“Let us go straight to Bethlehem…”

fallen-star.img_assist_custom-600x400A few people who actually read my posts asked me why I haven’t posted anything recently.  Life has been chaotic.  This move has “upset the apple cart,” as they say.  We had lots to adjust to.  We moved about 3,000 miles to a completely new environment and God had lots to do with us.  We found acceptance at a wonderful parish and are making friends I know will last many years.  We are learning new traditions, new foods, and new tones to try and sing (I am tone deaf, so it is particularly painful for everyone.  I have no idea if I sound bad or not! Ha-Ha!!).  We have entered our first “craft fair” season in a place that takes craft fairs quite seriously, which is a new thing for me.  Although I have found I am drawn to them and enjoy them very much.  Working at one all day is also not that bad.  Lots of fun conversations, amazing co-workers, and scrumptious perogies and haluski filling the air with amazing scents and delicious tastes!!  I am a perogy convert!  LOVE THEM! Haluski, well, not to brag, but I made it and it was VERY GOOD!!! (In case you do not know what it is, it is cooked cabbage, onions, lots of butter, and noodles.  So good!! Thanks to a wonderful family who taught me how to make them!)  So much that is new in our lives.

In addition to that, my husband was blessed with employment.  God waited for the right time to bless us with work.  He knew what we needed to go through, and how we needed to find work.  We bring so much with us (baggage) when we go from place to place, and learning to belong to a new culture sometimes takes awhile, and sometimes requires prayer, patience, and work.  We also learned how we can be extremely humbled and taken down to pretty much our lowest denominator, but to feel the love of God surrounding us all through it.  He brought us to a place where we fit in with all areas of our lives first, and then He provided work.  In our last home, we had the job, the house, the money, but lacked community and a strong place to worship.  This time, He brought us to a place filled with people who accepted us and loved us right away.  He let us feel “belonging” and “home,” before He brought us work.  Our home is little but is perfect.  Our neighborhood is modest but in the perfect location.  My husband’s job is a little bit of a drive, but is working out perfectly for us.  We have family around us and faith and friends, too.  We are blessed.

Since I last wrote a post on this blog, we have also been blessed with a new grand daughter.  Being at the hospital and holding that tiny baby on the day she was born, was absolutely incredible.  (Well, she weighed 8 lbs 13 oz!!).  I was able to stay overnight with my grandson, who is 21 months old, at my son’s home…just the two of us…for two nights.  I cannot even describe how my “gaga” heart just exploded with love for that little guy!  We had so much fun playing together.  (Gaga is his name for me).  We live less than a mile from them and being able to see our grandchildren often is such an incredible blessing, I cannot properly express it. We had dinner with them just last night and I melted, just holding my little grand daughter.  God is good.

And we also had our first serious snowfall of the season.  We got 6″ overnight.  And all my Thanksgiving/fall decor came down.  It feels like Christmas!!!  It was all of 7-degrees this morning, and as I type this, it has dropped to just 1-degree on our back porch, and it is in full sunshine!  There is such a difference in the approach to Christmas here.  It is a snow state.  There is often snow from November to April.  That’s 6 months of the year, if you were counting.  So for a climate like this, Christmas takes on a whole other meaning.  To fight off all the hours of darkness, Christmas lights are up all over town.  Downtown keeps lights up for months, to encourage joy in the hearts of everyone, while our days of sunlight significantly lessen.  The tradition is to get your lights up early (before the first snow) and keep them up until almost Easter.  Inside and outside.  I remember in California it was hard to keep our tree up until Epiphany, or the Baptism of the Lord, because they got so dry and it was usually getting warm outside.  Here, people keep lights, decor, and trees up until there is more sunshine.  A completely different outlook!

Recently, a friend remarked to me that our fasting for Advent seemed a little strict.  In the East, when we fast, we traditionally fast the same during Advent as we do during the Great Fast of Lent, except we are not as strict as during Lent.  But we Fast in a serious way.  No meat, dairy, wine, olive oil, eggs, or fish.  Basically, a vegan diet.  And I started to think about the juxtaposition of decorating all out and early, and starting a fast.90_02_53---Christmas-Lights_web_zpsbe84d5fa

When I was first introduced to the concept of a strict fast, one that lasted each and every day of the 40 days of Lent, I was overwhelmed.  My pastor assured me that with years of practice, I would be able to fast well, and in fact, that I would welcome the periods of fasting throughout the Liturgical year.  That was more than 10 years ago and I am still not a total vegan during the Fast, but I have made great strides towards that.  And one of the things about keeping a strict fast for whatever season we are preparing for, is that fasting becomes a way in which we enter more deeply into the preparation of what we will be feasting.  All around us, during the Great Fast of Lent, we are assaulted by ads for Peeps (my husband’s favorite Easter treat), chocolate eggs, and the Easter Bunny.  It detracts from the fact that we are preparing to experience once again that ultimate sacrifice of life – the Crucifixion – and ultimately, the Resurrection.  To get to the good part, you have to go through the hard part.  Entering into a strict preparation period helps us enjoy the feasting and celebration we have prepared for.  I remember my first Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday night.  We started about 10pm and ended in the 2-3am time frame.  Our pastor jokingly told us no vegetables were allowed in the hall!!  We exited the Sanctuary and made that short walk to the hall and when the doors opened, the smell of meat was enticingly overwhelming! Boy, did we feast!  Meats and treats we’d been without for 40 days were joyously eaten (and imbibed).

My family and I have been passing through that hard part and are starting to see that good part of life.  And so I can sort of see why my friend would think that our fasting is a little strict.  The neat thing about belonging to a truly universal Church is that there is room for a variety of traditions and a variety of liturgical expressions that support those traditions.  I believe that I have been tested and strengthened through the recent hardships we have been through, and that without it, the sweetness of the good times would just not be as sweet.  Christmas morning’s joy is enhanced by the anticipation of what lays before you.  I love rethinking, reliving, and retelling the story of the Incarnation of Christ.  The part where an angel appears to the Theotokos and she contemplates what has been prophesied about her; “A virgin shall bear a son and His name shall be Immanuel…” (Isaiah 7:14). Not to mention the moment Our Lord is born “and suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”… (Luke 2: 14-15)  We have so very much to celebrate and look forward to, and so much to reflect upon as we prepare to celebrate.

lightsI don’t know about you, but I personally love the separation of the Holidays. Up here, we seem to go from Halloween directly to Christmas, skipping Thanksgiving.  On November 1st, and even during the weeks leading to Halloween, the Christmas items were already in the stores.  They are now all decorated for Christmas and lights are up and the Christmas music is playing.  I tried to find a new Thanksgiving yard flag but had no luck.  We are now in full Christmas mode up here.  So why fast?  Why deny myself the full enjoyment of the season?  For me, it is a way to slow things down, to simplify our lives, and to learn to stop and focus on what we are putting in our mouths and why.  Do not get me wrong! I love Christmas and I love Christmas baking and creating wonderful meals, decorating my home and sending out cards. I love everything about Christmas!  I collect Old World St. Nicholas statues and wall decor, anything remotely reminding me of the historical “Santa Claus.”  I also love eating and drinking things we only have at Christmas.  But I also know I can get caught up in baking and buying, wrapping, shipping, eating and celebrating, that I forget what I am wrapping and buying and baking for.  And in the Eastern Church, we are not supposed to attend or host Christmas parties until AFTER Christ has been born.  That week between Christmas and New Year’s is when we celebrate…and on until the Baptism of the Lord (in the west, Epiphany). In the past my husband was always off work that week between Christmas and New Year’s because that is the week we were married.  It makes the Christmas season that much more special and each of our children were baptized on our anniversary, and so that week is very unique for us.  But how special is it if we indulge from Halloween until the middle of January?  When do we look up from our bowls of Halloween candy, turkey stuffing, and candy canes and take note of what we are celebrating?  How can we make Christmas more meaningful?

I believe the fast is how we bring Christmas into a reality that we can appreciate and handle.  There are foods only eaten during this time of year.  Plan for them, savor their imminent presence on our tables, but keep a check on what we eat and drink until we can celebrate the birth of our Savior.  Consider baking a birthday cake for Christ.  Consider not eating meat from now until Our Lord arrives.  I cannot fully describe how awesome Christmas dinner is when you haven’t had meat for a month.  The sights and smells are overwhelmingly decadent and so much more enjoyable. In this world of excess, why don’t we try and do without and perhaps donate money not spent on food to a local food bank or homeless shelter, ensuring a holiday for those with less? Instead of buying meat, buy small tubes of toothpaste, soap, brushes, towelettes to put in bags for your local shelter? Instead of eating out, attend Divine Liturgy or Evening Vespers an extra night a week.  Denying self allows Christ to enter in.  Going through the rough stuff makes the good stuff so much more enjoyable!!!

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