I need to see your face….

“Home” by Michael Buble and Blake Shelton

Another Christmas day
will come and go away
but I got so far to go
but I wanna go home
I need to go home

Maybe surrounded by
strangers and Christmas lights
I shouldn’t feel so alone
but I wanna go home
God, I miss you, you know

I can close my eyes and see the angel on the tree
a blanket of snow outside
and all my friends and family
and though I know that you’re no farther than a call away
I need to see your face
a call could never be the same

Another Christmas day
Will come and go away
And I won’t leave you alone
And I wanna go home
I’ve got to go home

Let me go home
I’m just to far from where you are
And I wanna go home

Now the reasons I’m so far away ain’t good enough
What ever they need me for
I know that I need you more
So I’ll do the things I got to do to get back to you
I need you to believe
I’ll make it back by Christmas Eve

Another Christmas day will come and go away
And I won’t leave you alone
No I’m gonna go home
I’m gonna be home
Though I’m surrounded by
This cold December night
I feel so alone
I’m gonna go home
Babe, I miss you, you know

Let me go home
I’ve had my run, baby I’m done
I’m coming back home
Let me go home
It’ll all be alright
When I’m holding you tight
Cause this Christmas I’m home

These are the lyrics of a song entitled, “Home,” by Michael Buble and Blake Shelton.  For those of you who do not know who that is, I am sorry! They are two of my favorite singers.  This version is their Christmas version of songs they both made popular in their respective genres.  Michael Buble is the Bing Crosby of this era and is from Victoria, B.C. and Blake Shelton is a fantastic country singer who resides in Nashville, currently on “The Voice” on TV.  The fact that they are personal friends with each other,  just makes it that much more special.  I love having a DVR and because my male family members really didn’t want to watch a Michael Buble Christmas Special, I taped it for my own enjoyment. I could go on and on about what a great show it was (I loved Rod Stewart singing Christmas carols on there, and his duet with Michael) but that is not what I am blogging about.  So, on to it….

I bawled like a baby.  This song started it off and then song after song, I just cried.  I put it on for background music while I cleaned the house.  I did not get far (witness to the fact I am blogging and not cleaning) because I kept crying and crying.  Do you ever get one of those days when the least thing makes you cry?  Must be menopause!  Anyway, I kept thinking about my sons.  And their wives.  And their babies.  And then my father-in-law who died this past year.  Then I moved on to my parents…my brother….my sister-in-law and all her kids….and I just crumbled.  It seemed like each song was about missing loved ones during the holidays. If you think about it, almost all the old classics are about families seeing one another over Christmas (and yes, it is Christmas, not the Holidays, in all those songs, too!!) or missing one another over Christmas!  I chose to wipe my eyes and I sat up straight and said a few Jesus Prayers (Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner) and then I threw in some Hail Mary’s (Hail Mary, full of grace, have mercy on me a sinner) and then I just asked, “Lord, help me put this into perspective and turn my grief into joy, because your Son was born.  That is what this is about.  Help me with my Martha-tendencies and let me be more Mary-like.”

And I found peace.  And guess what song I then was humming? The Kontakion of the Preparation (Tone 3):

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.

This is a song, a Kontakion, that we sing repeatedly at Divine Liturgy, in preparation for Christmas. What is a Kontakion?  Well, here you go:

A “kontakion” is a poetic form frequently encountered in Byzantine hymnography.  It could best be described as a “sermon in verse accompanied by music”.   The main body of a kontakion was chanted from the ambo by a cleric (often a deacon; otherwise a reader) after the reading of the Gospel, while a choir, or even the whole congregation, joined in the refrain.

And I derived such peace from thinking, or pondering, over these events.  As I rush around, in preparation to welcome my Mother-in-law, brother-in-law, two uncles, an aunt, and 4 dogs (all the while missing my sons and daughters-in-law and grandbabies) I am reminded of the preparation of Mary and Joseph.  In this week, back in 0 B.C., they were ordered to leave all that was familiar to them – and all their family and friends – to obey the Roman law and have themselves counted in the census, in Joseph’s home town. This Woman was 9 months pregnant with the Son of God, and was traipsing through the Middle East on the back of a donkey, sleeping under the stars at night. They get to Bethlehem (Bethlehem (לֶחֶם בֵּית ) “house of bread,” which I totally love – nothing in Scripture is accidental)  and find only a stable available.  She is in labor and she has to crawl into a farmer’s “cave” or “stable.”  Some traditions (and common to the era) hold that it was a cave, dug into the side of a hill, because it would have been the safest place for animals; cool in summer’s heat, and warm in winter’s chill. Nevertheless, Mary and Joseph are housed with animals, while the Mother of God labors to bring forth “God from all eternity.”

Mary and Joseph did not know that they would never return home; that Joseph would be asked to protect the Son of God from death by Herod, and that they would flee directly to Egypt.  And yes, I still miss my children and my grandchildren, and sometimes the missing is an actual aching.  But I am in my warm home, surrounded by my things (especially all the ornaments my children have chosen over the years) and all the decorations and lights.  My husband is employed (thanks be to God) and we are not jobless or homeless, nor are we burying our babes (as in CT).  There is so much to be grateful for.  And when I think of the sacrifice the Holy Family made for ME (because Christ came for each one of us, on a personal level) in order to fulfill the Word of God, I am humbled. I can wipe my tears and the ache recedes a little bit; and I can cling to my memories of Christmases past, when my babes were small and I smile. I know, deep in my heart, I am so very blessed.  And even though, as in the lyrics, “I need to see your face;” the face of my children and grandchildren, I can ponder instead the face of God, reposing with His Mother Mary, the Mother of God, and St. Joseph, in the Cave!  I will ponder Him Who is the “Eternal Word of God” and I can, therefore, rejoice with the angels and the shepherds, “God from all Eternity.”

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“…rest and be replenished….”

Nativity Icon Antiochan

My husband teased me early this morning, that I hadn’t blogged in awhile.  And the first comment that popped into my head was my response, “Well, I have been a little busy lately.”  And I realized that I have been busy – busy at getting things done with an imposed deadline of my own making.  I wanted to have all my gifts purchased, wrapped, and under the tree by Monday – yesterday.  I also wanted to have all my gifts shipped and all my Christmas cards in the mail, by Monday – yesterday.  And freakishly weird for me, I actually accomplished that goal.  As I left the post office with a grumbling 14-year-old in tow, I was so excited!  It was very windy at the time (60 mph) and cold (about 37) and as we bundled up to complete our list of errands, I was happy.  My son says, “Why are you so happy and why are you smiling so much?”  And I had to explain to him how happy I was that I set myself some goals and I met them, totally met them.  How often does that happen in life? My husband is under a lot of stress this week at work.  He is at a new job and there was no one in his position since the company established this location (it is a large company) and there were tasks that had been “on the board” for the past 2-3 years that had never been attempted.  He started in on them and is slowly checking them off his list, and now the company is expecting the entire list to be done – by FRIDAY.  He is kind of chuckling to himself that they’ve waited three years, so what’s the rush?  Well, they also have someone in place capable of completing these tasks and are excited about it and want them done.  So he trudged off this morning, in the falling snow, to try and get his staff motivated to finish by Friday, all these tasks they have before them.  And I think that after 5pm on Friday, he’s gonna be one happy husband!  Because with my silly little list being done, I am floating!  It’s all relative, as I am sort of the CEO of our little domestic Church, and I keep things on track, just like he does at work.  So I am looking forward to the weekend, when his tasks are completed and the pressure is off a little bit, just in time to welcome his Mom and Brother, who are flying in for the Christmas holiday with us.  It feels good to complete something.

And as I was pondering that, I realized how happy Our Lord must feel when one of us completes our journey, and He is there, to welcome us Home.

Luke 15:3-7   He told them this parable:
“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?  When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

We have all been bombarded this week with death.  The horrible act of violence this young man perpetrated on his own mother, and then the others he chose to kill.  I cannot comment fully on this issue, as I feel it has been commented on almost too much.  I did read an amazing article by Sarah Palin, who suggested we need to develop a personal relationship with Our Lord and stop relying on Washington or Hollywood to fill the void in our lives.  And I cannot help but agree with that sentiment.  The Feast of the Holy Innocents takes place in the Eastern Churches on December 29th, which happens to be our Wedding Anniversary.  I am sure there are lots of funny and amusing parallels there, but I cannot place them right at this moment.  In the Western Churches, that date is occasionally the Feast of the Holy Family.  When we were married in 1984, I was already feeling that “biological clock” clamoring loudly in my head, and was thrilled to realize I was pregnant after about a month of married life.  (Our middle son is currently experiencing exactly the same thing! God is good!).  We welcomed our first child, our son, in October and because of family being available, etc. we had him Baptized on our 1-year anniversary, which happened to be the Feast of the Holy Family that year.  It was the most exciting thing when our Priest (Fr. Johnson, Memory Eternal) laid our newborn son in the manger scene, in the Crib of Christ, just after he was baptized.  And it turned into a family tradition, in that all three of our sons were also baptized on December 29th.  And so for me, when we went over to the Eastern, Byzantine Church, switching it up to the Feast of the Holy Innocents never really touched me, as my marriage always celebrated birth and baptism on that date!  On our 25th anniversary, we renewed our vows in a Crowning Ceremony (it was so beautiful) with a wonderful reception at our Parish Hall.  And as I was printing invitations, I wanted to add an icon of the date.  The only ones I could find were horrifically reminiscent of the slaughter of babies.  And being so pro-life and so infused with the joy of marriage and baptism, I just could not use that Icon.  So, I found this lovely painting of the Holy Family, fleeing into Egypt.

ROTF2And for me, this really puts into focus what we are all experiencing right now.  We are rushing into Christmas, completing tasks.  We have so many expectations to fill – our employer’s, our spouse’s, our children’s, friends and extended family members. I took the following commentary on this work from a blog by Kate Bernadette Benedict:

“Some periods of non-doing overtake us against us against our will, though. Indeed, depression, spiritual dryness, creative block, cause a paralysis of the will. Another “Rest on the Flight” painting—Luc Olivier Merson’s of 1879—stands in contrast to the earlier idyllic images. It is an austere desert scene of almost complete sterility. Joseph, his face obscured by a hood, sleeps on the sands under a vast and starless sky. Nearby, his pack animal grazes on the few sparse shoots that have somehow grown in that desiccated place. Most arrestingly, Mary reclines with her babe on a great stone sphinx dominating a third of the picture. The child Jesus gives off the painting’s only light, and the eye finds that light automatically, following it, finally, to the blind, uplifted head of the sphinx itself. Stark, modern, terrifying, it is an extreme image, suggesting the dark night of the soul. They are experienced by anyone who quests, the dark nights when something vital in you sleeps, something feral in you starves.

Yet the implication of the painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind sphinx of an old order behind in the dust. However unendurably a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, still it may be the vital interlude when the divine child of inspiration makes itself manifest. When we rise from that sleep, we will return to the world of work and doing with new inventiveness; life may even take a surprising course.

Our quests, no matter how vibrant and purposeful, will be thwarted if we pursue them too severely. Like the Holy Family on their divine mission, we must rest and be replenished if we are ever to reach Egypt, and all that means of sanctuary, survival, vocation, redemption, accomplishment.”

And I am taking a moment to blog, and yes, we are all busy (today it’s rushing off into the snowing city to get my dogs groomed and then off to a Civil Air Patrol meeting this evening across town) and yes, we all have pressures.  But as this commentary says, sometimes we need to take a rest and be at peace, just as the quiet peace of this painting shares with us, and we come from our rest, rejuvenated and able to tackle all these little tasks we have set for ourselves.  And I remember this painting quite often, seeing the Blessed Mother cradling her Son in the great Sphinx of Egypt, on her way to a new life in a new place. There also, sleeping near them, is St. Joseph, keeping an eye on his Holy Family.  As the author says, the only light in the painting is emanating from the Christ Child. And for me, in amongst the hurry of Christmas and the tragedy of Connecticut, the Light is from Christ.  And I deftly cling to that and it makes me smile; in the wind and the craziness of the Post Office and rushing through the rain and snow, here and there, I smile.  In my mind’s eye, I am completing tasks and I am working my way to that glorious celebration of the Birth of Christ; and yet, I try to be still at moments and recall the rest of the Holy Family as they rushed away from the evil that was Herod and into a new life in Egypt.   As we wind our way towards Christmas, I pray we all stop a moment to rest from this craziness, and the recent horrors, and find our peace in the only Light worth contemplating, the Light of Christ.

“…prepare Him room…”

Nativity Icon AntiochanI love to read, and I think because I read so much, I enjoy writing and words, in and of themselves.  The genre I seem to gravitate to, and this is a recent development for me, is a battle of good versus evil.  I read many stories of fallen angels who are here protecting us.  I also read stories with fantastical creatures in them, such as sprites, and wisps, and daemons, and faeries.  I love being able to leave my family room chair (my family calls it “THE THRONE”) and travel the world while sipping my hot “cuppa,” saving the innocent and “fighting the good fight.”  I have 4 books on my side table, with three more on hold and waiting at the library.  I am a consummate reader.

The interesting thing for me is that I realize some books just cannot hold my interest for too long because I am not invested in the characters and I am not embroiled in a mad dash to save the world!  For a homeschooling mom who is home pretty much 24/7, getting to save the world is pretty exciting stuff.  My sons are happy that I have moved on from all my Templar-themed books! Ha-Ha!  That was a long fascination and lasted until I pretty much drained the world of its fictional and non-fictional accounts of the Knights Templar.  And now I am caught up in this constant battle of good versus evil.  And I started to think about it.  And I think what holds my interest is that it is an exciting escape into a surreal world, and yet it also mirrors my life…it mirrors all our lives.  If you believe in Heaven and in God, then its opposite is also true – Evil and Satan.  And all our lives are a battle between the two.  As I spoke to in an earlier blog, of the Byzantine definition of sin, every decision you make, no matter how inconsequential, either helps you walk closer towards God and Heaven, or it leads you away from God….which is towards Evil and Satan.  There is that saying, “The road to hell is easy and simple, and paved with good intentions.”  Something along those lines. I think the original was by St. Bernard Clairvaux and went something like, “Hell is full of good wishes and desires.”  Before him, Virgil is quoted as saying, “It is easy to go to Hell.”  But you get the idea.  We struggle each and every day with small decisions.  I try to share that with my children.  Did you wake up, get out of bed, make your bed, get dressed, and come down stairs all ready to start your schooling?  Or did you wake up, drag yourself down, and plop on the couch, complaining all the while about hunger and lack of sleep?  It’s a lot of pressure to put on a child, but even how we start and end our days determine where our steps take us, and we all need to be aware of it, and start it young.

During Christmas, the ugly monster known as GREED, and sometimes even AVARICE, seems to take over even the sweetest people.  Especially children, when commercialism is all around them, brightly showing off the latest gadget or toy they “must” have.  People buy new cars just to drive them to a friend’s or family member’s house for the Christmas party, so they can show how well they are doing.  Craziness!  Gluttony is another one; I often feel that sloth and gluttony sit, one on each shoulder, pulling me off my pathway to Heaven.  Being an overweight person, eating habits are one of the weak links for me.  Obviously.  In his book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” St. John Climacus says, “Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach.  Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed and cramped, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance; it eats moderately, but wants to gobble everything at the same time.”  He goes on to say, “Gluttony feeds your passions, fasting takes them away.  Fasting takes away their nourishment.  The nature of the spiritual life is that they are all interconnected. We cannot allow even one passion to be unrestrained.  This is especially true of gluttony.” And at this time of year, there is so much temptation to be gluttonous – and we can use that word to apply to things, as well as food and drink.  And if we also apply that to our other passions, it can get us completely off our cycle of prayer and fasting.

  St Theophan the Recluse 2I believe that as we prepare our hearts for the Newborn Child, we need to be sure we are clean and pure of heart.  He comes as a “babe in a manger,” full of quiet, sweet love for us. If our hearts are cluttered and noisy, His Gift may go unnoticed in amongst the world’s inputs and sounds. We also need to give thanks for what we have that keeps us sustained and not what pampers us.  Pampering our senses tends to get all of them out of whack, as St. John Climacus described above.

St Maximos the Confessor 2As we continue to prepare for Our Lord’s birth, let us also think of the words of a wonderful Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World” –

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Prayer and fasting…we Byzantines are in the midst of our “pre-Christmas” fast and I can honestly tell you that in my life, fasting makes feasting even more enjoyable.  It is amazing what reigning in our passions can do for the celebration of a holy day.  Having that Christmas Feast with our families is especially joyous, as we fast in preparation for it, and we reign in our passions and focus on the Gift of the Christ Child.  I will still worry over that Turkey, but with an eye focused on the manger.

Blessings….

“…then nothing can shake us.”

I stumbled across some wonderful photos and sayings of the Fathers of the Church recently.  I cannot fully express how much they moved me; how it touched me and how deeply I felt the sentiments they expressed.  One of my favorite to quote is St. John of Kronstadt. Here is one of his that struck me mightily and I love the photo that accompanies this quote:St John of Kronstadt 2As an Eastern-rite, or Byzantine Catholic, one of the most profound things you can experience is a Byzantine confession.  We don’t use boxes or separate rooms.  You can go at times the Priest (we call them Abouna, out of love, in the Melkite tradition) may set for the parish, or at our Melkite parish, you can just walk up and request it during prayer times or before or after Divine Liturgy.  As you bow your head and the priest wraps you in his stole and starts to pray for your soul, it is profoundly moving.  In the Melkite tradition, you face the Icon of Christ; in some Orthodox traditions, you lay your head on the corner of the altar itself.  You do not have to shout to the rooftops the sins that are laying heavily on you; you need not even say them aloud.  The entire experience does, however, engender in you a desire to “come clean” and express the sins you have committed and pray fervently for a desire to never repeat them, and a deep, aching desire for forgiveness. And if you do this on a regular basis, you find yourself continually reviewing your actions.  Once it is habitual, that review happens automatically, often as soon as you have said or done something you know is wrong, or if you have avoided acting when you should. (As in the sin of omission).  In the Eastern Churches, there is no demarcation between venial (not so serious) and mortal (serious) sins.  The action or words either helped you take a step towards God, or they took you further away from God.  Sin is just sin. Period.  And I love how St. John of Kronstadt remarks that the longer you take to confess what lays heavily on your heart, the easier it is to just let it go, and becoming so entangled with our sinfulness, it becomes a part of who we are and is unrecognizable.

All of this really can be addressed in so many “like” ways of thinking.  There are pundits who say that you need to do something consistently, at least three times, for it to become a habit.  Others will opine that if you cheat on your diet, after having dieted for months, all is lost. Still others tell us it is okay to reward ourselves for our efforts, and cheating once or twice on our diets is no big deal.  We all fall down; what is important is to get back up and get in the race, again.  Isn’t it the same with our spiritual habits?  I mean, if you just stop praying,  it gets harder and harder to start praying again.  You often think that you don’t know where to even begin.  And what about spiritual reading?  There are some awesome novels out there that I just couldn’t put down.  What about my religious reading? Have I stayed up all night reading a religious tome?  Actually, only once.   It was the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus and it had me spelled-bound and it still does.  He says in the book, ” Tedium of the spirit….tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken.  It is an approval of worldly things.”  He goes on to say, “When dinner is ready, the Christian jumps out of his bed.  But now when time for prayer comes, his body begins to languish once more.  He begins his prayers, but the tedium makes him sleepy and the verses of the psalms are snatched from his mouth by untimely yawns.”  And also, “The real men of spirit can be seen at the time when tedium strikes, for nothing gains so many crowns for a monk as the struggle against this.”  It is wonderful that we have the Fathers to direct our thoughts, and perhaps our actions, when we are feeling that “tedium” of the spirit and when our guilt builds and we have not availed ourselves of the gift of confession.

At this time of year, especially, it is so easy to be distracted by the world. There are lights and bells on every corner.  People drive around with antlers and red noses on their cars.  Our neighborhood is one of those “Christmas Lights” neighborhoods where people drive through every night.  (They also drive without their headlights on, so it does not interfere with their enjoyment of the lights, and it was very disconcerting the first time I experienced it!!  One car came through the other night with a lit Christmas tree on its roof – I kid you not).  And as you drive through the neighborhood, there are lots of reindeer made of wire with little white lights on them; there are lots of those new-fangled “blow-up” balloon styled displays, too, of snowmen and Santa.  But we see very, very few manger scenes. I think of the several hundred homes in our neighborhood, there are three manger scenes.  We only have lights, but my husband’s goal is to someday have a huge manger scene!

Elder AMAnd I think that Elder Amphilochios Markis really has the right idea: “We need to have our gaze fixed on heaven. Then nothing here can shake us.”  If we focus on the lights and the bells and the cookies, but forget to pray or go to confession, we are forgetting to prepare our hearts and souls for this most important “holy-day,” the Birth of Christ.  I know I get all caught up in the “Spirit of the Season” and struggle with keeping it simple and not stressing out about all of it.  The struggle within my soul is what I need concern myself most with, because if I am not paying attention to that, all my outer preparation will mean absolutely nothing.

“Let us put away from us our spiritual short-sightedness, and let us cease concentrating all our attention upon temporal, earthly things; let us foresee with our mental vision the future, everlasting life, and rise in our hearts to our heavenly country. Indeed, it is incredible short-sightedness for the immortal soul only to look upon the present, visible things, generally relating to the senses, and flattering our carnal nature, and not contemplate the life of the world to come – the blessings which ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,’ but which the Most Merciful and Most Wise ‘God has prepared for those who love Him’ (I Cor. 2:9). Of what do we not deprive ourselves through this voluntary short-sightedness?!” St. John of Kronstadt

“A spotless heart create in me O God: renew a steadfast spirit in my breast.  Cast me not afar from your face, take not your blessed Spirit out of me.  Restore me to the joy of your salvation and let your guiding Spirit dwell within me.” (Psalm 50)

I think that pondering these things will give a greater blessing than worrying about cookies and cakes and how that dang turkey will turn out.  And it is only by stopping and allowing this contemplation that the true Spirit of Christmas will envelope our hearts and the Birth of Christ will be a profound event this year, and every year.

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Elf-Help Christmas Therapy

Tree 2012This year, I have been diligently working to be less Martha and more Mary during the Holidays.  I picked up a book two years ago at a visit to one of our favorite  places, St. Andrew’s Monastery at Valyermo, and it is called, “Christmas Therapy” written by Karen Katafiasz and illustrated lovingly by R.W. Alley and is one of a series called, “Elf Help Therapy.”  This little gem has some amazing things in it.  One of the sayings is, “Christmas is God’s feast for the senses! Observe its shimmering sights, inhale its aromatic smells, hear its resonating sounds, savor its delectable tastes, feel its enticing textures.” And with that in mind, we decorated our home.  It also says, “In this season of lights, enjoy the external sparkle.  And then let that outer radiance point you to the inner Light of Christmas that dwells in your own heart.”  And so, we have lights up above all our windows, with garland laced in with them.  We have a huge manger scene sitting on our mantle, with little twinkling blue lights intertwined with the characters.  And our tree has literally hundreds (more than 300, I think) of lights on it.  Our youngest son also decorated our soffits in the living room with red lights to look like a candy cane.  Our Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception statues are up there, too, and are surrounded by twinkling red lights. We even hung a “kissing ball” of mistletoe near the entryway, hanging from some of the red lights! There is another saying in the book, “Decorate your home with meaning and purpose and joy. Let something of your own and your family history be told in the decorations.”  And to that we used Santas and other little statues, as well as some wonderful word-working gifts, we have collected over the past 30 years and we prominently displayed them this year – all of them.  Several are gifts from family and friends and mean so very much to us.  We are relocating in the Spring and so I packed all our normal photos and decor and replaced them all with Christmas decor, for the first time.  And I think I like this better, because every room is Christmas.

This year is an especially poignant year for us.  Our two oldest sons will not be sharing the holidays with us and it makes us a little sad.  Our oldest son and his wife have a baby son, who will be a year old in January, and experiencing his first Christmas is something we will really miss.  Our middle son and his wife are expecting their first baby this Spring and travel for them is prohibitive – newlyweds always seem to struggle at first – and we will miss sharing their pregnancy and all the anticipation that includes.  We also lost my father-in-law this past year to cancer.  He entered the hospital last December 26th, so this year is especially difficult for his loved ones.  The book had this to say to all of that, “When death or distance or circumstance separates you from loved ones, keep them close in thought.  You may want to celebrate a ritual in their honor, or change your familiar routine to ease the pain.”  We have this silly tradition/ritual that started when our older boys were just babies.  Every year, when we set up the Creche, I hide the baby Jesus from the manger (because he isn’t born, yet).  (The Wise Men are also moved from room to room, as they get closer to the Manger – where they finally arrive on January 6th). And every day, the Christ Child is moved to a new location.  So every day, the boys would look all over the house for the Baby Jesus.  It has made for some creative thinking on my part, and some delicious hunting on their part. Our youngest is 14, but I hid Jesus anyway, and did not tell him.  This morning, he came to me and quietly said, “I still haven’t found Him, yet.” and walked out of the room.  Nothing else was discussed and I think he loves that I continued the tradition for him.  I also think some traditions are good to keep going, even when your children seem to outgrow them. Another saying in the book is, “If you hurt this Christmas, know that you are not alone.  Experience the reality of “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” And so, even with the pain of our sons and their families being separated from us, and the pain of loosing a parent, we are struggling to keep “God with us.”  And as we have worked hard to decorate the house this year, we keep thinking that we want the Christmas celebration to be especially joyful for those who are sharing it with us.  We will have my mother- and brother-in-law, as well as two uncles and an aunt of my husband’s, and their 4 dogs!  (Combined with our two dogs and cat, this should be interesting!!).  And this saying from the book kept creeping into my thoughts, ” You don’t have to fulfill others’ expectations about what Christmas should be.  Consider whether your plans and preparations will enhance your celebration or whether they’re only a response to family or cultural pressures.  Free yourself to create a more meaningful observance.”  To that, we have tried to focus on the historical meaning of Christmas, and to keep our Manger scenes in the forefront, our belief in God central, and to decorate and plan with our family members in mind. I keep imagining what they will experience when they walk in the door; those sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas.  A freeing entry in the book is, “Don’t tie yourself to traditions that have become more chores than cherished rituals.  Traditions are enriching when they allow the past to inspire and inspirit the present.  Share your traditions according to your needs and values now.”   With that, we used ribbons and bows on our tree, with sparkling ornaments, rather than our traditional garland and “folk art” ornaments. Now I know that may not seem like much to people, but for me, that was a total “thinking outside the box” moment and I was filled with trepidation that I could even pull it off.  I am so not the “artsy” type of person.  With the gracious help of my husband (who is artsy and writes Icons and is creative) and my son (who, at 14, knows exactly what his vision was for the tree and totally helped us create the perfect ribbon, bow, and decorated tree) we pulled it off.  I was amazed that I only broke two ornaments!! Sitting down later with his eggnog, my husband commented that, “I think I am over the whole garland thing. I think we should do ribbons and bows every year.” I was thrilled!! Then we moved into some fun Christmas movies (we laughed and we cried, and we rested!!) and the book had this to say about it, “Make time for your favorite expressions of Christmas lore, like treasured music, stories, poems, and films.  Reflect on their changing meaning for you, over the years.”  Well, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” and “The Muppet’s’ Christmas Carol,” even “Scrooged,” are several of our movie traditions that always bring a smile and a tear, and hold their sway over us, year after year.

As we work our way closer to the Celebration of Christ’s birth – Christ’s Mass – I am still clinging to less Martha and more Mary.  The book says, “Relinquish superhuman efforts to produce Christmas-card-perfect holiday celebrations.  Christmas is about God becoming human – not humans becoming Gods.” As I reflected on that, I chose to cook a turkey. I think it is much simpler than ham (which I don’t really like anyway) and is just a big chicken!  It is hard to screw it up. Although one year, as my brother is fond of reminding me, I forgot to make the gravy!  My husband had ideas of a standing rib roast…I just cannot pull that off this year!! This year, I am keeping our Christmas meal simple and am not going to try and “out-gourmet” any of our guests, who are far better cooks than I will ever be.  “Relinquish expectations for holidays that are without conflict or problems or challenges.  Christmas is about God embracing life – with all its shortcomings, mistakes, and struggles.”  Thanks be to God that He is not above becoming Man and experiencing all that it entails.  I love a God who knows what it means to struggle being human and my constant prayers through this season of “expectations” are being heard by Christ, Who ultimately struggled for me.  “Take care of yourself during holiday family gatherings.  Sometimes family togetherness doesn’t feel good because of negative patterns that started long ago.  Stay centered and detach yourself from old unhealthy behavior.”  There is always strain when you host family members, feelings get hurt and silliness can move to the forefront.  It is good to remember to stay centered on the Manger and God’s gift of life for each one of us.  “Spend time with children.  Relish their delight; experience their wide-eyed expectation.  If disappointment, pain, or cynicism has crushed your own expectation, give it new life.” My youngest being 14 has changed how we prepare for Christmas.  It is the first time in 30 years I do not have to shop at Toys ‘R’ Us, but my children will be shopping there.  Such a strange thought for me this year, and yet, rather freeing, too! I did venture into the toy department of Amazon and the baby department at a couple of stores this year, but not one step into a bonafide toy store!  And even having said that, my 14-year-old has his Santa list all prepared and I am thrilled the magic is still there for him! But I also noted there is not one “toy” on the list – the first time he has NOT asked for a Lego something-or-other!

Finally, these last quotes from the same book, (1), “Christmas is God’s affirmation of the goodness of being human. Honor the sacredness of your own humanity by experiencing life deeply and passionately;” (2) “Christmas is a time to touch hands and touch hearts. Offer love, acceptance, and peace to those around you;” (3) “Believe in the magic of Christmas: children’s hugs, unexpected snowfalls, strangers’ greetings, unwarranted acts of kindness.  Store the magic in your heart all year long.  Finally, (4) “Believe in the meaning of Christmas: divine love embracing the world, the longing toward Infinity, life infused with Mystery.  Store the meaning in your soul all year long.”

And now, after all the decorating is done and we can actually wrap gifts and place them under our be-ribboned and bowed tree, we can start the baking.  Less Martha, more Mary…less Martha, more Mary….less Martha, more Mary….

Economia and Economy

Economia: In short, economia is discretionary deviation from the letter of the law in order to adhere to the spirit of the law and charity. This is in contrast to legalism, or akribia (Greek: ακριβεια)–strict adherence to the letter of the law of the church.

I love using or playing with words.  And today, I am playing.  Today I began my Christmas shopping, while trying to complete some birthday shopping for two of my sons.  In my previous blog, I spoke to the term “hospitality” and learning to be more welcoming, and less of worrier or a Martha, about how the holiday celebrations would turn out.  And today, well, today I struggled with applying “economia” to my shopping trip and our “economic” situation.  (Tee-hee; see? I am playing with words).

I want to provide for my children, even if they are married with their own families, a birthday or holiday experience that will highlight their experience of that year, and perhaps be a fond memory in years to come.  But I am constrained by my desire to  maintain our economy, and also live within the spirit of the season, my religious economia.  And I think this is an eternal struggle we all have…how to find balance in a consumer-driven culture, and still maintain our faith in a manner in which we are “standing for something, so we don’t fall for anything?”

My Byzantine-bones look to the Divine Liturgy itself, as well as the wisdom of the Eastern Fathers and Saints. whenever I am pondering a particular subject.  I particularly love the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and his quotations, too. And this quote of his seems rather appropriate, “When we once begin to form good resolutions, God gives us every opportunity of carrying them out.”  And today, both St. John Chrysostom and Our Lord gave me an opportunity to keep to my resolve to be less Martha and more Mary this Christmas season.

I entered Target with a firm resolve to keep to the Spirit of the Season (economia) while still keeping to my resolve of financial responsibility (economy).  First of all, let me say that I entered this store in Redmond, Washington at about 9:15am on a Saturday, the first Saturday in December.  I was greeted cheerfully and there were all sorts of extra staff on hand to assist people in all the sections of the store.  A nice selection of Christmas music was also playing overhead.  People were smiling.  And there were very few customers in the store and this is one of those Targets with a grocery store in it; a big store.

I was able to spend my allotted time in a good mood.  I was enjoying myself.  I had a pretty exact idea of what I wanted to get and who I wanted to get it for, and I went about my business in a somewhat organized fashion.  I spent considerable time comparing prices and was determined to spend as little as possible.  The back of my car was fairly full and I almost completed all my holiday shopping. And I did NOT break the bank.

The lesson I learned today was to go into thing with a firm resolve; set goals, set time frames; and don’t be fooled into anything you have not thought of beforehand (smart marketers try to do that to you…all stores are set up to make you spend money!!).  And afterward, sit and review what you purchased, what it will mean to the person you bought it for, and if you experience “buyer’s remorse,” take it back and start again.  The largest box may not hold the choicest gift; the box may entertain more than what it contained.

So, I kept to the “economia” or the Spirit of the Season (I found myself actually singing along to the Carols) and I also kept to my economy.  Aren’t words fun??

Wow…..somehow my musings were deleted and this is what is left.  I must have pressed the wrong button….however, “It is not he who begins well who is perfect. It is he who ends well who is approved in God’s sight.” St. Basil the Great