“To everything there is a season…”

Christmas Ornaments

Well, we did it. We put our tree up. Normally, it’s up on Black Friday. This year, I was feeling sort of bah-hum-bug-ish and did’t feel motivated to decorate. But now, I am glad we did. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to do things we may not want to, and we may even like how things turn out.

Saturday, my husband and I had a date. We went to this “door buster” sale that said it started at 7:00am. I was up and showering at 6:30, while my husband enjoyed some coffee. Off we went, expecting crowds, and me with wet hair, in the snow. We arrived to a pretty much empty lot. I was worried I got the dates wrong, checked my phone and my coupons, but I was right. We entered and remarked to the many employees, who were wearing their ugly Christmas sweaters, that we were lucky no one else arrived early. They had been expecting crowds, too. And for those of you who are men and can relate, my husband was able to relax with so few people around; shopping is not his thing. We try to spend at least one day each Christmas, just the two of us, shopping for the family. I refer to it as our Mr. and Mrs. Claus day. Last year we videod a message for our grandchildren who live out of state, while we shopped. It’s usually a good time and Saturday was no exception. We felt blessed. We had hot coffee, coupons, there were indeed “door buster” sales, and there were no crowds! And the bonus? We were home, unloaded, and sipping more coffee by 10:30am – done with our annual Christmas shopping and watching a huge snow storm!! (Which ended up lasting all of about 1 hour!) Whoot-whoot!

Christmas sales. jpg

It’s nice to set a goal, get moving, and accomplish something. And it’s nice when things sort of come together. I am working at being healthier in my approach to expectations. I know that God expects me to always do my best, especially when it comes to my faith and family. But sometimes my expectations are pretty out of whack with reality. It leads to depression and disappointment. Up here, we have so few hours of daylight during the winter, that depression is a reality. They have “happy lights” they sell at all the local stores. But one of the best things about winter and Christmas and decorating, is the lights. We have this tradition of lighting the inside, as well as the outside, of our homes – and by lighting, I mean a lot of lights!! We try to get the outside up before the first snow/freeze and the interior ones usually stay up until almost Easter or Pascha. And this year we have lots of interior lights, which just makes me smile. Most are mixed colors, some are red, and our tree is all white. So I am glad my family pressed me into decorating. It does feel good.

I am also an avid Christmas song person. My cell phone even has a Christmas ring tone. I love some of the songs that an a cappella group, Pentatonix, does. They have done an amazing job of “Mary, did you know?” If you want a treat, google them! They are worth it. We played Christmas songs off our various iPods and phones while we hung lights and decorated our tree. It was good. To add to the environment, it was snowing like crazy. Perfect!

window.tree.snow

One of the most wonderful things about being Byzantine is that through our Vespers and other prayers, as well as our Liturgical songs, we are never left surprised by the holiday or feast day approaching. The Nativity Fast is one of those things that helps us prepare for the Christ Child. I think that sharing this with others make the season so much more alive. We often skip the prep and go straight to the event. But the journey is the most important part. A pastor spoke at a funeral and the gist of what he said was when you see the dates on the death announcement, remember our lives are lived in the dash marks (like 1945-1995). And how do we fill that space? For each holiday, each season, how do we fill our days? My expectations, as I said above, make movement sometimes difficult. We freeze out of fear of doing it wrong. Within the gentle movement of the liturgical year, we are brought forward for each feast. More than likely, we fast prior to the feast. It is the Church’s way of preparing us. We sacrifice our stomach’s demands, the demands of self, and bring our reality into line, focusing on the feast. Like dragging my feet about decorating, I realized I was becoming a reluctant participant in this glorious preparation of the Nativity Feast (aka Christmas Day) because I am worried about doing it wrong. What if I neglect prayers? Proper fasting? What about all the gifts for all our family and friends? When do we see whom? What do I serve for dinner? Who goes to which home, which day/night? So many things to juggle around these high-pressure holidays.

Nativity icon

We are all called … very few come. There are some amazing things about the Nativity of Christ that get lost in all the red and green, lights and tinsel, gifts and cooking. “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.” (Kontakion of the Preparation). We’re missing the point of all this stress, all this hoopla. And I am as guilty as the next stressed-out parent! Historically, in the quiet of the desert, the Theotokos (Mother of God) was making her way, on a donkey, escorted by Joseph, her espoused husband to the land of Joseph’s birth, Bethlehem. I do not think they were concerned with anything other than finding shelter so She could give birth to the Son of God.

desert.bethlehem

How can I help myself, my friends, my family prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ? It is hard when many we are close to do not attend Church, and Christmas is all about Santa Claus, not even St. Nicholas. Some children I am very close to do not even know who Jesus is, let alone that Christmas is when we celebrate His birthday. And I had an “ah-ha” moment. The “ah-ha” was this: keep it simple! For Thanksgiving, I reverted to paper – plates, napkins, tablecloth, utensils, etc. I had people bring dishes to share. I simplified everything and we had a wonderful day. But since that is a secular holiday, how do we infuse Christ into this, a Holy Day, a Feast Day celebration? I am thinking, that in addition to simple, we need to share what we believe. We need to invite people to come to services at our churches with us. We need to send cards that reflect what we believe. Our priest has been talking to us (repeatedly) about Christmas cards. His point was that text messages and emails are nothing but steam, or smoke, or keystrokes. But a card? A card you can hold in your hand? A card with a personal note is like letting someone know you thought of them; that they were important enough for you to spend the time and effort to think of them, and bring them in, with you, to this joyous holiday, to that cave as we share this journey through the desert to Bethlehem.

Christmasdinner

Around our communities, our friends, our families, our tables we should share who we are and what we believe. We need to put our actions where our faith is. Too often we cave to the media’s interpretation of who we are, what our country is like, what Christmas is all about. Schools are telling teachers, parents, and students that they can no longer say “Merry Christmas” but must refrain. No mention even of Santa Claus. There will be no Christmas vacation; it’s now Winter Break. Happy Holidays, so we don’t offend anyone. Instead, let’s be the Christ Child, simple, quiet, unassuming, yet firmly who we are. Let’s invite others to share our faith walk. Let’s simplify Christmas in the gift giving and instead “do” for others. Make dates, have dinners together, park days, hikes. Shovel a neighbor’s driveway; help elderly people by singing Christmas Carols to them. Call old friends. Mend fences that need to be mended. Be present. Be loving. Above all, put self last and other first. Forgive without expectation. Love expecting no love in return. Give until you have nothing left to give. Often, even if we are reluctant to participate, or feel afraid of failing, we need to commit to being a part of this world we live in. But instead of being of the world, be in the world, but be a person of God. Sometimes, in this life, we are the only Jesus people will ever know. I know that I am reconfirming my determination to take deep breaths, reaffirm my determination to love others, and to positively share this faith I proclaim. I am going to be present when the Christ Child comes to us, and I am going to invite everyone to share in His Birthday.

“Today the virgin, gives birth to the incomprehensible One;
and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One;
Angels and shepherds glorify Him;
the Wisemen journey with a star;
since for our sakes is born the ETERNAL GOD, as a little Child.”

Christ is Born

“…shall not prevail against it.”

*Before reading my post, please know I agonized over posting this. It is a part of my personal growth and is written with no ugly intentions.  Please do not read it if you feel you will be angry. It is not my intent to anger or hurt anyone, it is just a discovery I made about my walk with God. It is about where I am and where I am going, which is the whole point of this blog.*

Hand prayer incense

Blog Post Begins:

There’s nothing new under the sun, as the Scriptures tell us. (Ecc 1:4-11).  And sometimes it feels like nothing can surprise you.  And then something does, and it can be a life-altering surprise, or it can be God, whispering to you.

Trust GodA life with no surprises can get to be pretty dull.  I’ve had some surprises lately and I kind of like it; sort of like it. I’m dealing with it! Ha-Ha!  This Lent has been a pretty topsy-turvy Lent.

Coming to a realization can be a surprise, in an of itself.  And that has occurred with me.  I realized that when I left the Roman Church and embraced the Eastern Church, I did so by jumping in with both feet.  I embraced the philosophy, theology, and practices of my Eastern Church wholeheartedly.  I found repose, sweet and quiet repose, in the teachings of my eastern faith.  We had a pastor who inculcated us fully in the philosophies and traditions (both types of traditions) of the eastern Church, and he also showed us the whys and wherefores.  We were blessed.  The theological tenets of eastern practices and traditions were fully explained and made perfect sense to us.  We completely embraced it all – culture, foods, traditions, practices.  All of it – hook, line, and sinker.  Our catechesis in the faith was truly remarkable.  Now that we are away from that community, we see it even more fully.  We miss it very much.

St. NikolaiI distinctly remember a huge turning point for me and it was during a Divine Liturgy.  The incense was pretty heavy and the light played just right through the windows…during the procession, the vestments just glowed and the sights, sounds, and smells just filled me.  And then our Proto-Deacon intoned, “Sophia, Orthoi”!  And I was transported to the times of the Apostles and the early gatherings of the nascent Church.  And it was a transformative moment for me.  I experienced my faith.  And I was hooked – for eternity.

As I have learned more and more about Eastern thought and philosophy, a part of myself that had been empty began to be filled.  And I did not even realize there was an empty space; a part of me unfilled.  I do not need much of the traditions of the western church any more because I’ve become consumed by my faith, my experiential faith in the eastern Church.  There are things called sacramentals in the west and two examples are scapulars and rosaries. You do not have to wear a scapular or recite the rosary to be fully Catholic. Those are things outside of dogma that enhance your faith experience, but they are not necessary to believe, to be in a state of grace.  They are externals. They are almost “trappings” of our faith.

Most Roman Catholics own at least one rosary, even if they do not use it.  In the mainstream church, very few people are even aware of what a scapular is, let alone wear one.  I had a scapular in pretty much every color, using them for many reasons.  They enhanced my spiritual life and I loved them.  I always wore a miraculous medal, for example.  Because I loved the story and loved the Mother of God.  My middle son and his wife were laughing a couple of weeks ago, because they recently moved into their own space and were unpacking (finally) all their wedding gifts and they realized they have a crucifix for every room in their home, plus some to spare!  It is part of our Catholic identity.  It is a demonstration of who we are.  People used to come into our home and ask where the altar was, because gradually all our artwork was religiously-oriented, with a crucifix in every room.

Byzantine CrossWhen I became an eastern Catholic, I left most of those western things behind me.  I embraced the Jesus Prayer and wear a prayer rope on my wrist most days.  I no longer wear a crucifix, but an eastern or Byzantine cross.  I love learning about all the food traditions in the east; how certain foods are served only once a year on a particular feast day.  I love that!  And there are so many flavors of eastern Catholicism.  Within the eastern grouping of Churches, there is such difference, but the same Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Some eastern Churches will only use certain types of candles and incense and it becomes a part of the experience of who they are.  Being so fully immersed in my eastern faith is, at times, hard to maintain.  And I will explain why…

I feel that being an eastern Catholic identifies me first as being a part of a free-standing, independent Church, that happens to agree with Rome on many issues. It does not mean, however, that I embrace Roman theology or practice.  I listen first to my Patriarch, and then check in on what the Pope has to say.  I listen to my local ordinary before I ever pay attention to what the local Roman church or diocese is up to.  Roman Catholicism does not affect my life.  It is not part of who I am.  I am also a Greek Catholic…that is another aspect that is different from the Roman Church.  Greek versus Roman in many areas; it is just an area of influence and I prefer the Greek influence.

All of that being said, I know many will be angry with me because I am somehow “dissing” their beliefs. Not at all. Please do not think that way. I have children and grand-children who are Roman Catholic. It is a matter of preference and taste.  I just discovered that I am really, and truly, eastern.  A woman I just met did not understand how I did not know the movers and shakers in the local Roman Catholic scene.  When I said to her, “But I am not Roman Catholic, I am Byzantine Catholic, why would I know them? I have no reason to attend a Roman church.”  Her response was, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because we are all Catholic.”  And therein lies the crux of my problem.  I was surprised because I realized I am really not Catholic, in the sense she inferred.  I am not. I used to be, but I no longer am.  I am a Melkite Greek Catholic, blessed to have been catechized in all things Greek and Byzantine.

There are little “t” things within eastern expression that I love and value. When I see the western expression coming in and being used in preference over the eastern ones, I get a little testy.  I apologize for that.  But once you immerse yourself in all things eastern, the western insistence on superiority or preference gets tiresome.  It is the classic tale of David and Goliath.  We easterners are David.  If you are eastern, embrace it. Learn of all the richness of being a Byzantine, Greek Catholic.  Learn about the physical history of how the eastern churches came to be.  Live as an eastern Catholic. I can find fulfillment and riches enough to keep me learning for the rest of my life, if I read and study and learn from just the eastern philosophical/theological side of the aisle.

This is a touchy post because so many of my friends are Roman Catholic, as are two of my sons, and grandchildren.  My Protestant family and friends will only be flummoxed by this post, but it is an issue and it is what I am dealing with. And I want people to know that different is not a better/worse sort of thing…it is just different.  What I expect is that when we seek the mysteries for our children, when we want the blessing of the Church on our lives, we should live totally as if it were the most important thing in our lives. We don’t drop in for Chrismation or Crowning, if we do not plan to live that life.  We could get Confirmation or Marriage instead.  Leading our children to God should be the supreme emphasis of our lives as parents.  A long and winding road, full of contradictions and contradictory practices can be awfully confusing for the faith development of our children, and not having a firm foundation can lead to a young person having no place to stand where they feel safe.

TipToe WalkingI remember feeling that I was tip-toeing around when we had a major upset in our lives. By tip-toeing I mean I had no safe, solid place to stand. It was a “the ground was moving under my feet” sort of feeling. We were no longer welcome in our home parish because of an incident with a son of ours.  People we thought were friends, were not.  We were spiritually floundering because of the actions of some priests and religious in our lives. Our children were floundering.  Our church had let us down in a profound way. And then we were led, by our son, to the east and to our pastor (who became a life-long friend and spiritual adviser).  I believe God brought us to the east to save us, and to enhance the faith we thought we were loosing.  The deepest wounds were being healed.  The deepest longings were being met.  That moment of “Sophia, Orthoi” became the life-line I was waiting for.  And from that moment, I dove into the font of love I found in the eastern Church. Perhaps I am so eastern because of the pain and hurt experienced in the western Church. I can see that.  But I also know that the theology of the East fills me.  And the more I learn, all these years later, the more I want to know.

Icon Corner.candlesAnd when I see latinization creeping in to my Byzantine practices, I want to shore up the Church and enhance even more our Byzantine traditions, both large and small T.  There are things Byzantine parishes do not do, purely because it is not, historically, who we are.  We flounder with our identity because we are so small, and in recent years, made up largely of converts from the west.  Converts, many of whom want to bring their familiar practices with them, and have not been fully catechized into the richness of the east.  We have vespers; we have orthros; we have Divine Liturgy.  We have so many amazing things.  We do not have to inculcate Roman traditions into our parishes.  However, there are just so many little ways westernization is creeping into our eastern practices and I really just do not want to see that.  Otherwise, why be Byzantine? Why have Byzantine rites or Churches? If we are nothing more than a “different mass” with lots of incense, why bother?

And so when my little sheltered, Byzantine world is shaken, I blog! Ha-Ha!  I feel that if I partake here and there of different traditions of the west and the east, I become a hodge-podge of nothing. “A cafeteria Catholic,” if you will.  A mixed bag of things that do not mesh well.  Because their historical roots are so very different.  My minor in college was Biblical Archeology and I love all things historical and all things physically historical.  And when I dove into the east, I found history pretty much left alone, with artifacts intact.  The liturgy is free of things I was leaving behind in the west.  Many of the issues of the western church do not affect us in the east.  It is because our view, our perspective, is just slightly different.  And I love that difference; it’s what drew me east. And it is what keeps me eastern.  So the surprise that happened is that I discovered who I really am. I am a Byzantine Catholic.  I am a Melkite Greek Catholic. That identity is mine and it is not going away.  It is leading me along my own, personal, theosis track, where I will embrace my eternity.  And it is doing so, holding the hand of my spouse, for eternity. The surprise is that I really know it; I really own it; and I will do whatever I can to protect it.

Church.Savior of Spilled Blood. RussiaMatthew 16,18