Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.
This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)
It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).
Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.
Happy New Year! For my first blog post of the year, I’m simply going to share an amazing video. Grab a cup of coffee and WATCH THIS to see how books are made by hand, the old-fashioned way.
And on this 9th day of Christmas, I offer you 9 ladies dancing. In church lore, they represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].
… my true love gave to me: four calling birds! In the Church’s tradition, those birds represent the four gospel writers—the holy apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (seen in these icons). They are “calling” to the world to hear the message of Christ’s incarnation.
So how am I celebrating the fourth day of Christmas? We just got home last night from spending a wonderful Christmas in Denver with two of our kids and all four of our grandchildren. So we are tired but happy. Of course I’m unpacking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping today (and starting back on exercising on the elliptical)… but it’s also a day for opening more Christmas cards and reading through so many wonderful Christmas letters from friends and family near and far. Sending Christmas cards is one of my favorite traditions, and receiving them is such a treat.
This year I didn’t come up with a creative way to display them, so I just spread them out on our dining room table as they arrived. This morning I captured them in photos, then I took down last year’s photo cards from the bulletin board in the kitchen and replaced them with this year’s. Well, some of them. (They don’t all fit!)
It was fun to group some of them:
Thanks so much to everyone who was thoughtful enough to send us a card and/or a Christmas letter this year. I hope you are enjoying this tradition as much as we are!
A couple of weeks ago I did a post about a favorite Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This morning I woke up thinking about another favorite, “O Holy Night.”
O Holy Night wasn’t traditionally sung in the Presbyterian church of my childhood. It was saved for special solos and performances outside the regular church service. At least in my experience. But my favorite memory of this hymn is from Christmas gatherings (and also Thanksgiving gatherings) at my aunt and uncle’s house in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s through the 1980s. Aunt Barbara Jo was the “glue” in our extended family. Ten years younger than her older brother—my father—Barbara Jo was always more like an older sister to me. She loved family and she loved having us all in her home. Uncle Dan was a military man with a career in the Mississippi National Guard. But he had a softer side, and the most beautiful tenor voice I’ve ever heard. My father was also a tenor. When my Aunt Joy was visiting from Texas, she would play the piano (by ear) and we’d all gather around and sing Christmas carols. At some point everyone would get quiet and we’d know it was time for O Holy Night. As Joy played, my father and Uncle Dan sang the most beautiful duet, always moving me to tears.
So, this morning I did a little research, learning something of the song’s history. It was written in 1847. In light of our country’s (and the world’s) current political unrest, I found it interesting that the history of this beloved Christmas song is also filled with politics and war. Here’s more of the story, from a post by Tsh Oxenreider at (in)courage:
A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke en route to Paris, and finished the poem O Holy Night by the time he reached the city.
Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. Initially, Cantique de Noel (the song’s French name) was widely loved by the Church in France, but when leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But the common French people loved it so much, they continued to sing it.
The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. Moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” he published it in his magazine and quickly found favor in the north during the war.
Even though it was banned in France, the song was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.
After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.
Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.
My wish these days leading up to Christmas is that we would embrace one another, and that the fighting would stop.
Click here to enjoy Jordan Smith’s wonderful tenor voice in this arrangement of O Holy Night.
In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, I wrote and directed the annual Christmas pageant at our church here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox. Our own kids were in elementary and middle school during those years. The participants in the play each year were between three and about twelve—sixth graders being the oldest. (The high school kids did a different play each year—one about Saint Nicholas.) I have such wonderful memories of those pageants and the children who brought them to life each year. One little boy was a trouble-maker during practices, but always came through with a great performance in the end. What I didn’t recognize at the time was his higher intelligence… he was bored at practice and didn’t see a need to put forth any effort or follow any rules. Today he’s happily married with a creative and successful career. And one year one of the mothers of several children in the play gave me a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and I read it every year for a while…. Wish I could find it again.
And then there was the year I almost (or did this really happen?) caught Sarah Mashburn’s hair on fire. She was playing the part of Saint Lucia, who had a crown of candles on her head. One year we had musical instruments—the three wise men played their recorders (plastic tonette flutes they learned to play in school) and two girls who were studying ballet did a lovely pas de deux as Mary and the Angel Gabriel. I remember each of these events with less clarity about the details but great emotional imprint. And of course there were often moments of humor. But none so funny as what happened yesterday
So, yesterday at St. John, a different generation of children offered the Christmas pageant to a packed house in the nave (sanctuary). Terrific costumes. Booming, clear voices reciting their parts. Lovely choir of angels singing both Orthodox and traditional Western Christmas carols. And then there was drama over Baby Jesus.
Claire, the director of the play, cast her oldest daughter, Zoe as Mary, and her younger daughter, Audrey, was one of the little lambs. Zoe was a terrific Mary, saying her lines clearly, remembering her movements as she entered and exited the solea (stage area) several times, first when she was greeted by the Angel Gabriel, later greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, and finally journeying with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem, looking for shelter.
Once Mary and Joseph arrived at the stable and Jesus was born, the excitement began. Baby Jesus was placed in the manger, and the wise men and shepherds and animals came to worship him. The youngest children were the animals. So when little Audrey came in with the sheep, she hurried to the manger where she tried to grab baby Jesus. Mary (her big sister) had to struggle with her, swatting her hand away from Baby Jesus as Audrey tried to climb up on the chair with Zoe and tugged at the Baby until Claire (her mother) finally had to come up on the stage and take Audrey out. The cause of the ruckus? One of Audrey’s dolls had been cast as Baby Jesus. Later Claire recounted the story on Facebook and said that all the way home in the car after church Audrey kept saying, “That is NOT my sister’s baby!”
Humor is always a welcome element in any drama. And the shining faces of the children as they brought their gifts to Jesus in their acting and singing reminded all of us that He really is the reason for the season. I hope you and your family are catching this joyful spirit as you prepare to celebrate His birth.
Much love to all.
My friend Julie Cantrell (who happens to be an award-winning author) has been posting Advent Journal Prompts on Facebook every day since December 1. When I first started trying to participate, I was a bit overwhelmed by the depth of Julie’s words. (She should hang a shingle.) I thought I would write from her daily prompts, but quickly realized it would take an hour or more each day, and I decided not to participate at that level. I have continued to read them every day, though, and even thinking through what I might write has been helpful.
Julie leads us through a journey back to our childhoods, to our happy memories, our sad memories, traumatic events, and victories. She asks us to remember who was at our side during all of these times—who cheered us on, but also who might have been jealous or not supportive at times. This might sound negative, but she goes on to encourage us to not only be thankful for the support we have received in our lives, but also to forgive those who haven’t been supportive, or who have hurt us. Although I’ve already worked through many of the “steps” she is suggesting, I did find it helpful to be reminded of my journey.
I love what Julie wrote on Day 1:
I believe every spirit was brought into this life for a reason. Your life is no accident. You are no mistake. Search your soul. Why has God really brought you here? What is your true purpose in this life? …. And then ask, am I on the right path to achieve that missions? If not, what steps can I take today to reach that goal?
I found this to be extremely helpful. Life offers so many options, including choices that can lead us off the best path for our lives. I’ve definitely strayed from that best path many times in my 65 years, and I’m sure I’ll continue to make some bad choices in the future. But focusing on what my “true purpose” in this life might be really helps.
For some people, their true purpose is revealed to them clearly—through a career, or being a parent, or a caregiver, or living a life that involves helping others. But for those of us who are artists—writers, musicians, painters, etc.—I think it’s harder to be clear about this. Making art can be a solitary pursuit, and it’s easy to feel selfish spending so many hours every week alone with our work. We don’t even have the opportunity to reach out to coworkers and maybe be the light they need in their lives, since we don’t go to an office and we don’t have coworkers. This is probably the thing I miss most about working alone. So I have to consciously reach out to find others with whom to interact. In my younger years I found these people through my children’s parents at school, soccer games, and other activities. As the children grew older and away from me, I found these people more through church activities. In recent years, I’ve found them right outside my door, in my neighbors. And also in my writing community, although we communicate more through emails and Facebook than in person. I am thankful that one of my neighbors is also a writer and has become a close friend. And I am thankful for my writing group that meets monthly, not only to critique one another’s work, but for that interaction we all crave.
In Julie’s Journal Prompt for today (December 7) she asks us to look back at challenges we have survived that we thought we wouldn’t be able to handle. And also:
What accomplishments have you achieved that you once believed were out of your reach?… Write an entry in honor of your beautiful, brave, survivor spirit. Celebrate the fact that you have already endured many of life’s greatest battles….
And then she asks, “What has kept you going through the hard times? When you felt most alone, most unloved, most afraid… what got you through to your next breath? Do you have a name for that? Would you call it God? Why or why not?”
I love that she points us in such a positive direction after a week of pretty heavy soul-searching (Journal Prompts 2-6, which I didn’t write about here). As a survivor of sexual abuse and cancer, and a daily struggler with eating disorders and depression, I can say that although sometimes it is a person—a friend, or my husband, or one of my children—who gets me through each of these hard times, at the end of the day it is God. The God of my childhood, my early adulthood, and now, of this later season of my life.
Thank you, Julie, for guiding us through what can often be a difficult season (Christmas holidays) with your wisdom and kindness. I look forward to continuing the journey.
This morning I took my coffee into the living room and sat down at my electronic piano keyboard. I browsed through a book of Christmas hymns arranged by The Piano Guys, and began to play an old favorite, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Its haunting melody fits the pre-Christmas mood… the time of preparation for the celebration to come. But it was the words of the second line that gave me pause:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel.
Why is Israel “captive”? What does she need to be ransomed from?
The lyrics continue:
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.
Mankind was in mourning, in exile, until God sent His Son to us. And we still experience a degree of that mourning until we are united with Him again in Heaven.
The next verse talks about freeing us from Satan’s tyranny and giving us victory over the grave—the ultimate goal of Christ’s incarnation. And then there’s the verse that lifts our spirits when we are suffering temporal struggles:
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
I know five people who have lost loved ones in the past few weeks. Two of the deceased were elderly—in their 80s and 90s—and had lived full lives. But the pain was still heavy on those who loved them. But three were young people in their twenties, overcome by emotional and mental struggles that led at least two of them to take their own lives. As I listened to our pastor’s words yesterday, acknowledging what a difficult time it was for those who were grieving, I heard him talk about trust. That in the face of our sorrow, God still asks us to trust Him. To believe that He loves us.
The music helps. You can listen to a beautiful arrangement by The Piano Guys, with piano and cello here.
I love Anya’s voice. So clear and hopeful.
And this is a beautiful traditional choir version.
I’ll share reflections on another Christmas hymn soon. Stay tuned, and thanks always for reading.
One of my favorite hymns that we sing in the Orthodox Church during the Nativity Season is all about preparing… preparing to receive Christ in our hearts and to celebrate His birth:
Prepare, O Bethlehem,
For Eden has been opened to all.
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine;
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ is coming to restore the image, which He made in the beginning.
One version says “Make ready, O Bethlehem.” Make ready. Make what ready? I guess the main thing is to make our hearts ready. To be at peace with one another. To fast (if that’s your tradition) and feed and clothe the poor and hungry. To spend more time with family and doing things that bring joy to our hearts and to others.
We don’t all make ready in the same way. Some people focus more on the spiritual activities I mentioned above. But others make their homes ready with beautiful decorations—inside and out—to remind themselves and others that something special is happening. Bright lights and colorful, shiny balls and fragrant green trees inside, or even in our yards. We are making ready as we “adorn ourselves,” as the hymn says.
Some folks get upset when people—and especially stores—start decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I don’t know why… in the Orthodox Church we begin the Nativity Fast—and thus our season of preparation—on November 15. Having the American (not church) celebration of Thanksgiving during this season just heightens the spirit of anticipation and joy for me. It’s not like the two holidays are competing for our attention.
I guess the main culture clash between the Orthodox Christian tradition and other Christmas traditions is that our church encourages fasting from November 15 to December 25—with many days of no meat, dairy, and even wine and fish. It’s difficult to keep this fast and join with our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends for holiday parties where so many of our favorite foods and beverages are served. Instead of waiting to have these parties during the “12 days of Christmas” between Christmas and Theophany, most people begin celebrating during what is for Orthodox Christians supposed to be a time of preparation. This used to be a struggle for me, but over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable joining in with those early celebrations. Who am I to judge another’s traditions? And I certainly don’t want to appear Scrooge-like, which wouldn’t seem very loving, joyful, or Christian. Yes, I’m Orthodox, but I’m also American.
So I’m having a wonderful time “making ready”—preparing to mail out Christmas cards with our annual Christmas letter; wrapping gifts (finished shopping!); making cookies for a neighborhood cookie swap, taking toys to contribute to the Memphis Interfaith Association’s annual Christmas store (where parents in need can find free gifts for their children); and decorating our home. I hire someone to help put up lights on our beautiful Japanese Cherry Blossom tree in our front yard, and also our lighted angel, since my husband and I are too old to be up on ladders or climbing trees! Our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade ends right in front of our house, at “Christmas Tree Park,” this coming Sunday. Santa will be there for photo sessions with the kids, and there will be hot chocolate and cookies and golf carts decorated with blinking lights. I know it’s not Christmas yet—but what a fun way to make our hearts ready as we share in this joyful tradition with our neighbors.
Make ready, O Bethlehem!
Thanksgiving—a favorite American holiday—lands on the calendar every year just a week or so after the Orthodox Nativity Fast begins (November 15). While most of the world, and certainly most people in the West, are preparing to feast on their favorite recipes for turkey, dressing, casseroles, and pies, Orthodox Christians are trying to balance that tradition with a very different one that comes to us from our Church. While it’s not as strict as the fast we keep during Great Lent (before Pascha/Easter), it still involves quite a few days with no meat or dairy, and even a number of days with no seafood or alcoholic beverages. This tradition flies in the face of the festivities most people are enjoying during these weeks leading up to Christmas. I always struggle with this culture clash.
But this year, I’m a little more ready to embrace the fast—or at least to try for some moderation. Why? I’ve been overcome for several months now with an old enemy of the flesh—gluttony.
The Church Fathers have a lot to say about this vice, which St. John Climacus calls “the door of passions” in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. If marijuana is the “gateway drug” to more harmful pursuits, over-eating can open that same door to excesses in other areas of our lives. An overly full belly can lead to sloth (who doesn’t want a nap after stuffing ourselves?), depression, alcohol abuse, and to the abuse of other pleasures which aren’t in and of themselves “evil.”
A few more words from the Church Fathers:
The great attraction of gluttony is not necessarily concerned with large quantities of food, but in the temptation to have just a ‘little taste.’ But if the wish for a taste succeeds in making you a slave to gluttony, the Evil One can then give you up utterly to destruction. For, just as water that irrigates many furrows makes those furrows fertile, so also the vice of gluttony, proceeding from your heart, irrigates all of your senses, raising a whole jungle of evils within you, making your soul a lair of wild beasts. (St. Basil the Great, On Renunciation of the World)
For me gluttony isn’t so much about eating huge amounts of food—although binging is a problem at times—but mostly about craving certain foods or drinks. I can really relate to these words from Abba Dorotheus:
There are two kinds of gluttony. One is when a man seeks food that pleases him and does not always want to eat very much, but wishes to eat only what pleases his palate. Another is when a man is overcome by a tendency to eat much …. He only wants to eat and eat, nor minding what the food may be, only caring to fill his belly. (St. Abba Dorotheus, Directions on Spiritual Training)
I get “stuck” on certain foods at times, and am strongly attracted to eating at nice restaurants with white table cloths and good china… or at certain bars and drinking out of just the right glasses. This type of gluttony is known as “gourmandizing.” My recent visit to New Orleans offered many opportunities for this activity.
So I went to Confession Saturday night and talked with my priest about gluttony. It’s a complicated issue for someone like me who struggles with eating disorders, and who more often than not cares more about being skinny and looking good (and even about my health) than being godly and doing the right thing for spiritual reasons. He was very understanding and non-judgmental. I appreciated his words of advice, but mostly I felt the spiritual power of the sacrament strengthening me for the pilgrimage ahead. I want to enter into the Nativity Fast, but also enjoy the culture’s festivities. As is often the case, it comes back to moderation.
Bill and I are off to Seagrove Beach on Wednesday, where we will spend Thanksgiving alone at my favorite place on earth. We’ll walk for miles along the edge of the ocean, burning up calories and soaking in the salty spray and the sunshine—it’s supposed to be in the 70s while we’re there. And we’ll enjoy fresh gulf fish at our favorite seafood restaurants. I think it will be easier than cooking all those rich Thanksgiving dishes, although I love doing that when our children and grandchildren come for the holiday. And yes, I’ll miss the traditional celebration, but I think this venue will offer a good opportunity for a healthy mix of feasting and fasting.
If you’re entertaining family this Thanksgiving, I hope that your time together will be rich with love, laughter, and favorite foods that feed not only your appetites but also your souls.
Christmas is only three months from this coming Sunday! There’s something about football season that always reminds me that we’ve almost entered the fourth quarter of the year. And although it’s still in the 90s (and humid) here in Memphis, the Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations that are showing up in the stores are harbingers that it’s coming. So what should we be doing NOW to avoid the panic in December? Here’s what I did this weekend:
Designed and ordered Christmas cards. I used Vista Print, which I’ve done many times in the past. Their prices are good, and the templates are fairly easy for uploading photos or art work and text.
Ordered 100 Christmas stamps from usps.com.
Updated my Christmas card list, which I created as an Excel document several years ago. This is always a bittersweet exercise, as I delete those who have passed away since the previous year, something that happens more often as we get older. But it’s also a joy to add new friends to the list.
Looked over my 2015 Christmas gift list (yes, I keep these in a file) to see what I gave everyone last year. I’ve already ordered (and received and stored in a closet) gifts for several friends and Goddaughters. Watch for sales now—especially for fun personalized items—and don’t wait ’til the last minute.
Made airline reservations for our trip to Denver to be with kids and grandkids for Christmas again this year.
Every year I talk with friends who are stressed as the holidays approach. Usually it’s because they don’t get a head start on the season’s activities. Maybe this post will encourage some folks to start planning and hopefully have a joyous season this year.
And did anyone notice I’m not using “Mental Health Monday” any more? Thanks for the replies to Friday’s post… I’m going to discontinue using themes for now. We’ll see how it goes without the structure. If I get lost I can always reinstate them!
Meanwhile, here’s a little something to help you get into the Christmas spirit.