“…but experience.”

St. Nikolai

I have become a connoisseur of scents. I absolutely love to smell frankincense as we enjoy our Pre-Sanctified Liturgies. And because I am now involved with Essential Oils, my nose has become even more “excited.” The scents from a natural oil are amazing. I realized I am walking around smelling like a sachet packet or an old hippie. I let my hair dry naturally yesterday and it’s all wavy and gray, so I do look rather hippy-ish. Oh well! Today I have some frankincense, thieves, and lemon oils on, laced with a little melaleuca, and all floating in some olive oil. In addition to the great smell (and no longer dry skin), it helps me breathe and get over this darn chest cold thing I have been fighting. All I can say is that it sure smells yummy! In the kitchen I am running the diffuser with some purification oil and our home is starting to smell like spring. I am so glad I was introduced to Essential Oils and the loving way to apply them, with thoughtfulness and prayer.

When I walk into our Church, I can expect to be wonderfully assaulted by some amazing aromas. And once the Divine Liturgy begins, I can totally immerse myself in it, through all my senses. I see the beeswax candles and the glow they provide, while I can gaze on the wonderful Icons we have. There is a scent from the candles, too. There is a wafting, pale scent from the past use of incense. It all provides a wonderful environment. As the Liturgy progresses, we smell the incense filling our lungs and our minds with the Holy. The words of the chant can move your heart, even if the singing is not the best. The readings move your mind to the story of Christ and His suffering. A long time ago, a priest once suggested that as we listen to these readings, especially during Lent, that we try and picture ourselves as being present in the story. Imagine yourself as with Christ and the Apostles, walking with them on this journey to the Cross. It moves you in a different way when you place yourself there.

The entire experience of Divine Liturgy should overwhelm us. It should create in us a beautiful sense of faith and deep commitment to follow more deeply the journey Christ takes to the Cross. And I encourage everyone to immerse yourself in this wonderful time of year; a time of re-birth and re-commitment to our faith. It’s just so amazing and I feel so blessed our Church gives us this wonderful Lenten season each year. I know I need it!

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Blessed Lent.

St. Nikolai

Bright week….

I am laughing on the inside, because I have no voice to express it on the outside! God is having a great time with me. This is Bright Week! The week after Easter, where we in the Eastern Churches continue our celebration of the Paschal Divine Liturgy. There is no fasting allowed. Most who keep the strict Lenten fast don’t even want to see a vegetable in the house! Ha-Ha! This week is the week we keep celebrating the Risen Lord.  We greet one another with “He is Risen! He is truly Risen!” We smile, we laugh, we feast.  Because Our God has done what He promised us He would do.

Easter TableI prepared SOOOO much for Easter. This was my first year in preparing for Easter with a Slavic or Eastern European flavor/style to it. In the Eastern or Slavic nations, each family has a basket and each thing you put in the basket has special significance.  The particulars can vary by country and by ethnic tradition.  First of all, I hunted and hunted and hunted for the perfect Easter basket; it turns out I should have gone with the larger size, because I also prepared quite a lot to go inside it: (1) I prepared Lamb Butter (molded two, actually) by softening butter and placing it in a mold shaped like a lamb – lamb butter!; (2) I dyed 5 DOZEN Easter Eggs using all natural ingredients (brown onion skins, turmeric, and paprika);  (3) I made Easter Cheese called Hrudka (it’s called a custard cheese and from my point of view, as I was stirring it, I wanted to add some raisins and make a proper custard pudding); (4) I also made the traditional Easter bread called Paska or Paskha (2 loaves!!); (5) I made this spread by grating fresh beets, adding horseradish, and then adding a dash of sugar – my husband loved it.  There was also a shaker of Kosher salt in the basket, a small ham, some polska kielbasa, and a “rasher” of uncooked bacon (actually, it was more like several rashers, as a rasher is just a slice of bacon, but I love that word).  I decorated our family candle with crosses and bows and some pearls. It looked so nice!! And I ordered this hand-made cover off e-Bay by this wonderful Russian woman who hand-embroidered it with “Christ is Risen” on it (it was only $10 including shipping and I love it!! It was perfect!!) But, as Easter morning dawned, I knew I was sick.  And I mean SICK.  I did not even make it through the entire morning of prayers and Divine Liturgy. I did not even receive Our Lord in Holy Communion on Easter morning. I was passed out at the table by our basket. Ugh.  Our parish has this lovely tradition of setting the tables up in a “u” shape in the hall and everyone displays their baskets.  Their lovely covers are taken off the basket and laid in front of it, draping over the table.  As the priest walks by, he incenses and blesses each basket with holy water (in our case, it was a waterfall! Father was having so much fun – it made it very special). After the blessing, we share our food with one another, walking around the room, enjoying the Pascha celebration.

Easter Basket 2014On Holy Saturday evening, we attended our granddaughter’s Christening at the local Episcopal Church for their vigil services.  It was supposed to go from 8:00 – 10:00 pm but lasted until after 11:00 pm.  We enjoyed ourselves. They had the lighting of the fire outside, a procession indoors with everyone holding lit candles.  We had some lively music (a blue grass band was there and they were good) and sermon, and then they christened everyone who was prepared. Our granddaughter looked adorable in her Christening gown complete with matching bow and blinged-out cross (I loved it).  I have some wonderful photos of my husband holding our granddaughter after she was christened and both are smiling so big! It fully expressed our joy in the evening.  Then I started getting hot; as in “experiencing my own personal summer” sort of hot. And then my voice dropped a couple of octaves (whatever that is…I started to sound like a man, and I knew that was not good). We scurried home as soon as we could and I knew I would not have a healthy Easter morning.

He is risen.languagesEaster morning dawned and I was ill.  I was so looking forward to our first morning, sharing our baskets and having fun, at our new parish.  I had to leave Divine Liturgy because I started coughing and sweating, and feeling like I just wanted to curl in a ball under my blankets at home – I made it to our basket in the hall and just collapsed.  The rest of the parish processed to the hall and Father blessed our baskets amongst song, incense, and a waterfall of holy water. It was so much fun. He then called all the “littles” into the center of the tables, along with their baskets, blessed them and then the kiddos started to really have fun.  (In our tradition, no one can touch the contents of their baskets until they are blessed.  It takes a great deal of willpower for the kiddos; and for the adults.  There is usually lots of candy and meat!!)  I got myself a large coffee and plopped down by the basket. I didn’t want to get too close to anyone, but I had to crack some eggs, which I joyfully did.  My “warrior” egg was finally demolished by this lovely older woman (at least 80 years old) who promptly confiscated it!  We left before it was all over, because I was dead on my feet.

Basket blessing.2014We got home and I went to bed.  I’ve been mostly in bed since. I took naps most of Monday and just existed yesterday. Today I am so over being sick, but am still hacking and have no voice, and still feeling pretty lousy.  No voice is what my husband says is his Easter gift! Oh ha-ha!  But all this enforced quiet and stillness has been good for me.  Because I realized that all the prep, all the worry, all the hoopla did not really make the day any better – at least for me.  I was too sick to enjoy it all.  But HE still rose. HE still came for me.  HE touched me and has shown me that He is risen! Easter came because He promised us it would; nothing I did or did not do changed the fact of the Resurrection. He is Risen! He is truly Risen!

Holy SepulchreWhen I think of my paltry issues in comparison to people around the world, I am sort of pathetic to even complain. I read an article about the Palestinian Christians denied entry to the Holy Land.  The expression of difficulty they have being less than 50 miles from the Holy Sepulchre itself (pictured above) and not being allowed in by the Jewish authorities just broke my heart.  Several instances where mom or dad would get a permit, but none of the rest of the same family.  It’s just so sad.  However, there was a bit of good news, actually, from Lebanon. I watched one of those “flash mobs” start singing in a mall in Lebanon, the words to “Jesus is Risen” in Arabic.  Reminded me of my days of celebrating at our old Melkite parish!  The video is from 2011, but it is still amazing it exists!  (Watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0ZS9o6NLnM#t=87).  There was an article yesterday by the Melkite Patriarch about the Churches that were destroyed in Syria.  He is asking the world to acknowledge it as war crimes.  My Church is still standing.  Is yours?  Not to mention all the churches in Egypt that were destroyed.  And still the people come. They come because of what Christ promised each of us.

Egyptains prayingThere’s a wonderful tradition about the Holy Fire at the Sepulchre itself wherein a priest (different one each year) enters the tomb and his candle is lit – all by itself – every year. This “holy fire” is then shared by thousands of people, lit one candle at a time.  The photos this year were amazing.

israelfireinternal151So for me, sitting here feeling miserable, my heart still sings. My heart still knows.  I know that Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen! And He did that for me, for each of us, regardless of how we prepare to receive Him, or if we even noticed what day it was, or even if all we know about is Easter Egg hunts and pretty baskets and dresses and hats.  He still came; He died; He Rose.  I find such joy and comfort as we recite in the Nicean Creed:  “… who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried; who rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is enthroned at the right hand of the Father; who will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; and of whose kingdom there shall be no end…”  (*cough-cough; sniff-sniff* ). Regardless of how I prepared, of how aware I was of what was going on; how prepared so much of the world is or is not, it still happens.  He keeps His promises.  Always.

Tomb of Jesus Christ Jerusalem

 

“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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