On April 8, 2017, His Grace Bishop Irinej made his first Archpastoral visit to the parish of the Holy Prophet Elijah in Aliquppa, Pennsylvania to the celebrate the Feast of the Raising of Lazarus, Lazareva Subota. The day began under a bright, cloudless spring sky as Bishop Irinej arrived at the church accompanied by Milan Mrkal, vice president of the Diocesan Council and immediate past president of the St. Elijah church-school congregation. His Grace entered the church as the St. Elijah Serbian Church Choir, under the direction of Kathy Loverich, sang “It is Truly Meet” – Dostojno Jest – to welcome our hierarch. His Grace then proceeded to the altar, where he was greeted by parish priest Rev. Fr. Branislav Golic. After he vested, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom began.
After proclaiming the Gospel of the day, which detailed our Lord’s raising of his beloved friend Lazarus after Lazarus had been dead for four days, His Grace offered an inspiring homily that reflected on one sentence in that reading, which was the shortest sentence in any Gospel – “Jesus wept.” Citing writings of St. Maximus the Confessor, His Grace asked, who uttered this sentence – Jesus as God, or Jesus as Man? Because we know that our Lord’s two natures are indivisible, it was both God and Man who wept: God, saddened to see the decay of His creation (including the four-days-dead Lazarus) caused by sin in the world; and Man, who was distraught over the loss of a beloved friend, just as we faithful would be ourselves. His Grace went on to remind us that our Lord looks upon us with the same love and compassion that he showed while observing the scene surrounding Lazarus’s death. The good news for us is that we, too, can be “called forth” from our tombs to receive the Kingdom of Heaven by our risen Lord, just as Jesus commanded Lazarus to “come forth” from death to life, if we adhere to our faith and live our lives in Christ.
The Divine Liturgy reached a particularly moving moment during the Great Entrance. While presenting the Holy Gifts, His Grace commemorated an extensive list of souls, both living and dead, including living and deceased hierarchs of the Church, civil authorities, the Serbian Royal Family, suffering Christians all over the world, hierarchs being held captive in the Middle East, all members and organizations of the St. Elijah parish and our Diocese, and all those who have asked us to pray for them, as well as those who have no one to pray for them. This moment revealed the true catholicity (universality) of our worship and the boundless nature of our connections to our neighbors – those around us everywhere, as Christ himself taught. At the culmination of the Divine Liturgy, many of the faithful approached the Chalice and received the Body and Blood of our Lord.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy, His Grace greeted all the faithful present for their warm welcome and their participation in the Divine Service. He especially thanked Fr. Branislav for his leadership of the parish, as well as the St. Elijah Choir for its liturgical responses, explaining that the service truly accomplished the goal of Divine Liturgy – “to bring the Heavens down to the earth, and to lift the earth to the Heavens.” His Grace also warmly greeted Protojerej-Stavrofor Stevan Stepanov, the parish’s beloved spiritual leader for over 40 years, who was present with his wonderful Protinica Ana, thanking them in particular for their significant investments in building up the parish’s life.
Bishop Irinej spent the whole day with the the faithful of the St. Elijah parish as he rejoined later in the day for the traditional vespers on the eve of Palm Sunday, the Feast of the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem. Known in the Serbian tradition as Vrbica, this festive service began with the procession around the church and the singing of the troparion of the raising of Lazarus. Adults and children wearing small bells eagerly headed out the front doors of the church following His Grace and Father Branislav, under what continued to be a beautiful, cloudless spring afternoon sky. The service continued after the procession, with Father Branislav serving and His Grace officiating from the Hierarchical Throne. As in the morning, the St. Elijah Choir offered responses.
Immediately following the end of the vesper service, His Grace walked to the center of the church, near the central stand with the festal icon, and called all of the children to him for a lesson on the meaning and symbolism of the icon and the feast. In a remarkable exchange, His Grace lovingly asked the children a series of questions about our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, imparting a deep and yet simple explanation that edified not only the children, but also the adults who were present. Not only did His Grace focus his discussion on matters of faith, but he also taught them some Serbian (the meaning of Vrbica/Vrba, and Bogorodica) and even some Hebrew (the meaning ofיְרוּשָׁלַ֫םִ Jerusalem). Many present were moved by his fatherly, loving embrace of his young spiritual children – and His Grace expressed his delight over how much the children knew about their faith!
The festive day ended with His Grace Bishop Irinej joining Father Branislav and the faithful in the church hall for light refreshments and some merriment among the children, organized by Julie Madjarevich Taylor (President of the Church-school congregation), Linda Mistovich, and other church-school teachers and parents. A joyous and loving atmosphere pervaded the gathering, and as His Grace announced his departure, several children rushed to him not only to receive his blessing, but to fondly hug him farewell. This expression was a fitting end to a day filled with the love and joy that is available only through life in Christ.
The St. Elijah parish is grateful to His Grace Bishop Irinej for choosing to spend this festal day with it and for the spiritual refreshment his visit brought, and it looks forward to welcoming him again soon on the occasion of the Feast day of Holy Prophet Elijah in August.