LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainians packed churches on Sunday for Easter commemorations that combined ancient traditions with the reality of the war.
The country’s small Roman Catholic community celebrated Easter with services, which as in other churches, were full of families, many missing men who are off fighting or volunteering in the war effort.
At the 14th-century Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was standing room only. With the pews full, an older woman dressed in a silk skirt knelt slowly on the hard stone floor beneath the vaulted ceiling to pray. Outside, near religious statues wrapped for protection against airstrikes, she placed a plastic cup of white spring flowers under a plaque dedicated to Pope John Paul II.
Just a few steps away from the Roman Catholic cathedral, worshipers streamed into the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church, a Greek Catholic Church that like most churches in Ukraine follows the Julian calendar, in which Easter falls next Sunday.
For those churches this was Palm Sunday. Outside the garrison church on the cobblestone street, worshipers lined up to buy bouquets of pussy willow and boxwood branches, tied with ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue, being sold to support the armed forces. Instead of palm fronds, which are used in other places to commemorate Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Ukrainians use pussy willow, a harbinger of spring.
On Saturday, Lviv’s flower market was crowded with women from surrounding villages selling pussy willow branches wrapped up in twine with spring flowers, berries and greenery. Ukrainians take them to church to be blessed and then take them home to display long after Easter.
Lviv has more than 100 churches, some of them in the historic center of the city, which is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The city in western Ukraine was spared much of the destruction of churches, although not their closure, by atheist Soviet authorities who ruled the country until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Christianity in Ukraine officially dates back more than a thousand years, and today about 85 percent of Ukrainians are Christian, the majority of them Eastern Orthodox. The war has split the Orthodox churches in Russia and Ukraine, with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, expressing support for it.
At Saint Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral in Kyiv on Sunday, Metropolitan Epiphanius, the Orthodox head of Kyiv and All Ukraine, said in a sermon that the country’s ‘enemies from the north’ had turned the Russian Orthodox Church into an instrument of “lies, enslavement, murder and all other evil.”