 'From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.' The Lord said to Satan, 'Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.' Then Satan answered the Lord, 'Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.'" (Job 1:6-11).

From this moment, trials began for Job. All his children perished, he lost all his wealth, and he was afflicted with a terrible disease, leprosy, which covered him from head to toe. Despite this, he found no comfort or support. His friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, argued that Job must have secret sins causing all his suffering. Even his own wife suggested, "Curse God and die" (Job 2:9), believing that only by doing so could Job end his torment. Yet, Job endured all these trials and remained not only faithful but also grateful to God for everything. He said, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).

Again, one cannot fail to see parallels with our current situation. Believers are humiliated, insulted, accused of various crimes against society and the state, temples are seized, property is taken away, and so on. But do we hear complaints to God from those who undergo such trials? Do we hear cries of hatred towards the oppressors, curses against them, or something similar? Do we hear exclamations like, "Oh! Why is this happening to us?!"? No, we don't hear any of that.

In Ukraine, believers do not respond with evil for evil, they do not forcefully reclaim temples, they do not seek revenge, and they do not complain. And most importantly, they do not abandon the Church! This means that the Church withstands trials, remaining faithful to Christ.

And this implies that the Church of Christ in Ukraine has a future; it will not perish but may even flourish. As the early Christian apologist Tertullian (2nd-3rd century) wrote, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Of course, today believers are not being burned at the stake or thrown into water with stones around their necks, but the trials that the Church faces today are borne with dignity. We don't know what else we'll have to endure and experience in the future, but the logic of what's happening is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. In the same Book of Job, we can read what happened to him after he had endured his sufferings: "The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, and the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land no women were found so fair as Job's daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. After this, Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons and his grandsons, four generations. And Job died, an old man and full of days" (Job 42:12-17).

After Holy Week, there is always Easter; after trials, there is always recompense; after suffering for Christ, there is a crown. We don't know whether God will grant our Church triumph here on earth or if it will happen in eternal life, but we do know for sure that the Cross Procession to Pochaiv in 2023 is a confession of Christ before the whole world. Our hearts rejoice for all those who participated, as the Lord said about them, "Therefore, everyone who confesses Me before people, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 10:32).

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