LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainians packed churches Sunday for Easter commemorations that combined ancient traditions with the reality of war.
The country’s small Roman Catholic community celebrated Easter with services that, like other churches, were filled with families, many missing men who left to fight or volunteer in the war effort.
In the 14th century Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there was only standing room. With the pews full, an elderly woman in a silk skirt knelt slowly on the hard stone floor under the vaulted ceiling to pray. Outside, near religious statues shrouded for airstrike protection, she placed a plastic cup of white spring flowers under a plaque dedicated to Pope John Paul II.
A short walk from the Roman Catholic cathedral, worshipers flocked to the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a Greek Catholic church which, like most churches in Ukraine, follows the Julian calendar, in which Easter falls next Sunday.
For these churches, it was Palm Sunday. Outside the Garrison Church on the cobbled street, worshipers lined up to buy bouquets of willow branches and boxwood, tied with ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue, sold to support the armed forces. Instead of palm fronds, which are used in other places to commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Ukrainians use purple willow, a harbinger of spring.
On Saturday, Lviv’s flower market was packed with women from surrounding villages selling hidden willow branches wrapped in twine with spring flowers, berries and greenery. Ukrainians take them to church to be blessed, then bring them home for display long after Easter.
Lviv has more than 100 churches, including some in the historic center of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The western Ukrainian town was spared much of the destruction of churches, but not their closure, by the atheist Soviet authorities who ruled the country until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Christianity in Ukraine officially dates back over a thousand years and today around 85% of Ukrainians are Christians, with the majority of them Eastern Orthodox. The war has divided the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine, with Patriarch Cyril, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, expressing his support.
At the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv on Sunday, Metropolitan Epiphanius, Orthodox leader of Kyiv and all Ukraine, said in a sermon that the country’s ‘enemies in the north’ had transformed the Russian Orthodox Church into an instrument of “lies, enslavement, murder and all other evil.