The National Post traditionally marks Christmas with a stained glass window, chosen from the wide diversity of stained glass artistry in Canadian churches.
It was a military chaplain in the Royal Canadian Air Force who first told Ihor Shved, a priest from a small town west of Lviv in Ukraine, that the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral in Winnipeg was looking for a new priest.
“I said I would try,” Shved said. So he moved his young family over after an exploratory visit in 2016.
That is when he first saw the striking stained glass artwork by celebrated Ukrainian Canadian Winnipeg sculptor and glass artist Leo Mol, including the pictured nativity scene. Facing south to the sunlight, it illuminates Saints Vladimir and Olga Cathedral, named for the ruler and her grandson jointly credited with bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus, the 10th century empire centred at Kyiv. Priests in this Eastern or Byzantine tradition, so called for the Eastern Roman empire whose capital at Constantinople or Byzantium lasted far longer than the western capital of Rome itself, may not marry after they are ordained, but married men may be ordained as priests. Shved has a son, 19, and a daughter, 17.
The National Post traditionally marks Christmas with a stained glass window, chosen from the wide diversity of stained glass artistry in Canadian churches. Over the years there has been an Inuit nativity with Mary and Joseph in parkas and the infant in caribou fur; a Rocky Mountain and Prairie scene with the baby lying on wheat, watched over by moose and deer beside the Bow River; and one reconstituted entirely of shards from windows of European churches wrecked by war.
It has never before been so spiritually close to an active shooting war, nor to a humanitarian catastrophe that has sparked such a major charitable operation as that of Father Ihor and his parishioners, including many of the 12,000 Ukrainians who came this year to Manitoba.
One woman in particular, a young mother alone, stands out in Shved’s mind for the comfort she seems to take in being able to volunteer her time and effort to help more recently arrived people.
“It helps them if they feel they are useful,” he said. “It’s something that is challenging us, but something that renews our community.”
The result is that his cathedral is even more vibrant than he found it, with a service every day, filled with Ukrainian Catholics worshipping in the rite of their homeland as they support it charitably from afar, creating new charity alliances with other faith traditions including especially the Anglican.
This is the paradox of Christmas in a time of war. For Ukrainians, it will be an especially poignant one, emphasizing hope and joy despite so much grief and despair.
“I believe that nothing can take away our joy and we should celebrate,” Shved said.
Things were not so tightly strung in 2017, when Shved moved to Canada. In Ukraine, the security situation was bleak but not apocalyptic. It was more than two years since the Euromaidan revolution and Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and the fighting was entrenched and static. Open war seemed distant. He expected to return after a few years.
“For now I feel that one day I would go home and will end my serving in the church (in Winnipeg), but who knows,” he said.
By March this year, war was imminent, and the invasion more brutal than many predictions. It only got worse as Ukraine put up a shockingly effective defence. Today, Shved’s closest family is mostly safe, in their small town near the Polish border. His sister is a teacher, and his brother-in-law works for the electrical utility. His father is too old to fight. But among the families of his previous parish, people have been killed, taken captive. Many of his friends are suffering.
“To be honest, we expected that something would be going on,” he said of those uncertain days before the invasion, when even Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was publicly expressing skepticism about it. “We didn’t expect it would be on a big scale, but we expected it.”
When the air raids began, he went straight to the cathedral and invited people to pray. “The next day we made a committee, and started to think how can we help,” he said.
It began with money, but soon a shipping container had been filled with goods. He had charitable contacts to help distribute in Ukraine. A special Christmas shipment was recently sent.
“It’s something what means a lot for us,” he said.
In an interview, he points out that the words in the stained glass nativity scene translate to “God Eternal Is Born,” a carol. He notes that Mary is facing away from Jesus, as a sort of human deference in line with the Old Testament idea that you cannot see the face of God, but also that she is facing the people, as if to say this is for you, a birth in a dark place, now filled with light.
“It will be an unusual Christmas,” he said. “My heart is still in Ukraine.”
Source: National Post