“…being God from all eternity.”

Snow cabinThis is the season I love the best.  I love winter and I love Christmas.  We were married on December 29th because I wanted to have our wedding and subsequent anniversaries around this time of year. I had always dreamed of a winter wedding, complete with white fur muffs, a horse-drawn sleigh, and wearing red in my wedding outfit.  I loved having a candle-lit, winter wedding.  I love the cold weather, the snow, the lights on people’s houses, the tree with all the ornaments that tell of our lifetimes in them, the smell of Christmas baking, the Christmas music my husband plays continually from Thanksgiving Day onward, seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoying the joy of gifts given and received.  I especially love Christmas Eve Vespers and staying out late and seeing all the lights, drinking hot cocoa and splurging on Christmas cookies.  I love making Gingerbread Houses, a fairly new tradition my daughter-in-law brought to our family.  I love baking during Christmas.  I was never much of a holiday cook but since I married into this family, I learned so many delicious holiday treats.  I love preparing the stockings even for our grown and married children.  This year we get to add three stockings of our grandchildren.  I love the prep and the running around and the chaos of it all.  There are days I just sigh in contentment.  All of it, Christmas; I just love it.

Snow fence lightsIt was brought to my attention that I started sharing Christmas-themed posts and photos before Halloween.  I am not sure about the October date, but I do know I started before Thanksgiving.  It is my first season living in the Arctic Circle and I can tell you that weather definitely had an affect on me.  Up here, people try to hang the lights on their houses and fences, front yards, and outside trees prior to the first snow. It makes sense.  We were a little late, and with the help of our older son, hung our lights after the first serious snowfall (we got 6″ overnight) and it turned out to be a fun experience! The older sibling dumped loads of snow off the eaves onto his younger brother, as he carried the string of lights for his big-brother up on the ladder.  The oldest brought his dad a cigar and the two of them smoked cigars in the snow (it started to snow while they were half-way through) and they had a lot of fun.  We have since received a couple of feet of snow, and our Christmas lights glow through the snow accumulating on the roof.  It is pretty.  Because the house lights were up, we brought in all our decorations the following Monday and put up our tree and completely decorated our house.  My husband came home and just smiled.  Another tradition this far north is to keep house lights up until Spring and the days lengthen a little bit.  The basic decor is taken down, but the lights remain to keep our spirits up in these long days of dark.  And maybe I started a little early, but all this snow and minus temps just got me excited for the season, seeking some joy and happiness through decorating for it; I also was beginning to prepare for Christmas in my heart.  A friend also reminded me that I used to decorate my homes all in red and green, it was wasted in Southern California, and perhaps I was always meant to dwell in the Arctic!  She may be right, because I don’t like hot weather, the beach or sand, and I love wearing coats, sweaters, boots, and living in all this snow!

sit with you lordThe season of winter and Christmas is also a very interior or prayerful time for me.  We are indoors a lot, it is dark a lot of the time, and it brings with it a sensual experience of warm fires, gentle lights, and the quiet of the winter terrain, all buried in deep snows.  I have found myself contemplating the whys and wherefores of Christmas and the traditions that go with it.  And I have also been chatting with various people about Santa Claus, and other winter traditions.  For me, I find that matters of faith, tenets of faith, all germinate in reality.  The story of the Wise Men; the birth of Christ; the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents; the Crucifixion and Resurrection…these all had their start in truth and historical occurrences.  There are those who poo-poo the whole December 25th date and the fact that the “Church” stole the date from the pagans of the early centuries; the fact that pagans had trees indoors for far different purposes; the “wise men” were not all that wise, nor were there just three of them…on and on it goes.  I know that; I was blessed with studying Biblical Archeology as my minor in college.  I know what we have physical evidence for, and what is real and what is hysterical – or historical – and what is not.  And I acknowledge those who love just Santa Claus (made jolly and friendly by the early Coca Cola ads in the 20s), the Tooth Fairy (recently made famous again by “the Rock” in a movie), and the Easter Bunny (whose fame was resurrected in the movie, “HOP,” and which I just watched today with my grandson), and they do not want to know where those traditions come from. I will agree to just enjoy those “Hollywood” versions of the truth, but all the while knowing there is so much more to it.

I choose, however, to understand, celebrate, and share the historical roots of the things we believe in.  Our parish here is St. Nicholas of Myra.  It is the only Byzantine parish in the area and the diocese exempts our parish from the pre-Christmas Fast on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate this Friday, December 6th.  I have invited my son and daughter-in-law to attend, so my grandson can be exposed to this story surrounding Christmas.  It’s wonderful to share these traditions with our families.  St. Nicholas has been real for my husband and myself at least all of our marriage. There were many Christmases where we were in such dire straits that we should not have been able to provide gifts for our sons; St. Nicholas always interceded for us and Christmas was always a joy for our children.  In Russia, St. Nicholas is the patron of the family and we took him as our family patron many years ago.  St. Nicholas exemplifies giving and his determination to help families in trouble is one of the many reasons he is a Saint of the Church.  (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml). Regardless of which story you have heard, or have not heard, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey) was a Saint who later became a legend, and whose legend we keep each Christmastime.  I love St. Nicholas and I love keeping his memory alive.  This year, our youngest son remarked that he knows there is no Santa Claus and that we are the giver of the gifts.  But he also said he likes believing in things at Christmas, so he’s choosing to still cling to Santa, and enjoys the stories of St. Nicholas.  All of those heroes in our children’s lives are actually Saints, making their way into modern culture. A little twisted and turned to meet modern culture where it is, but they are present nonetheless.

Nativity_htmIn many Christian cultures, we celebrate Christmas until the 6th of January, or in the west, Epiphany (in the east, it is the Baptism of the Lord, or the Theophany).  In the west the different feasts were all celebrated together, and is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas come from.  In the East, as these feasts began to separate themselves, the Byzantine and Orthodox chose to celebrate the Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, on the same date the west celebrates Epiphany.  Interestingly enough, the term “Epiphany” is defined as a revelation.  We can all have epiphanies when we learn something new or gain an awareness of something we never knew before.  The Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world, and started with the 1st of the 12 Days of Christmas when Mary accepted the Word of God and proclaimed her great fiat of, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38).  The Epiphany continues through the Birth of Christ, the visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord.  Most people in western countries use the day to celebrate the Gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child and often have parties called, “Little Christmas,” where they give one another gifts (some families have adopted this date as their major Christmas celebration, keeping December 25th more as a reflective day and a day to celebrate the Birth of Christ). In the East, we celebrate the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Lord.  Theophany means: “the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.” It is when Christ was Baptized and His Kingship made known to man through His Father’s recognition in his declaration of “This is my beloved son” and of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Both of the terms, Epiphany and Theophany, are words explaining the revelation of God to His People; to each of us.

Baptism-of-Christ-theophany-icon-444-200x300“At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You by calling You His beloved son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” (Kontakion of the Theophany).

So much surrounds us during this Christmas season.  I don’t understand why we need to limit ourselves to specific times; artificial dates.  Some people will only decorate for Christmas between the day after Thanksgiving, and then take everything down by December 26th.  In the seasonal feasting and fasting cycle of the Church, the preparation for the Feast is almost as important as the Feast itself. We in the East began our preparation for Christmas on the 15th of November, with the Feast of St. Philip.  It is often called, “Philip’s Fast,” or the “Apostle’s Fast,” but is commonly called the “Pre-Christmas Fast.”  In the Melkite tradition, this is when we begin singing the Kontakian of the Preparation:

“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.”

We’ve been preparing for the Birth of Christ since November 15th, and have been since the Council of Constantinople in 1166 AD.  Prior to that, the worldwide Church celebrated different dates, requiring daily attendance at Church for services and prayers, with moderate fasting.  After 1166, the tradition we now keep was begun in earnest.  So for at least the last 900 years in Christianity, the Preparation for Christmas began on the 15th of November.  This year, I opted to keep the tradition of the Preparation alive by decorating my home, to coincide with our fasting and liturgical year.

snowy tree.lights

The other interesting side-note to this is that our Liturgical traditions allow us to keep our Christmas decor up from November 15th through January 6th.  It is a good thing we use a fake tree! Up here it seems we tend to celebrate Halloween and run straight into Christmas, with a brief respite at a little family dinner – Thanksgiving – in between. Thanksgiving, to me, is like the practice run for cooking Christmas dinner!  It’s also a great day for Football on TV!  And this year, our Parish celebrated Divine Liturgy with a potluck afterward; it was nice to celebrate as a parish family.  Recently, my feelings were pretty stepped on and I was criticized for this early Christmas thing, and after thinking about it, and now posting about it, I feel sort of justified in keeping the traditions of my faith, even if public pressure is to downplay it.  I will celebrate through fasting and preparation, decoration and cooking, gift giving and singing of Christmas songs, putting my tree up and hanging lights, from November through January, at the least.  And in our tradition, you don’t party until AFTER the Feast…so true Christmas parties are from December 25th through Theophany on January 6th. It works perfectly for someone who decorates year round in red and green colors, collects antique Santas from around the world, loves the snow, and lives where people keep their Christmas lights up until Spring.  Maybe I was meant to live in the Arctic all along!

back lit blue trees.snow

“….Sophia, Orthoi….”

I am often asked why I am an Eastern Rite Catholic.  Why did I not just stay plain, old, Catholic? Most Americans only know the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope in Rome.  They think that is all there is and do not understand that there are quite a few alternate rites within Catholicism, that are equal with Romanism.  Then there are those who question why I chose to become Catholic in the first place!  My spiritual journey has been one of twists, turns, and roundabouts.  I was born and baptized as an infant into the Episcopal Church, as my parents were both British, it was the Church they were most familiar with and were married in, and the location was convenient.  I thought my parents were raised Episcopal, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I found out my father’s family were all Methodists!  I don’t even know, to this day, what my mother’s family was!  My dad told me that they married in the local Episcopal parish because my mom thought it would result in the prettiest photos.  (The interesting thing to me is there are no altar photos from their wedding.  There are photos at a studio and photos of them leaving the Church, but none inside the Church! And I have all their wedding photos! I find that so amusing).  As I was growing up, we drifted from one Christian community to another.  From my point of view as a child and young teen, it seemed we attended the Church my parents thought was socially correct to attend, but it did not seem like they were people of intense faith, nor was our attendance regular, and neither did our home life seem particularly Christian.  I enjoyed the different churches we attended, but I did not like being baptized so many times (three, for sure, that I know of!).  I recall one time, at a First Christian Church, we were required to dress in white robes and be “dunked” in front of everyone. I wanted to die of embarrassment! I did not understand why I was being baptized again and I recall my mom saying, “Now we belong here.” I remember at that particular Church that I loved being asked to light the candles on the altar (complete in white robes and formal dress underneath) and that “communion” was a snack of Welch’s grape juice in little plastic cups in fun holders they passed down the aisle, and a little cracker!  But the significance of the event went right over my head.  I also remember putting on plays for our parents and one most memorable play for me was re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, along to an Andy Williams Christmas Album song!  I was Mary and my brother was Joseph, and my favorite doll, Elizabeth, stood in for the baby Jesus.  I think that was a significant moment for me, because I became infatuated with Mary, but I don’t think it impacted anyone else.  I have never forgotten it.

My serious pursuit of my faith came through, oddly enough, my secular education at  California State University, Fullerton, where I declared my major to be Anthropology, with a minor in Biblical Archeology.  After delving into the history of religion around the world, the history of language (anthropological linguistics), and the archeological history of Christianity, I was hooked.  I used to give lectures to women’s church groups on Biblical Archeology as a way to supplement my income as a college waitress.  It was during a particular series of lectures on the development of the family in the Middle East, the traditions of Orthodox Jews, and the development of modern religious practices, that I happened upon a Catholic Church.  They were right next door to the Geneva Presbyterian Church, where I was lecturing.  Once I walked inside, I knew I was where I was meant to be.  I enrolled in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program and it was during this time I began to date my husband.  We had not discussed faith at that point and it was several months later that much in our separate lives became paralleled.  The woman I had asked to be my sponsor happened to be engaged to a friend of my husband and they all knew one another through High School and Youth Ministry…he actually attended the Church I where I was enrolled in RCIA, but I didn’t know that at the beginning. (This same couple later participated in our wedding and are our eldest son’s godparents!). Most of my college and high school friends think I converted because of him, but they did not realize how my life had been turning for quite some time. I remember choosing to go see my grandparents and have dinner with them on a Saturday night, rather than hang with my friends.  When I was asked by my grandmother why I was with them on a Saturday night, I told her about my discovery of Catholicism, my deepening faith life, and how I was dating my future-husband (although I suspected it, I wasn’t totally sure at that point!).  She approved of both and was pleased I had started to quiet down and pray more! Ha-Ha!  (I miss her so much some days! Love you, Grandma! Pray for me!).

After 20+ years of being a practicing, homeschooling, Roman Catholic, my husband and I were lured to a different Roman Catholic Church where our eldest son (college-aged at that time) told us there was an amazing Priest, who was also an amazing confessor.  We drove across town and went to Mass with our son.  It was loud; there was a band, and there were tons of teens – not my cup of tea.  But I sure enjoyed the homily and chatting with the priest afterward.  We attempted to attend that parish regularly, but it was hard because I am much more quiet and conservative!  This priest was bi-ritual and asked us to come to his “real” parish sometime (He assisted the Roman Catholic priest at that parish, who had far too many Masses to say and was elderly).  And so, we did. During Lent.  It was a Melkite Greek Parish – and boy oh boy, do Eastern Rite Catholics take Lent seriously! I was challenged and drawn to see more, for myself.  It was, for me, like entering a tent in an oasis.  I smelled the incense from the parking lot!!  I literally could envision the early Christian community worshiping like this!  The bulk of the Liturgy was in Arabic, which sounded so exotic.  And the incense they use is serious stuff!  It made me sneeze and cough at first, but it smelled quite “other-worldly” and before long, we attended regularly.  (They use Frankincense and Myrrh, as well as some other exotic scents.  It is divine! Literally!) Very soon, our older sons were serving on the altar and they both seemed to really love it.  The Icons! The candles! The incense! The Vestments! The Holy Place! The Liturgy and the Prayers! We were drawn into the eastern side of the Church and for us, there was no going back.  We have tried to attend a Roman Mass, over the years, but it is just not a fit for us any longer.  I feel so alive and breathe so freely at Divine Liturgy.  One important aspect, for me, are the prayers!  They so perfectly express what I feel and I also love how the entire community participates, rather than responds, during Liturgy.  You stand almost the entire time, and in some Byzantine parishes, they have removed all chairs and benches!  (Most Orthodox also stand the entire time). It seems almost sacrilegious to sit in the presence of God.  Many Protestants, and even most Roman Catholics, don’t understand why we stand so much.  But if you truly believe in just two things, you feel it is not right to sit.  Those two things are: (1) Wherever three or more of you are gathered, there am I in your midst (Matthew 18:20) and (2)- there are several versions, but I like this one the best: (1 Cor 11:23-26)  “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’.”

Because I believe Christ God is present when we gather as a community, (in the prayers and in His Word) and I believe He is truly present, “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity” during Communion itself, it feels wrong to sit in the presence of God.  Think about it; when someone you want to greet walks into a room, or someone important enters a function, everyone stands up!  We stand in the presence of dignitaries and royalty!  How much more so for the Son of God Himself.

There is one particular prayer I like to share with everyone who is looking at the Eastern Churches and it is this one:

Communion PrayerThis prayer expresses, for me, the contrition I feel at my behaviors that I know are not Christ-like, and they also express the Divine Forgiveness that is awaiting me, from God Himself.  He forgave the penitent thief on the Cross; talk about last minute!  He also recognized the betrayal of Judas, with a kiss.  And that instructs me to be more fully aware that how I act and how I behave can often be seen as the “kiss of betrayal” to My Lord and My God.

Why did I become Eastern?  The very first Divine Liturgy we attended at the Melkite Parish we later joined, was assisted by a Deacon who has demonstrated to me over many years of friendship, the incredible gift of faith Our Lord left with his people; those people who reside in the Middle East.  He was born and raised in Jerusalem, itself. During the procession of the Bible into the Church, the Deacon briefly stands before the Holy Place and intones, “Sophia – Orthoi” which quite literally means, “Wisdom – Let us attend” and is taken from Proverbs 5: 1-2  “My son, pay attention to my wisdom, turn your ear to my words of insight,that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge.”  When the Deacon did that for the first time in my hearing, I was instantly transported to a place of worship – it was noisy, crowded, and the people were chattering and, yet, still intent on the worship around them.  The moment the Deacon intoned “Sophia – Orthoi” all chatter ceased and all eyes were upon the Word of God.  And then the most incredible thing happened – families walked their children up to the Holy Place and other adults joined them; someone from the community offered his brow, that the Holy Word of God be rested upon it, as the Deacon read from Scripture.  Each person bowed their head, crowding as close as possible to the Deacon and the Holy Place.  God was among us, in His Divine Word. It was one of the single, most powerful, spiritual moments of my life.  After the Word was proclaimed, each person there went up, one by one, and kissed the Holy Scriptures.  And I could not go back to the West; I was hooked. The freshest breeze from the east entered my lungs, invaded my heart and soul, and I was HOME.

Here is a portion of the prayers we say before we receive communion, and one of those I believe keeps me an Eastern Rite or Byzantine Catholic is this one:

“I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son
of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of
whom I am the greatest. I believe also that this is really
Your spotless Body and that this is really Your precious
Blood. Wherefore, I pray to You: have mercy on me and
pardon my offenses, the deliberate and the indeliberate,
those committed in word and in deed, whether knowingly
or inadvertently, and count me worthy to share without
condemnation Your spotless Mysteries, for the remission of
sins and for eternal life. Amen.”

I think that sums up what drew me to, and what keeps me, and Eastern Rite/Byzantine Catholic.  We stand in the Presence of Our Lord and it keeps me humble and and wanting to go back for more; ever more.  My prayer for those seeking and those who have found, to always heed the words, “Sophia – Orthoi” – because there is Divine Wisdom in His Church and countless moments of grace and healing.

Candles(Brotherhood of the Holy Cross Monastery)

“…rest on the Flight…”

I am in the midst of “taking down Christmas” and I know I am a few days early. I am leaving the tree where it is until this weekend and the Epiphany on the western calendar, but the rest of the house is being denuded of Christmas.  We have to relocate in the next 8-12 weeks and when I decorated for Christmas, I packed away all the things that make our home feel like our home – family photos, momentos, etc.  That way, when I take Christmas “down” I will have less to pack up.  But it is disconcerting because our home looks “naked” and I am beginning to to stress out about where we will live next.  I have absolutely no idea where, or when, we will move. I know it will be during Lent, so perhaps I can offer all the stress to my fasting and my deprivations that help me focus on what is really important – the Liturgical year.  I know I have alluded to seasons and calendaring our lives with the Church, but it sure seems to happen, whether I place it on my calendar or not. I think God loves to tease me a little, and keep me on my toes.

Storm at SeaWe have been at a loss, being tossed and turned, over this move from CA.  I remember the disciples, being in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, Our Lord calmly sleeping while they were tossed by the wind and waves.  The disciples could not believe how He was able to sleep through it all.  And He said to them, “”You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. (Mt. 8:26).  I keep waiting for some sort of calm to invade our lives, but it seems as though the sort of imagining of a calm sail upon the sea is just not for us.  The Lord keeps allowing waves and winds…so I must learn to rest in faith and relax and know that Christ is at the helm and all will be well. “The disciples were amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked. “Even the winds and waves obey him!”” (Mt. 8:27).  I also remember that Jesus asked St. Peter to walk across the water to join them.  “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 3 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Mt. 14:28-31).  Once again, the disciples doubted Christ and Peter, quite literally, began to sink.  This is where we get the saying about “keeping your eye on the prize” and not loosing focus of your goal. In this case, the original example, Peter let his eyes stray to the world around him, took his eyes off Christ, and began to sink.  And here I am, all weepy and sinking and I am chastising myself for not having better faith and strength. In an earlier blog that I entitled, “…then nothing can shake us…” I quoted Elder Amphilochios Makris when he said, “We must keep our gaze fixed on heaven. Then nothing here can shake us.”  Aren’t we all great at dolling out advice?  So hilarious that I need to re-read what I once wrote…it is as though I took my eyes off Christ and am, once again, sinking.

I think we all need reminders, some of them daily, that keep us looking and focusing on what is truly important….the eternal life we are walking towards, sometimes on rough seas, towards Our Lord and Savior.  And when we let the cares and worries of this life interfere with our focus on what is really at stake, we start to sink. So I am determined to pack away Christmas and be able to stare at these blank walls, because I know that what is really important are not the boxes of decorations or the photos on the walls….they enhance my experience of daily life, but they are not what motivates me, what moves me.   I am blessed.  This is only a place, a structure.

I cannot help but identify with the Holy Family on their journey to Egypt, as well as their search for a safe place to raise Our Lord.  Herod had slain all those innocents, looking for the Christ Child, and I can only imagine the fear Mary and Joseph felt as they fled with their precious Son.   As I take another piece of Christmas and place it on the dining room table, preparing to wrap and box it back up, I am so overcome with sadness, and concern over what is next for us.

360 Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1879 Oil Painting by Luc-Olivier Merson“Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a model for the life of the church. We are people of exile. Strangers among the nations. All we carry across the wastelands of this earth is the Christ Child.” [Taken from a blog by Richard Beck (Experimental Theology)].  He goes on to say of this painting, “What I like about Rest on the Flight into Egypt is how it depicts, from the very beginning of his life, the homelessness of the Messiah. God is a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, a person of exile.” And then he says, “The church isn’t a fortress or a gated community or a community of snobbish like-mindedness and self-righteousness. The church is a mission as we live in exile among the nations. Purposely scattered, in jobs and neighborhoods across the world, to work alongside our neighbors to bring peace on earth and good will to all.”

As we pack up and move on, I like to still identify with the homelessness of the Holy Family, their fatigue as they look for a home; their fright as they struggle to protect their son.  As Richard Beck says,  “And what awaits them at journey’s end? Will they find friends in Egypt? Work? And when will it be safe to go back home?  Sitting on the Sphinx, in a striking juxtaposition and lending an exotic touch to the scene, is Mary and the baby.  The baby. The only source of light in the painting.”

I plan to keep that Light with me, as we pack and prepare to move on.  Some of those questions are our questions, some of those worries are our worries, too.  But I know that next Christmas, as I unpack and decorate our new home, I will do so with an encouraged heart and the joy of the season all around me, the Light of Christ with me.  Off to pack some more boxes….

flight into egypt xx~001

“..if ought death part thee and me…”

Holy Table

This is the Lord’s Table…the altar, in an Orthodox Monastery.  Pretty much what all Byzantine altars look like.  It fills me with joy to know that my husband and I walked the altar in our Crowning Ceremony for our 25th Anniversary.  When we initially married, we were Roman Catholic and opted to have a Crowning Ceremony as Melkite Greek Catholics.  That was three years ago and it seems like there has been so much mileage since then!!  Life has unalterably changed since 2009.  We have a son who is now a teenager.  Another son returned from war (Thanks be to God) and had his first child (what a blessing).  Our other son graduated Magna Cum Laude from college and the following month was married, and is now expecting his first child.  We relocated from Southern California to Washington.  That has been a huge change for us.

Many years ago, I told my husband that whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, I would go with him.  I read several times the story of Ruth, and she became sort of a pilot for me.  If something came up, I would think back to the many choices Ruth had before her and how she chose to always follow her husband’s people.  Even after his death, she stayed with his mother, Naomi, and followed her to Bethlehem-judah to be with her family.  “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” Naomi and Ruth returned to the land of the Hebrews, where Ruth later married Boaz and was the great-grandmother of King David.  Her decision to go with her mother-in-law and to utter those words, “..if ought death part thee and me…” have become a staple in many Christian marriage ceremonies. And it was, and is, so for my husband and myself.

When my husband was ordained a deacon, he chose the name of “Joseph.”  It is perfect for him and he chose Joseph, the Worker, as his mentor.  My husband is such a hard worker! And he loves to serve his community, especially on the altar.  His vocation as a deacon has only grown over the years. His opportunities to serve have been severely limited in the past few years, but his desire is still uppermost in his heart.  And I ache that he has no altar to serve, at the moment.  And when he was ordained, our pastor asked us if I would also like to take a name, as a Diaconissa in the parish. I immediately chose Ruth, because we had traveled from Rome to Constantinople and it seemed fitting that our community would call me Diaconissa Ruth.  It is a title I love. The little Arabic ladies would always greet me and speak mostly Arabic, but I could always discern, “Diaconissa Ruth” in their chatter and hugs and ways of loving me.  They are so grateful for the service to the Church!  And I love how they loved us for wanting to be closer to Our Lord on His Altar, and his community.

Up here, in the Pacific Northwest, we have yet to really find our place.  But I still feel like Ruth, faithfully following her husband wherever that may be. And we both know that God called us here.  There have been so many times when we have uttered these statements, “It is so beautiful here.”  “Did you see all those colors of green?”  “Oh, look, you can see Mt. Rainier” “It’s snowing and so pretty.”  And we have even pinched each other, to the other’s startled amazement, and have said, “Can you believe we live here??”  It is that beautiful.  We also feel a tremendous contentment at the life we have had and the future before us.  I am so blessed to be married to my best friend.  We’ve been a couple for 30 years this year; married for 28 of them, and it gets better and better.  We are content with the wrinkles and gray hairs (or no hairs, in some cases – tee-hee!), and extra pounds we have gained over the years.  We are in love with our children, our beautiful daughters-in-law and our amazing grandson and soon-to-be-born granddaughter.  God has blessed us immensely and we are so grateful.

For our anniversary, we are buying new tires for the car.  I know it sounds overly romantic, but we need the tires and it will mean we are safer on the roads, as we travel the year as a married couple and family.  We may grab a bite to eat while we are out…or even just a cup of coffee.  But we are together and we are in love – and I am so happy it is our anniversary!

At the Wedding ceremony’s end, the priest recites parting blessings upon the newlyweds. To the groom he may say: “Be thou magnified O Bridegroom, as Abraham, and blessed as Isaac. Walk in peace and work in righteousness, as the commandments of God.” To the bride he may say: “And thou O Bride, be thou magnified as Sarah, and glad as Rebecca, rejoicing in thine own husband, fulfilling the conditions of the law, for so it is well pleasing unto God.”  And it has been for 28 years; God willing, another 28 years!!!crown50_view1_lg

(A close up of our Anniversary Crowns)

“..what sustains our present life…”

St Maximos the Confessor 2

I have used this quote before, but it seems appropriate to revisit it, in light of the heavy giving season upon us.  Many years ago, we tried to opt out of Christmas.  We had “Santa” gifts for the kids, but gifts between family members and friends were reserved for the Epiphany, or “Little Christmas.”  It didn’t take, probably because our kids were too old and on the cusp of teenage-dom where the world had taken a firmer grasp on their sensibilities.  I loved the switch because I took advantage of the awesome after-Christmas sales and was able to do more for my family, for less.  And as I have pondered that, I came to some harsh realities.  Hence, my blog….

What sustains me is sometimes vastly different from what sustains others.  There is a question it is fun to ask friends, “If you were stuck on a desert island and could have (1) item, what would it be?”  Many in the teen-age-group would say their cell phone or iPad or computer, obviously never having seen the Disney version of “Swiss Family Robinson”!!  Many people I know cannot survive a day without social media, or at the very least, their cell phones.  I am often guilty of that, as well.  And if we look inside ourselves, at least when I look, I think of many things I would want with me.  Since it is a question of things and not people, I quickly choose and discard many items as being silly and useless in that situation.  And I think of places where I would feel sustained, and what items would help me feel sustained.  Places I would hate to be stuck would be a desert island, as I am not a hot-weather person and much prefer mountains, trees, and snow!  And what would sustain me, if I were to find myself in a place I did not know, with a specific group of items?

This has actually, and is still, happening to us.  After 25 years of married life in Southern California, we found ourselves relocated into the Pacific Northwest, and in a very short space of time.  We packed up all of our things and relocated to a place we did not know, without the comfort zone of home school groups, parish communities, and people we had grown accustomed to.  We felt, and still somewhat feel, like fish out of water.  But we both feel God brought us to this place, because He has a plan for us.  We brought a lot of stuff with us, too!  And this past summer, we divested ourselves of quite a lot of it.  Keepsake items I miss here and there; dozens of books we gave away; tools we sold because we never used them and now could use (of course); and many old clothing items (especially “California coats” that are useless in this climate).  We tried to give away what we did not sell at our garage sale, giving out of what we had and perhaps could still use, but did not “need.”  What sustains us?  We found out we could do with much less than we had when we moved up here.  It is freeing, in many ways.  We have to pack up and move again, and now that there is just the three of us, the manual labor is going to be far more intense.  For the relief of too many things, I am grateful! And still, what sustains us?

We had family arrive from out of town this past week and it was interesting what they needed to sustain them, that was not familiar to our needs.  We still have some of it in our refrigerator, but our youngest son will make short work of it, I am sure.  When people travel away from home, they bring with them the things they will need to sustain them on their journey.  Fortunately, no one crashed or was forced to choose a single item to sustain them on a desert island!  But when you travel, you try to just bring “necessities” so you can “travel light.”  Could I, if I had to fit everything on the back of a donkey and walk to Bethlehem, take what I needed to sustain me?  Mary and Joseph had no idea their walk would continue on, into Egypt, and last for decades.  Can I pick up and go just as easily? What would I need to sustain me?  Were the things we gave and received at Christmas items that sustain us in our need, or do they add to our life’s clutter?  Do we grow and learn from them, or do they clutter our desktops and lives?  Personally, I am thrilled with what I received.  The number of items was limited and I could tell that thought went into them and I was touched.  Touched more by the effort and thought than many of the items, themselves.  The gifts moved me and I think that is what giving is all about.  We want to move the receiver and let them know how much we love them.

I think about what and where I would be sustained quite often.  Because I have been lacking in “sustenance” over the past couple of years, it has become more apparent to me.  And I know my sustenance comes from the Lord.  From my life of faith.  If I were to be placed in a situation of crashing onto a desert island, I think that I would be wearing my Jesus prayer bracelet, so it would go with me automatically, wherever I landed, but I think I would want with me either a Bible or my Byzantine Prayer Book.  Because what truly sustains me is my faith.  Without my faith, or a place to practice my faith, my interior self begins to wither.  We all need to feed our faith.  And one of the most important things the Lord and His Apostles left for us, was the “deposit of faith” and the instruction that we are to worship as community.  (Yes, individual worship and quiet prayer build and sustain us, but so does a faith community).  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him…If he refuses to listen…, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church…Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18: 15-20).  Even though, when we are on a desert island, we cannot have our community with us, we take with us the deposit of faith and our prayer life.  I think that celebrating the giving of gifts, the beauty of the Christmas trees and all the decorations and all the feasting, if you celebrate the Birth of the Savior and have no faith, it becomes an empty celebration and that is where our over-gifting comes in.  We are compensating for that “God-Hole” that exists in humanity, that only Faith can fill.

I pray that I may never get stranded on a desert island (and I stave that off by never being near one!) and be required to sustain myself with just one object, but I know that my faith will sustain me wherever I find myself.  I also know that being part of a faith community builds me up and helps me face whatever is in front of me, and that without it, I tend to wither.  Our Church communities help us to walk the path God has chosen for us; they help us keep our faith at the forefront of our lives.  And the Liturgical Life of the Church and following the Church calendar keeps our lives moving forward in Faith and our walk closer to the “walk” the Holy Family took so many centuries ago.  And so, for this next year, I pray we find our “faith” home, along with a new place to call “home,” and we absorb and enjoy all the prayers and “community” we have available, to further enrich our lives.  In my mind’s eye, I would rather be in the woods and snow, and so I pray I won’t be challenged by a real desert, as living in a spiritual one is hard enough! And all the gifting in the world cannot replace a moment spent in the Presence of God, among the Faithful of His community.

AllMercifulSaviorOrthodoxMonasteryOur Merciful Savior Monastery, Vashon Island, WA

“and the journey goes on…”

12609_10200091194552403_932593593_nIt was eerily quiet as I descended the stairs this morning.  It was dark and I could hear the gentle plopping of the raindrops on our skylight.  The house is so quiet early in the day; even our dogs are still asleep, although my cat is quietly following me down the steps.  As I step off the last stair, I reach for the switch and turn on the lights of our Christmas tree.  The room seems so bare and empty now.  The presents are gone; all given away and stashed in the arms of their receivers.  The room holds our son’s remains of college along one wall (I covered it with a red and green Christmas tablecloth) and our boxes of books line another wall (also covered in tablecloths of the season) but other than those things, it is filled with our tree.  And I sighed as I looked at the sight. The lights reminded me, once again, of the Star over the Stable in Bethlehem, which guided the Wise Men.  And I recalled snippets of conversation, smiles on the faces of our family, and the pitter-patter of the feet of four dogs, running around their owners, along with the smells and color of Christmas.  And I smiled.

Last night we shared a meal at the friend of my husband’s brother.  It was at a little Italian restaurant in a city north of us, owned by his friend’s father and mother.  It was interesting, in that it brought together such a disparate group of people and yet, all you heard was laughing and story-telling, and the delicious aroma of some amazing pizza and bread sticks!  I could live there very contentedly! We all so enjoyed one another’s company and some excellent food.  And then we had to say our goodbyes to my mother- and brother-in-law.  It was strange; we were all quiet on the drive home. The pounding rain also made it hard to hear one another, but there was silence as we contemplated the ending to our sharing Christmas Day with our family members.  We continue to celebrate Christmas through to the Epiphany, when the Wise Men journeyed across the desert sands in search of the Newborn King.  When they arrived, they knelt in worship before Him and gave Him gifts….that is when our Christmas is at its peak! The first recognition by the world that our Sun of Righteousness is here, as New-Born Babe! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Troparion (a Type of Byzantine Hymn)

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of Wisdom!
For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a star to adore Thee, The Sun of Righteousness!
And to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, Glory to Thee!

Kontakion (a Type of Byzantine Hymn or Refrain)

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him!
Wise men journey with the star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a little child!

Nativity Icon AntiochanAnd even though our family members are flying home today, they share a journey with the Wise Men, who sought Him Who would save us all.  Although they are not physically with us, just as the Saints who have gone before us, they are with us in Spirit and in Prayer.  We all await the moment the Wise Men walk to the Cave, to honor and worship at the the Bed of the King.

King Size Bed

I am sad that things are winding down.  We still have the New Year to ring in and share with some dear, dear friends who we treasure.  So I will not “clean up” Christmas until well after the First of the Year.  But as I stood this morning, looking out across the wonderful view I have of the golf course, the reality of time moving on hit me.  Because when I put away all the lights, the garland and the bows, when our tree is removed from the house and cut down to be used as firewood, the task before me will be to pack up and move our family to another home.  And it will be, once again, in keeping with the Seasons of the Church and our Liturgical Calendar. It is so weird, odd, freaky, and at the same time so incredible, awesome, and wonderful, how our lives mimic the movement of time within the Church.  Because when we relocated here two years ago, we traveled with the Holy Family as they made their way to the Manger in Bethlehem.  And this time when we move, we will be traveling with them, as they made their way to safety in Egypt.  We will, quite hopefully, be relocating and starting a new life as did the Holy Family.  This time, I am praying we can set down some sort of permanent roots, where I can really unpack and stay a while.  We all get to that point where we live in the house we will die in.  And with all the celebration of the Birth of Christ, it is hard to think of the Death of Christ, but without His Death, His birth would have been just another Baby in a Stable, born to homeless parents.  Even though the Holy Family had to cut short the joy of celebrating the Birth of Christ, the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi, they ventured out to a new life in Egypt.  Thanks be to God, our journey is not that far, but a journey it is, nonetheless.  I pray for an Angel to whisper the will of God to us, so we choose the path he has laid out for us.  As I wind down Christmas and relax a little bit, in the quiet of a dark and rainy morning, I contemplate these things and I am filled with joy and hope, and even longing….God is good and we are Blessed.  And the lights on my tree are there, twinkling their glowing message, showing me still, the Star above the Stable….