“..to banquet with angels…”

Lent is really here. Wow. In the West, tomorrow is the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. I have friends visiting Venice, Italy right now and the costumes for Fat Tuesday are actually beautiful!! So many places really do Fat Tuesday in a large way!! (Which is today). Tomorrow, I am sending my youngest son off to a job site about 5 hours north of us, until the last week of April. I am going to miss that kid. He is funny, and is always so happy. We love having him around. So for his send-off I am making boneless ribs in my Instant Pot. If you do not have an Instant Pot, well, you could do it just fine in a crock pot. But I love the variety and convenience of my Instant Pot. Ribs come out amazing. Seriously amazing.

I bought the smaller one for myself and my girlfriend bought me the larger one (Black Friday sales!!!). Why do I need the larger one? Leftovers! LOL! When it is just my husband and myself, the smaller one is fine. What I love about the Instant Pot is you can sauté and prep in the same pot used to cook in the Instant Pot electronic shell. Less to wash. I put it all in the dishwasher, except for the large, outer pot with the electronics. But the inner pot, the lid, and the gasket for the lid all go into the dishwasher. Clean up is amazing! You can see in the photo above, there is a slight difference between the 6 and 8 quart size (I know, 2 quarts, but I am giving you a visual aid here). Soups and stews are incredible in the IP. I made this wonderful chicken dish with chicken breasts you sauté in the pan, deglaze it, place the chicken on the trivet, and add spices and broth and off you go! For the rest of it, you added potatoes and onions partway through the cooking. It was so good. So, as I type this, ribs are thawing on the stove top (I sit my frozen stuff there because I have a puppy. Sigh. He is so tall he can reach anything, except the very back of the stovetop!) and my son is gathering his supplies and washing some clothes; packing up his truck with his tools and things he will need (like his X-Box, games, and movies) and winter gear. Where he is going it is averaging about -1 or so, with night time temps into the the -28 range. Part of the fun of living and working in the Arctic Circle!!

My one-year-old Standard Poodle, Kolbe. He is so tall, he can literally eat off our dining table, the counters in the kitchen, the bathroom counters, the tops of our dressers, as well as a sundry list of other places. He is so smart, he figured out how to open our laundry hamper and sift through it for my husband’s socks. So now I have to place another laundry basket on top of it, upside down, to lock down the hamper lid. His breeder just had another litter of full sibling puppies, and for a brief second, I was tempted. Thankfully my sanity returned and I chose not to go for another one. He is the smartest dog we have ever owned. He does not shed, nor smell like a dog, even soaking wet. He gets wet a lot. He is the best guard dog and also wants to please. He loves training. Agility is coming this summer. I am excited for it. But he does hamper how I prep for dinners. And the Instant Pot he leaves alone. LOL. Thank goodness. Almost time to pop in some ribs!!! Fat Tuesday!!

This Lenten season, we are already fasting from so much, in the foods aspect, as part of our efforts to become healthier. And as I have shared over past posts, I think that giving up coffee or chocolate is fine; walking away from social media is great. It is a sacrifice for many that is really hard. I truly get that. But I have also learned that adding a discipline to my routine can also be a wonderful Lenten tool. I read more. I pray more. I dive into my journaling and prayer companion. I add more that is spiritually uplifting and challenging to my life. I attend more services that are provided during Lent. And hopefully, these added things can become a good habit to incorporate into my life, long after Pascha has come and gone. I know that reading the Church Fathers, the Saints, even some modern theological writings, puts me into a Lenten frame of mind. Availing ourselves of modern technology and listening to Podcasts is a wonderful way to incorporate more spiritually uplifting and focusing works into our lives. Think of the time spent commuting – switch from music on the radio to something like Patristic Nectar’s podcasts, or Father Andrew Stephen Damick’s podcasts, or Father Barnabas Powell, or one of the many wonderful podcasts offered through Ancient Faith Radio. Giving up food is just a part of what it means to prepare during Lent.

I find that saying goodbye to some foods in my diet, to control the portions I do consume, and to be mindful of my plate, helps me develop more of a laser focus on what is important in this life. We cannot afford, for our personal salvific process, to be concerned with what others do for Lent. If someone shares that they gave up caffeine, support them. Those headaches when you choose to be rid of caffeine are no joke! Offer prayers for those who you know are struggling during Lent. Pray for a transformative Lent for others. Sometimes Pascha arrives and we are ho-hum. Sometimes it just becomes another long service we get through. Sometimes it is not even a different or special time for us. My mom, the last time we took her to Church, had no idea where we were, who Jesus was, or had any sort of relationship on a conscious level, to God. And it broke my heart. She has Alzheimer’s and my prayer for her is that her heart is right with God, even if her mind is failing her. For so many people we know, their minds cloud the purity of their hearts. And we cannot judge the quality of someone else’s Lent. Our culture has become so hedonistic, that the idea of giving something up is pretty foreign to people. So if they make any effort towards growth at all, it is time to celebrate for and with them. And always, keep our Christian brethren in prayer, holding one another up in these days of trials. And most especially during Lent.

When we fast it enhances our experiences. And when we end our fast and we begin to feast, it is the most incredible thing you will experience. I recall one year in particular. The boys teased me almost daily, “Is that tofu again?” We followed every dietary fasting requirement we were given. And trust me, in the Eastern Churches, fasting is serious business. And it is for each and every of the 40 days of Lent, not just Wednesday and Friday. So this particular year, we prepared for Holy Saturday. We helped clean the Church, we cooked meat dishes galore. Our priest said he would personally throw any vegetable he saw into the trash! Ha-Ha. The scents coming from the hall as we gathered in the Church were driving us all mad!! We use lots of incense in Church, and most especially on Holy Saturday at midnight. It is so much we have to open windows to breathe. We all love it, though, because our hair and clothes all smell so wonderfully “Churchy” afterwards! The scent of the angels! And this one year, one of the men snuck out early and bought up dozens and dozens of In and Out hamburgers. He had made arrangements with the local location and they had pre-made them for him. When he put those in the hall, we all knew exactly what was waiting for us. And trust me, it was the most amazing feast. Everyone was joyously sharing the Resurrection, with hugs and cracking of eggs, and toasting and eating and singing and dancing. Our son, who is leaving tomorrow and is now 21 years old, was a small child at the time. I think he was about 3 or 4. He was sleeping soundly next to our table, lying on a pile of blankets and jackets. We celebrated until after 3:00 am! Glorious feasting after a long, 40-days of fasting and prayers and almsgiving. And we had grown so much over each of those 40 days. Each day brought its trial and each of them added together, brought us to the magnificent feast of Pascha. Happy Lent, my friends!

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

 

“…and some are first who will be last.”

CharacterI have been pondering so much lately, but writing very little. I even stopped my poetry because life just, well, interfered, as life does.  One thing that has come through in so many areas recently is the subject of Character.  Now, I am not speaking to the idea of someone who makes you laugh and does funny things, as in, ” He’s such a character!”  But rather to the core of who someone truly is.  Because I have seen quite recently that the character that we put out there towards other people, and the character that makes up our very marrow, can be quite, quite different.

Gerontissa GabrieliaI wonder why honesty in our dealings with others is such a hard thing to do.  There are people we all know who change, depending upon the audience. There was a woman I worked with and she was in a position of authority and was quite intimidating at the office. I was invited to her home one Friday evening and came away from that so changed in my attitude towards her as a person. I had no idea she was so nice!  We laughed and had such a wonderful time. Back at work, she reverted to her office “persona;” I much preferred the other woman! Ha-Ha! But I understood her reasoning and I also came to know her better, so that we had lunch quite often and we laughed at jokes and could have a much better relationship at work.  But I asked her why we did not get to see the “real” her at work and she told me it was because she had so much authority and had to impose so much disciplinary action towards employees, that she needed to keep herself a little removed from everyone. She was also worried no one would respect her if she were too nice.  It’s been many years now, but I still always wondered why we can’t just be who we are, with everyone we interact with.

Recently, I was taken in by someone who pretended to be a friend, and who exhibited what I had thought were admirable qualities: volunteerism, camaraderie, leadership, faith, and a strong character.  I literally trusted this person with the lives of those I love. Literally.  And it has come to light recently that it was a huge sham. This person is nothing in ‘real life’ that was trotted out for all of us to see. It turns out the faith is something worn like a suit, but not practiced.  The character was barely skin deep.  The leadership, I devastatingly learned, was by intimidation and coercion, with lots of profanity thrown in for good measure.

Gerontissa Gabriella.2When we interact with people, they trust that “what they see is what they get.”  We implicitly trust others in lots of ways.  We trust our bank to do right with our money and not play fast and loose with our funds. We trust the grocery store to not sell us tainted or bad food.  We trust the gas station to sell gas that honestly is gas and not something watered down that damages our cars.  We trust that when the mechanic says he changed the oil, he really did.  We trust our doctors when they say we need surgeries.  We trust our children’s teachers, their leaders in organizations to have their best interests at heart – and when we leave them for the day (or event, or week, or whatever it is) we trust our children are safe and in capable hands.  We trust our friends to be honest with us; when we ask them to pray for us, we know they will.  We trust our priest – he brings us Christ through his ordination and holy hands.  There are so many people we trust in life, we just don’t think about it all the time. And when your trust with someone is shattered, it can be unraveling.  Like you have to physically take a step back.  And I have – I did.  And I sat down, amazed at the turn of events I had witnessed, and I am just pondering this whole concept of trust and character.

Orthodox NotesOur words and how we treat other people truly do become our actions.  And those actions can become habitual (which is another thing about Lent I am grateful for – a specific time each year I can turn inward and fix those nasty things keeping me from being a better person) if we do not stay on that.  And our habits become the character of who we are.  And that, in turn, determines our destiny. Am I a liar? Do I cheat people regularly?  Am I an honest person? Do I lie? Even silly, white lies, to cover a silly transgression? Or do I own up to who I am and what I have done, trying to atone for that and become better?  Has my character become infected with poor choices of words and deeds, habits that have taken me over?

“And He was passing through from one city and village to another, teaching, and proceeding on His way to Jerusalem. And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them,“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30)

I love that Scripture verse. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  God is among us.  In each of us.  And how we treat others affects His Kingdom.  Will you be known, or will the door be closed and He will know you not? I am thinking more and more about this as I have been shown how duplicitous people can be.  I still believe that honesty in all things is what God is calling us to. I believe He knows who we are, and He desires us to be more and more like Him in all things…that old Theosis philosophy.  And I truly believe that those who pump themselves up in the eyes of others, and who do so lying their way to the top, will be like those in that last statement, “And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”

And one of the most amazing things I have gleaned from this introspective time is that God truly has this in hand, and He has all things. I need to “let go and let God,” allowing Him to work in all things, for our good. Little by little, I see good triumphantly making its way forward.  Little things are happening that show me sometimes the bad is allowed for good to triumph.  And I am getting out of my own way, by learning to discern in silence all these things, for my own growth and betterment.

KeepCalm.PaschaIt is wonderful to know that during Holy Week, as we begin to gradually turn our attention to Our Lord and His lonely walk to Calvary, that things in our lives can mirror it in a cosmic, esoteric way (certainly not like Our Lord suffered).  We all go through our moments of intense suffering, of questioning everything, and having to walk through it, in order to get to the other side, clinging to our own Cross.

I still believe honesty, transparency, and character all count.  They are all characteristics of a person who truly cares for others and is honestly trying to be a Christian disciple.  And I still know that when I am hoodwinked and when someone turns out to be far, far less than I had imagined them to be, I will mourn. It is a physical loss of a friend and an emotional scar.  But I also know Christ allows these things for my edification and growth, for my own character development.

HolyOilCandle.HolyBookThe first three days of Holy Week are treated as sort of one day.  We focus on the Bridegroom and the preparation.  We read today of the virgins and their lamps and of the ten talents.  The gifts we are given and how we use them to best prepare ourselves for the Coming of the Bridegroom, Christ Our Lord.  And preparing for His Coming is something we do all the time, every day, in how we spend our days and our time.  We pray.  We reflect.  We attend services.  We seek confession.  We keep our lamps full and we use fully all the gifts (talents – a form of money, and not something you do well like sing or paint or dance) given to us.  Do we seek a return on our gifts? Do we hide them? Is our lamp filled with oil at all times?  Boy, that is hard to do in our everyday world.  I acknowledge my shortcomings and I pray for my healing – for patience, for character of a sterling quality, and for love for each person I come into contact with.  And I pray, so much, for the gift of forgiveness. Not for me, but that the Lord will help me give over this pain and disappointment and turn it into love and forgiveness for those who have so let me down.  And we keep our lamps full and patiently await the Bridegroom.

Eph 4-26 ForgiveAs I prepare this week to celebrate Pascha and the Resurrection of Our Lord, I am preparing my heart. I am enjoying the smell of our house as I dye our eggs using all these spices I am trying: turmeric, paprika, onion, and vinegar (I only wish our dinner would smell so good). And it is a wonderful way to seek silence in the doing of it, in the preparing of it. I can contemplate and await the Bridegroom through my humble service of preparation for my family and friends.  As I bake break and prepare the other foods and goods in our family’s basket, it is a time of reflection, peace, and prayer.  God is so good to us. He gives us these Holy Days of Holy Week to prepare, to come to Him ready and joyous for His gift of eternal life. I am blessed.

sunrise easter

 

“…you are true heirs of His promise.”

I’m all about planning for Pascha this year. I am excited for it. I got my basket (huge step) and my basket cover (gorgeous), my Ukrainian egg wraps, a recipe for dying eggs red (my last attempt went so-so), and a recipe for Pascha bread.  I am still looking at cheese recipes!  A friend is getting me authentic sausage from back east, too.  I am hoping to get it all together soon.  There is quite a list of what you traditionally fill your baskets with in the Russian/Slavic world!  I took down the last of our interior lights last night (well, okay, I directed the effort as my husband took them down!) and all of our Christmas stuff is gone; our windows look naked!  I laughed because we feel like spring is approaching, but we had a surprise snow storm this week that dumped 14″ on us in one night.  We have a lot of snow, with more coming in the next few days.  So that part of planning for Pascha is rather ironic!  Ha-Ha!

SnowMarch14.2014My kids tease me about my window “jellies.”  I have them for pretty much every holiday!  And I took down Christmas and up goes Easter!  And when we got that snowstorm on Friday, this shot through the front window just made me smile.  There is an old saying that goes something like, “Give God a laugh; tell Him your plans.”  Here I am planning for spring, dealing with temps in the 40s and slushy, mushy rain, running to Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, only to come out about an hour later to a snow storm and temps down around 24-degrees!  I couldn’t believe it!  The drive home was so not fun! But I remembered that saying and know that God is in charge!

So today, I found some recipes for dying the eggs red.  And I thought about an experience a year or two ago, when we were attending a Roman Church in WA at Easter. We took a basket of red eggs to share, as that had been our tradition from years past as Byzantine Catholics.  No one had seen red eggs before.  I laid them at the foot of the altar in a basket and people just stared at me.  (We always stood out – my husband is a Melkite deacon and always dressed for “Mass” in his Sticharion [outer tunic] and hat, called a skoufus. We do not melt into the crowd anyway!) I had told our priest I was going to do it and he thought it was an excellent idea and gave me permission beforehand.  At the donut and coffee hour afterwards, he silenced everyone and handed me a microphone, where I explained the tradition and we passed around eggs to everyone.  Luckily I had made enough!  But no one had ever heard the story, nor knew of the tradition. I had some elaborately decorated ones, too, in the Slavic tradition, and those were also foreign to the parish community.

red_eggs_166w_170hAnd it made me sad.  Sad because it seems like we’re becoming a beige country. And also sad because very few people are aware of other traditions other than those egg dying kits you buy in the grocery stores!  I have gone that route, with the little tablets, vinegar in bowls…the dye leaching into clothes and carpeting when you want to hide them.  Naturally dyed eggs don’t run! Wrapped eggs aren’t dyed! How easy is that?  And, there is so much more out there. The traditions and expressions of our faith are as diverse as the countries Christianity is found in.  And it is NOT beige!

Ukrainain Egg Wraps 3No one wants to celebrate our ethnic diversity, unless of course, it is a PC ethnicity.  Today there are articles abounding over the controversy of Heineken, Guinness, and Sam Adams beers pulling out of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York because the parade organizers decided long ago that the parade is to honor St. Patrick and no other banners, except those honoring the Saint, can be carried.  Some LGBT groups wanted to be included and wanted to carry their own banners. The organizers said they can walk in the parade, but the parade is about the Saint. Period. Which happens to be a 1st Amendment right! So, because the parade is not inclusive enough, the beer companies pulled their sponsorship.  The Catholic League is calling for a boycott of those brands.

St.Patrick.iconI wish everyone would go back to the days when we could all be proud of where we were from, to acknowledge and appreciate those differences, and share in celebrating them.  Today, around the world, everyone wears green and is Irish, just for a day.  What’s wrong with having fun with that and learning to like corned beef and cabbage (not my thing, I have to admit)?  The traditions that make up who we are as a nation, and who we are as a Church, are to be celebrated, not boycotted.  We need to savor and hold onto our cultures.  The world is becoming beige, as races and cultures intermarry and people immigrate (legally) from country to country.  It is sad that some people have to use these tools like Ancestry.com to find out where they come from.  Our ethnic parishes, as it becomes the third generation after the initial immigrants arrived, are finding their youth moving away and marrying outside their ethnicity and religious practices.  Beige.  It has never been a favorite color of mine. We celebrate where we come from, but are ever mindful of who we are in faith:

“For now that you have faith in Christ you are all sons of God. All of you who were baptized “into” Christ have put on the family likeness of Christ. Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female—you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are true descendants of Abraham, you are true heirs of his promise.” (Gal 3:28-26) 

Entrance of the Tomb One of my favorite traditions in the Melkite Church’s celebration of Pascha is when we sing, “Christ is risen! He is truly risen!” or “Al Masiah Qaam! Haqqan Qaam! / Al Massihu Qam! Haqqan Qam!” or “Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti!”.  And we greet each other with “Glory to His Resurrection on the Third Day! We glorify His Resurrection on the Third Day!”  It becomes so loud and boisterous inside that Church – poor neighbors!  The photo above is of everyone re-entering the Church under the empty Tomb of Christ.  The song that then gets everyone going is, “Christ is risen from the dead and by His death He has trampled upon death, and has given life to those who are in the tombs!”  Boy, you have never experienced a Pascha (Easter) Vigil until you have experienced the ones celebrated in our old parish!  The lamps are swinging, it’s after 1:00 a.m., everyone is tired and their voices are hoarse, but they sing it as loud as they can, and everyone is laughing and Fr. Justin is running up and down the aisles swinging that incense!  It has to be one of the most joyous experiences I have ever had.  Am I Arabic? Nope! Scots/English girl here.  But can I embrace the spiritual, cultural, and social customs of an ethnic parish? You bet I can! I relish in it.  Because to me, we are sharing what makes our Church truly universal.  And there is absolutely nothing to compare to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a midnight Easter Vigil, Fr. Justin’s exhausted enthusiasm, and the smell of MEAT cooking just yards away – a smell no incense can wipe out after 40 days of fasting; trust me on that.

So this year, our first year up here in Alaska, celebrating in a Byzantine parish, I am learning all new traditions.  And I am loving it.  Why? Because my world just expanded again.  I didn’t boycott because they don’t use Melkite chant or the Arabic and Greek languages, nor fast in exactly the same way.  I am, instead, learning some Slavonic and trying hard to wrap my head around some Russian.  I am not leaving one behind and embracing one in its place, I am adding to my religious experience; my repertoire, if you will.  This process of Theosis, or my salvation, is a long one. It will take my eternity!  God will take us on some wild rides in our journey, if we allow it to happen. I may not celebrate wearing all green today, nor will I be breaking my fast with corned beef, but I sure can support those who do.

Red easter egg.2The tradition of red eggs at Easter is explained above.  When two Christians greet one another at Easter, it is with an egg held in their hand (preferably hard boiled and colored/decorated!).  They clang eggs, symbolizing the opening of the Tomb, and they say to one another, “Christ is risen! He is truly risen!”  (The one whose egg does not break is considered the “winner” and goes on, cracking eggs with others in greeting until their egg is broken.  Then they eat that one and get another one!) I think sharing something with people that comes from another culture makes us better; it makes our faith more universal, or catholic.  And God came for all peoples, in all places, not just a select few. He came for me! And I am getting excited! Next try is dying eggs using yellow onion skins…I’ll let you know how they come out!!

Lent is a time

“Are you still sleeping?”

KeepCalm.PaschaI am learning patience in a completely new way and I think I like it.  I was raised in a place where we took the sun for granted.  It was just always there.  You could look up and always see it.  The seasons barely manifested themselves.  We would get a slight turning of the leaves when fall would approach, and then we’d get rain.  But I remember many a Christmas wearing shorts because it was so hot.  I also recall Halloweens when we did not want to wear a costume because we’d sweat to death.  And I also recall many, many hot, sweltering days during the summertime when even the air conditioning could not keep up with the heat.  I also remember cold mornings with fog during the summertime. I remember walking to the rec center with my brother and we’d have on shorts but would also be wearing sweaters because it was foggy and cold.  But by the time we walked home again, it would be so hot that the pavement felt hot beneath our shoes.  And the sun was always with us.  Always.  Even during the shorter days of winter we had sunny and hot days.  As I have moved north, I have come to experience the sun in such different ways.  I just never realized how different the days could be, or how different seasons can be.  And I must say, people who live in the more “warm, always sunny” climates are missing out on some beautiful days.

When we lived in the greater Seattle area, I experienced the oddest thing.  I experienced blowing leaves and rain that were both coming down so hard, the wiper blades got stuck.  I had to get out of my car in the wind, rain, and blowing leaves to unclog the blades so I could see where I was going. It was truly a fall experience. The leaves were a cornucopia of golds and reds, yellows and oranges. It was glorious!  And shorter days really became shorter days. It would be pitch black at 5:00pm!  And the smell of fall…it is so hard to describe, but it was simply glorious.  I also never really understood all that decorating in fall colors, the different styles of gourds (pumpkins are just 1 of zillions) and the drinking of hot beverages, until I lived in the Pacific Northwest!  I think fall became my favorite time of year when we lived in Washington State.  And it holds a special place in my heart. I will ever miss and long for those fall days in Maple Valley.

And now I live in the “far north,” the farthest north you can live and still be in America.  It’s the home of the Iditarod and mushing, snow machining and ice fishing.  It is called the “Land of the Midnight Sun” because during the summertime, we have very little dark.  The oddest thing for me was taking my husband to the airport at 2:00am and not needing headlights. Perfectly light outside. On my way home, about 3:00am, I put on my head lights.  And the other half of that saying is that it is the “Land of the Midnight Sun for three months, then the land of no sun.”  And that is where I am today.

Ice close upWe are in Lent.  At the end of Lent we have Easter.  Typically Easter means Spring.  It is also characterized by bright colors, flowers, and cute Easter dresses for girls, Easter bonnets, baskets, and little bunnies.  All bright pinks, yellows, greens, and blues!  Did I tell you have I grandchildren? Easter shopping for them is just so much fun!  Except that up here, it is still winter.  Today we have wind just howling against our house, shaking the little “Welcome to our Home” sign I recently got on clearance at Michael’s Craft Store (and which I am seriously thinking of taking down for awhile – it rattles against the house. Maybe that’s why it was on clearance!!!) and our combo screen/glass door rattling so that it sounds like someone is coming inside the house – which the dogs think they need to bark about and the cat needs to scurry away and hide from. We have snow in our forecast for today and tomorrow, as well as next week.  It is a whopping 27-degrees outside right now.  And we are preparing for Easter.  I put my little jelly clings on my windows, all eggs and “Happy Easter,” yesterday and it was blowing snow.  It is just such a difference from what I have ever experienced in life. In Washington, the tulips were coming up by now!  In California, it was already shorts and flip-flops, iced tea and A/C weather!!  But here, no here, it is still winter.  And it’s still Lent!

I am planning our family Easter Basket in the Slavic tradition and have plans for making lamb butter (just a mold – not made out of a lamb) and cheese, getting some real German sausage, coloring my eggs (I even got some awesome Ukrainian egg wraps), and making a bow for it.  And it is hard, trying to get excited about Easter, when it is all dark and gloomy.  And it’s still Lent.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”  He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”  Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy.So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.Then He came to His disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Matthew 26:36-45)

And I feel so guilty that I cannot even “stay awake” with the Lord. He has asked us to pray with Him, to keep watch with Him.  Our watch with Him is Lent.  He has asked us to help Him when His heart was so distressed, knowing what was facing Him.  He wanted those who loved Him to be at His side. Christ, being also God, knew what was in the hearts of the three He had with Him. He even commented that He knew their “flesh is weak,” which I take to mean that God knows our trials are hard, but we are fleshy-humans with weak wills that succumb to our bodily weaknesses.  The Apostles didn’t truly understand what Christ was about to go through, or I am sure their fear would have kept them wide awake.  I always found it interesting that the deceit of Judas came in the dark, as most evil intentions do.  And here I am, living in a land with so much of the year in darkness.  The land struggles to find its way to Spring, just as we struggle to find our way through Lent.  From the darkness to the light.  From the Fast to the Feast.  From floundering with ourselves, to the Light of Christ in our lives.

Lent Strengthens a manWe all have demons and we all struggle with them. Our culture does not help us to tame our demons; it is a hedonistic society in which we live, in which esoteric struggles are met with “If it feels good, do it,” and other slogans. The idea of self-sacrifice is so foreign to most people.  People of faith, however, are more used to models of sacrifice; the ultimate model of self-sacrifice is Christ on Our Cross.  Because let’s not fool ourselves!  Christ died for me.  He came into this world to save sinners…and that is me.  Christ would have sacrificed Himself had I been the only soul on earth.  Because God deemed it right! “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).  Christ came to save us, but we need to remember that He came to save ME.  It makes all of this far more personal, and salvation is, indeed, very personal.  We, each of us, has to come to a personal knowledge and thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross…and that cross has each of our names on it.  Each time that hammer pounded on His Flesh, it was for ME.  Each time His skin was torn through His Flagellation at the hands of the soldiers, it was torn for ME – it was torn BECAUSE OF ME.  Each of us can personally share in the sacrifice of Christ, and each of us bears responsibility for that sacrifice.  What helps bring the Spring, and allow the Light of Christ to shine, is how we corporately prepare and corporately celebrate this Gift from God – our salvation.  We prepare together and hold each other up as we go out to meet the demons and the angels.  We mourn together during Holy Week as we walk, once again, along that Way of the Cross with a beaten and battered Lord Who willingly gave His life for each of us.  And when the clouds passed over His Cross, when the Temple’s cloth was torn asunder, and the sun shone brightly, we hold our collective breath.  As Our Lord is lowered from our Cross and laid in His tomb, we wait, breathless, for the sun to shine.  For that moment when He rises past all of it, to appear in Glory.

I believe that our passing through all these dark days, when we long for Spring and some warm weather, is the perfect time for Lent.  It is amazing how much the sun can change how you look at everything.  A couple of sunny days in a row and I am ready to redecorate! I want to paint and pull all the stuff off the walls and scrub! I want the light to come into a clean place.  And I get all excited.  And that is also the process of Lent.  We pray. We sacrifice. We live in the darkness, just waiting for the snow to melt around our hearts and the sun (Son) to shine in all the dark places we’ve allowed to go untouched for far too long.  And we can all feel it coming closer.  We start to see that light far off.  Occasionally the Church gives us a Feast Day in amongst all the fasting, and we get a glimpse of the full sunshine that is coming.

Ukrainain Egg Wraps 3It is all so awesome.  I will gladly not eat meat or treat myself to another movie, or read some incredible words penned by a Church father…because it is all preparing me for the day of the ultimate sunshine in my life, Pascha!  Easter baskets will be shared, foods will be eaten, eggs will be cracked against each other, and everyone will be smiling.  I KNOW that is coming. I KNOW God is working in my life and helping to prepare my heart for Pascha.  For now, I will do like this photo:

Weather the stormAnd I will do so with a preparatory heart, knowing that:2Thessalonians3-3Blessed Lent!

“God had planned something better for us” Hebrews 11:40

Orthordox Church.interiorThere is a synergy at work in the world, and sometimes I just marvel at it.  There are times when meeting new people, or just hanging with people you know, that some other odd connection pops up.  It makes the world seem smaller, and less daunting, somehow.

I saw a posting on Facebook today where all these people were opining and it was so fun to see disparate people, who I know do not know one another, chat and yet, I know both of them.  It was pretty neat because they live on opposite sides of the country, and still found common ground, and I was able to witness that.  I had nothing to do with it, either, I just happened upon it.  I think that is so awesome.

I was reading about some guy on a reality show tweeting something that people found offensive.  He made a couple of statements about how the “US is a great place to live, but you need to know there is a lot more out there.”  And with all that is going on in Ukraine, with Russia, and our part in Afghanistan, with Britain giving its input, and stories out of South America, stories of things happening in Africa, it does seem like the world is smaller these days.  When my kids were traveling from Hawaii back to Alaska, we were talking about the long flight (with a 4-month old and 2-year old, and a husband on crutches, it was LONG) between the two places.  But imagine going on “vacation” where you had to travel by boat?  From Alaska to Hawaii?  Days and weeks, not hours.  When my parents immigrated to the USA, they came via steamer from New Zealand.  It took weeks and weeks. And I remember as a child, we had to schedule, in advance, a phone call with my grandparents in New Zealand, to talk on Christmas Day, from California.  There was only one cable linking the two places, and phone calls were very limited.  We only spoke briefly, and rarely, to my grandparents.  They received some news, fashion, and the latest technology usually a year or two behind us.  We were separated by an ocean.  Much the same was happening to my husband’s family still living in Russia, and with his family here. The only conversation allowed was by letter, and that was spotty, at best.  Technology has changed all of that.  We are now smaller, and closer, and more quickly connected than ever before.

Wireless CommunicationI’m not, technically, Orthodox, although we call ourselves, “Orthodox In Communion With Rome,” but I had to share that photo!  There has been all sorts of communication going on, otherworldly, and worldly, for thousands of years.  And every once in awhile, God allows us a little glimpse of His handiwork.  And today, seeing disparate friends communicate through Facebook, neither knowing that either of them knows me, was a peek of how awesome Our God truly is.  He gave me a little smile, caused by a little glimpse into how He is working, constantly, in our lives, even when we don’t have the hard and fast physical evidence in front of us to “prove it.”

We are now completing our first full week of Lent.  And God continues to move across His landscape.  I’ve seen some amazing sunrises lately, and I’ve seen some beautiful sites in our little world up here.  I’ve gazed into the face of my adorable grand daughter, and seen a priceless smile as she gains my eyes and recognizes me.  My grandson’s unfiltered laughter just makes my heart sing.  Watching my granddaughter on a video on my phone (she lives far away) smiling and laughing into a toy phone (that’s my girl!!).  These are precious moments captured for me, that show the goodness we have in our lives…and the overabundance of Grace working in them.  There is so much to be grateful for, and difficulty (all on our side) of receiving that gift from God seems ridiculously easy…just faith in God.  So simple. So uncomplicated.  And yet we buck conformity to religion all the time.  God left us His will in His Apostles, and His Tradition was exercised in His Church for 100s of years before we even had a Bible.  We trust in all of it because trust is part of believing.  The Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, talks about the faith: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1) It goes on and on, telling us what we believe is based on faith and trust in God.  So many examples from Abel and Abraham, to Isaac and Moses – the faith we were given goes back 1000s of years, to the beginning of time, itself.

In her wisdom, the Church has asked us to focus these 40 days on our faith.  Today I saw that faith revealed in such simple ways.  It is amazing what you see when you take the time to focus.

Blessings on our continued Lenten journey….

Easter Bunny....

“…weep for your children…”

The Holy Family

Holy Family IconI am thinking about family today.  Two years ago today (2012) my father-in-law (memory eternal) passed away, with my husband and middle son sitting at his side.  It was a very sad event for all of us, because he was relatively young and the disease of cancer took him so very quickly.  It was important to my eldest son and his wife that they be there, to introduce their newborn son to his great-grandpa, even if it was on his deathbed.  It was a transcendent moment in so many ways. I remember about 28 years ago when my son, around the same age, was sitting with his great-grandfather as he lay dying.  And it was repeated a generation later.  We mourn the loss of my father-in-law today; my husband most especially.  But my sons feel the loss deeply, as their grandpa was such a big part of their childhood and growing up.  We have so many wonderful memories spent together as a family.  Memory eternal, Joe.

In today’s reading, Christ speaks to the women who are following Him on his way to the Cross.  “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me; weep instead for your children, for indeed the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.'” (Luke 29:28-30)  Today, as I was contemplating our family and our losses, when I read this, I also mourned all the children we have lost to miscarriage (there are seven in all). As I lamented the loss of my babies, I also feel blessed for not having a lot of children. That sounds odd, but being barren for most of my marriage has given me a heart for other women who cannot have children; a heart for those who have lost children in miscarriage as I have; a heart to adopt (which we did); and a heart for those mothers who lose their children later in life, and who go before their parents (disease, accident, war).  It is difficult to comfort a mother who grieves the loss of a child.

Today online there has been much chatter about Ukraine and Russia.  What is going to happen?  Who is going to do what? The Russians moved troops?  And I could not help but think of the grieving families in Ukraine, but also in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa, and in South America.  There are so many “hot spots” around the world right now ( if I missed one, apologies).  We mothers never stop being mothers, regardless of the age or independence of our children.  And I worry for all those who must put on a uniform and bear arms against others.  I do not want mothers to grieve over the loss of children to war, or any other cause.  Is it truly the time when we will be happy we have never had a child, as Christ predicted?  A friend sent me a link today to a Catholic organization (or movement or group…not sure how to categorize it) dedicated to just that, the “final battle.”  And I thought, “Wow.  Has it come to this?  Are we really preparing for that last war?”

Great Lent is just about upon us.  For me, Lent is a time when I come into a more simple, basic relationship with God. And for me, that works best when I strip away things that keep me from focusing my attention on God.  During Lent, I work extra-hard on taking down those things that place a sort of blockade between me and God.  The Church has us focus on food during Lent – why? Some far better bloggers than I am have tackled that today.  What I took from them is that food is our original passion:  Adam and that darn apple.  What we choose to consume feeds a baser desire within us.  Food and eating is an intimate act for a person.  We have desires for food and quite often we are unable to separate our desires for satisfaction in our lives for satisfaction with eating habits. I am overweight, and for me, that means I have issues somewhere within myself that cause me to turn to food, when I should turn to something else, like prayer.  So for me, Lent is an opportunity to tame a disordered part of my life and bring it into order.  I try to really fast.  This year my husband and I are digging in our heels and being stubborn.  Last night he chose to not get dessert for the family while at the grocery store.  A small, fasting-led, victory over our base-passions.  (We will take all the victories we can get!).

Abbot NazariusDuring Lent, we are also asked to participate more fully in the life of the Church.  We will be dedicating ourselves to attending as many prayer-evenings, parish functions, and community get-togethers as we can.  We are also dedicated to simplifying the technology in our lives.  Not as much TV, computers, music, iPods, and iPhones.  We will be substituting spiritual reading in place of technology; or just being together, quietly, as a family.

And with all of this paring-down, cutting-back, and increased periods of quiet, I will think of those I miss of our family. I will pray for all our family members who are no longer with us; I will pray for my babies, already in heaven and waiting for me. I will pray for all those lost because of war, famine, and other disasters around the globe.  And in the quiet, I will pray that this is not the “final war” that is spoken of in whispers.  I will pray that my daughters-in-law will not weep for their children, nor I for mine.  I pray that God will grant the world a respite from all the ugliness that is encompassing it.  And when I see those first buds of spring flowers poke their heads over our snow-covered yard, I will once again smile.  Spring itself seems like it is God’s promise of tomorrow.  Perhaps all the quiet, the simple fare eaten, the time spent in prayer and reading, will lead me to a greater love for God and His desires in my life, because I think I can hear Him much easier in a quieter, simpler, less-cluttered life.

BlessingEasterBaskets.RussiaAnd this year, for the first time, I am organizing and really planning our family Easter Basket.  The tradition of a family basket is shown in the artwork above; a Russian village is waiting for their baskets to be blessed. We will be preparing the foods and other items to go into our basket and I am so very excited – I ordered and received our basket cover! (It is so pretty – thank you Matushka Anita, for making it for me). I am looking forward to the preparation and assembly of our basket.  And, rather than argue about what each person does, what they eat or don’t eat, I am focusing on my own spiritual renewal and re-commitment to my faith during Lent, and the plans for a joyous Easter celebration.  Perhaps there will come a day when I weep for my children, or my grandchildren:  I pray that it is not in my lifetime.  For me, now, there is much to look forward to, and this time of Lent is preparing us for our future, our moment of Spring and sunshine, flowers blooming and birds chirping, and a nice roast cooking for dinner!

Cheesefare WeekHappy Wednesday of Cheese Fare week.

Memories eternal to Joe and Frank, our fathers who left us for their blessed repose.

“…for the egg you hold to turn red…”

Ukrainain Egg Wraps 3So much of what we think we know when we are young, is completely dashed on the rocks when we get older.  My middle son, when a freshman in High School, put us in an awkward position.  He was barely in high school and we had our youngest son, who was 4 or 5 at the time, and in kindergarten. It was nearing the Christmas holiday season.  To give some background, our family always celebrates the Feast of St. Nicolas by putting our shoes in the hallway, and in the morning, gold-foil-covered coins would be in our shoes.  (Our middle son and youngest son also share their same birth date with the feast day of St. Sabbas, December 5th, the day before St. Nicolas). The story of St. Nicolas of Myra and his generosity always brought such joy to my husband and I, and we shared that with our children.  We often also shared that there were many years that Christmas should not have happened, and that we believed St. Nicolas interceded for us.  St. Nicolas always made an appearance at our parish, bringing chocolate treats to the kids dressed in traditional Bishop’s clothing.  When we were asked by our children if “Santa Claus” was real, we sort of side-stepped it by telling them that we definitely believe in St. Nicolas of Myra. In his memory, through the centuries, Santa Claus was developed, in keeping his sainted memory alive for each generation. We reminded them that we also believe that the Saints are with us always, in the Church Triumphant.  Those are the words we used, but our children heard, “Yes, of course, Santa is real!”  As I said at the beginning, our middle son was in that space between boy-man, and a very naive high school freshman.  (We homeschooled him until he entered a local, Catholic High School).  We asked him to help us hide some Christmas gifts for our youngest son in his closet, and he was devastated.  We had no idea he still believed in the mystery of Christmas morning; he totally bought the whole “Santa” idea and he was crushed.  He then questioned us about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Guardian Angels.  What a conversation we had with him.  Now in his late 20s, a college graduate (degree in Ancient History – of course!!) and a married, and imminently expectant father, he still remembers this event.  It made us feel like we had perpetrated a hoax on him and ruined his wonderful childhood memories. Our youngest son, we think, has a handle on it.  But we also think he likes to believe in the miraculous, and also uses it to his advantage.  This past Christmas, at the ripe age of 13, he shared with us his lists – birthday and Christmas.  He said what he didn’t get for his birthday (on the 5th of December) he would love to “get from Dad…oh, I mean, Santa, or St. Nicolas,” at Christmas.  I let it slide, but I think he gets it.  This weekend is Easter…and with that comes preparing for the Easter Bunny…goodies, foods, baskets, and all that we celebrate with it..and there has been so much on the internet and Facebook.  One posting that bothers me greatly is the picture below:

Silly RabbitI firmly believe in the Resurrection of Our Lord, for without that, our religion would not exist; without Easter, Christmas is meaningless.  That being said, I think that the traditions that have sprung up around these Holy-Days (aka Holidays) bring an added dimension to them.  Yes, there are those who ONLY know about the Bunny.  They ONLY know about chocolate eggs and dressing up and hunting for candy eggs. Religion does not enter into the equation at all.  I get that.  Perhaps it is because of my education in Anthropology and History, that I love all the traditions (small t) that surround these Holy Days of ours.  (Why do we hunt for eggs at Easter? Hmmm…hint: someone was missing from the Tomb and was being sought).  Some pessimists posted under pictures like the one above statements like, “It is a pagan holiday anyway; the Church stole it.” and “Christ wasn’t born in wintertime; they stole that pagan celebration, as well.”  Yes, the Church stole those dates.  It was easier as the Church was growing, to incorporate the local traditions and cultures and expound on them, using what was in place to further explain our faith.  St. Patrick is famous for using the 3-leaf clover to explain the Trinity, and it became “lucky.”  The Church used holidays for new birth and coming forth in Spring as the perfect time for Christ to emerge from His Tomb, the Risen Lord. It made sense.  Slowly, over the centuries, many traditions (small t) grew around these Holy-Days and only enhanced the wonder and joy of them. Re-birth, spring flowers, sunshine emerging from a dark winter (why do so many Christians gather for “sunrise services” on Easter Sunday?) and empty crosses…all symbolic of the emergence from Hades (for 3 days), from death, from His tomb – of Our Risen Lord.

One of the most profound things I love about the history of our faith is the history of the construction of our Churches. Western, Catholic churches, first and foremost, are in the shape of a Cross.  Also, in European, western culture, very few people could read.  So the builders of our oldest Cathedrals, at the instruction of our Church Fathers, incorporated incredible stained glass windows to tell the story of Christ, the Church, and its Saints.  Statues were made, depicting episodes from the life of Christ.  The Pieta is one of my very favorites.  There is a saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  The early Church builders and Fathers of the Church, knowing the poor education of its people, created a special place where the tenets of the faith could be shown in picture and statue form.  A person would walk into a Church and be in a different realm, a heavenly realm, a place where God would be present in his people, in His temple. And their senses were enveloped by the sights, sounds, colors, and smells of their faith.

In the East, the tradition of the Icon was developed.  The beginnings of iconography are in the Catacombs themselves.  One of the first images shared by Christians is of the Fish, emblazoned on the walls of the Catacombs, guiding believers to the liturgies being held in secret in pagan Rome.  The first Icon by St. Luke is an incredible story.  (http://www.stlukeorthodox.com/html/iconography/iconhistory.cfm) The Byzantine and Orthodox believe that Icons are the window to the soul and tell a story.  Everything in an icon is symbolic; they are not meant to look realistic in the sense of a Raphael painting. We do not paint icons, rather, we write an icon.  The icons fill the Eastern Churches with an other-worldly sense of the sacred.  With the colors on the walls and ceilings, the candles, incense, and icons, you enter into a deeply reverent, heavenly experience while still here, on earth.  Most Orthodox and Byzantine Churches do not have pews.  The meaning behind it is pretty profound.  We do not kneel – we stand in the Presence of God.  For example, when the President or other dignitary enters a room, everyone stands.  How much more should we greet Our Lord, Who is present in His Temple?  The western tradition of kneeling comes from (this is what I love about learning history) the way a knight would kneel in the presence of his lord and master, often for the first time when being knighted.  This is a medieval tradition, carried over into our western liturgies.  In the older, western Cathedrals, there are no pews, either.  The pews came in slowly, for the royals, and were boxed-off from the regular people, to keep the peasants away from royalty, as they worshiped.  Slowly, pews were extended for everyone.  In the Anglican Church (and many Episcopal and Lutheran churches), boxed pews are still reserved for those with higher status in the community.  In the East, the kneeling and sitting aspects of common worship did not wend their way into our liturgical tradition.

Icon wall

These traditions, which surround our Holy Days, are ways the Church, in Her profound Wisdom, has helped us to preserve what we believe.  Songs, hymns, prayers, eggs, and certain foods, drinks, and attire – they are all a part of our celebrations.  I believe that if we destroy them, in a rush to be politically correct, we will loose far more.  It is our job as parents and educators of our children, and evangelists in our own communities, to share where these traditions have their roots; the whys and wherefores can be profoundly moving.

One of my dearest friends and I were talking yesterday and we spoke about friendship.  One of the fallacies that we allow to perpetuate in our children is that concept of “best friends;” or even the term of “friend,” itself.  We truly have very few friends in life. We have fellow Christians (I am grouping all of us together), co-workers, neighbors, relatives, acquaintances; yes. I do not think, any longer, that I have to maintain relationships after their expiration date. God brings people into our lives for a time and a purpose and when that is over, it is okay to let that relationship go.  This is another of those traditions that we carry on, but our Church Fathers tell us that we need not cling to people.  Scripture certainly tells us about keeping others away who do not believe as we do.  An earlier post of mine dealt with this (Avoid Conversation with Him), so I won’t dwell on it here.  But as my friend and I spoke, we shared so many things that unite us as friends.  We have history together (we’ve been friends for more than 20 years) and we have a common faith; a faith we use to hold one another up when we cannot be in the same room, or even the same state!  The traditions of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, those are much the same thing.  They are acting as magnets to a greater truth. My friend stimulates me to be a better woman of faith; acting as a magnet, as it were, to my better self.

A saying keeps popping into my head – “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  And I cannot help but apply that to our commercialism surrounding Easter (and Christmas).  I always buy my kids summer outfits, water pistols, kites, swim trunks, flip-flops and t-shirts, etc.  They symbolize our walking into a new Season, a Season of Light and Faith…a summertime!  Celebration and fun!  The fast is over! Christ is Risen! Glorify Him!! I rarely buy chocolate Easter bunnies, but usually find a chocolate Cross…my insertion of a visible Christ into these Springtime traditions.  So many things about Easter – baskets, eggs, green grass, hot-cross buns, etc. are rich in tradition and I choose to keep them in, being perhaps not as correct as some of my fellow Christians. For those of us who are steeped in the traditions of our faith, we have tiny reminders all year around, of this faith to which we cling so mightily.  The ones we celebrate with each season only enhance our faith; they do not detract from it.  I love these traditions and I love celebrating Easter and all our other Holy Days, with all the traditional hoopla involved.

We brought a new tradition to a Latin Rite, Roman Catholic parish one year and they absolutely loved it.  We introduced them to red Easter eggs; they also were treated to onion-skin-dyed eggs (an Estonian tradition I learned as a child) as well as intricately designed Ukrainian-wrapped eggs.  It is an amazing thing, to bring our faith to others…and I love everything about it. To share just one of the myriad of traditional Easter celebrations, I will leave you with an interesting insight into the Byzantine and Orthodox tradition of Red Easter Eggs.

Red easter egg.2

“…the path by which you should go.”

St. Isaac the Syrian5

Today I am digging deep inside myself, because I am on watch.  My step father is fighting his last fight and I am deeply saddened.  I am looking deeply into my own walk with God and my own zig-zag pathway to eternity.  I recall so many of the wonderful chats we have had over the past 30 years; the many, many laughs he has given us.  Today, though, I am remembering the more sober, serious conversations we have had and I am praying for his soul; I am praying for a peaceful death and reunion with God.  Over the years, we have spoken about his mistakes, the ways in which he wishes he could have behaved differently. The beautiful part of that is that he recognized those mistakes and he acknowledged a life lived apart from his faith.  He struggled to get himself right with God, even before there was a diagnosis of cancer.  He went to his priest, he made a long confession, and he got himself back into Church.  Nearer to the end of his life, he sought comfort in his faith.  And he brought my mom with him; that is a gift I will forever be grateful for.

St. John Chrysostom2

Today, and once again, Abbot Tryphon wrote a post on his Facebook wall about relationship and our fear of them.  It was a beautiful piece and I quote some of it here: “Grieving the loss of a relationship, either by death or breakup, is just as important to the maturation of our heart, as having a long term relationship, for in grieving we allow ourselves to stay connected to others, and remain openhearted to what God has for us. If fear of loss disables us, we may not be able to risk having anything that really matters to us, for by throwing courage to the side, we deprive ourselves of the touch and the intimacy that helps us open our hearts to all that God has in store for us.

Grieving is the way you can heal from loss, and, in turn, be open to relationships that can make your life more complete, and more fulfilled. Many people do not allow themselves to grieve, so they deprive themselves of relationships that can lead to spiritual growth that only comes through suffering loss. You grow stronger if you allow yourself to grieve when you’ve experienced loss, for grieving is one of the most fundamental of life skills. It is the way that the heart can heal from loss and go on to love again and grow wise. If we refuse to love another, for fear of loss, we remain closed off from not only others, but from God. “He who does not love remains in death (1 John 3:14).

As the Abbot stated, we cannot close ourselves off from relationship for fear of grieving; “grieving is one of the most fundamental of life skills.”  Today I am grieving because while my stepdad is struggling for each and every breath today, I grieve the loss of someone in my life who really affected my entire family.  My mom is a better woman because he chose to love her.  He loved me and my children as if we were born through him. never differentiating between any of us.  And I am forever grateful for that. My brother told him on Saturday that he hopes he can love his wife as my stepdad loved our mother and he thanked him for loving our mom so totally.  What a gift he gave us.  And I know he would be embarrassed by my saying this in a public forum, and he would joke it away; but I also know he would secretly be very pleased to know he touched us all so deeply.  My sons learned a lot from their grandpa and they all love him very much.  He used to play with my sons and tell them silly stories. But most of all, he shared himself with them and that is a priceless gift.

Lent is surely trying us this year.  I am still clinging to Elder Thaddeus’ book and struggling to make my way through it.  The book and his thoughts have truly touched my heart and soul this year, and I hope engendered permanent changes to the woman I am. He stated that, ” Our Lord is pleased with the good deeds we perform.  Works of mercy and everything else we do for our salvation and the benefit of our neighbor and the Holy Church, all this is pleasing to God.  However, what pleases Him most is simple, innocent and childlike love which cleaves to His heart.  This is what is most pleasing to Him and what He wants from us. This is what every person can give Him, rich or poor, young or old.”  My stepdad became a changed man once he was welcomed back into the Church. He and my mom began working for a homeless center their parish ran.  They sold clothing and household items there, and also provided free weekly meals.  They even assist people with paying utility and grocery bills.  My mom was in charge of organizing the donated clothing, pricing it, and putting it out for sale.  More often than not, when someone in need came for a meal, they would also be walked through the little shop and given whatever it was they needed, no money expected.  The local need grew bigger and bigger and my stepdad used to ride in this big semi-truck down to a different county to get food from this central food bank, to resupply their center.  He loved doing that.  They got involved and made some wonderful friends through volunteering there.  It enhanced their lives and brought them great joy and peace.  And although they did all these great things, I appreciate more especially how God worked in their lives and allowed them to love more and become more at peace.  I was so shocked when my mom volunteered to do this, because it was so out of character for her; but it became her character, as it changed her.  And what a blessing that is – and a lesson for me, in my struggles (most especially this Lenten journey).  My mom was never an overly demonstrative person, but as she has aged, and gone through her own journey, we have grown much closer.  I treasure that relationship now.  I also know that my stepdad helped to bring this change about and for that, too, I am forever grateful.

Character

By the end of this Lenten journey, I am hoping for a joyous morning, when we welcome our Risen Lord.  The hope I have comes from a mighty struggle; a struggle I have yet to complete.  But as the Scripture verse from Romans promises us, we have hope through our struggles. I now pray for strength to endure these coming days and moments when I cannot afford to wallow in my own grief, but must be strong and a comfort to others, mostly to my mom.  I know God does not give me more than I can handle (“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength but with your testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” 1 Corinthians 10:13) and I also know that He will lead me in the way I should go (“This is what the LORD says, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you how to succeed, who directs you in the path by which you should go.” Isaiah 48:17) and through His guidance, we will all reach our Resurrection, our Easter.

easter-lily-woman-cross

I pray for God’s blessing on our family through these next days; most especially for my mom. I ask the Lord’s strength rest upon her as she faces these days ahead. God grant us peace and love…and healing from this grief. Amen.