Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New Blog

I'm moving to a new blog:

This blog in this spot was started with Lent only in mind, but I want to expand it in a different way.

Come visit!  I'm writing about crafting (including Orthodox-themed crafts), lesson plans for kids, and lots of other things.  I just posted a children's study I wrote for the Apostles' Fast.  Lots more to come.  See you there!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Monday through Holy Wednesday

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying:  Holy, Holy Holy are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

I am absolutely, positively in love with Bridegroom Matins.  Sung only four times a year, from Palm Sunday evening through Holy Wednesday evening, this gentle service paves the road to the Passion in a way that cannot be described but only experienced.  The highlight of the service is the above hymn sung to a haunting, profound melody.  Like any of the other hymns common to Orthodoxy, each ethnic tradition has its own special way of singing it.  I couldn't find the version we use sung in English, but I did find this lovely clip from Russia using the melody I know and love:

We've been so fortunate to attend all of the Holy Week services so far...twice daily from Saturday to Tuesday and three times on Wednesday.  The story builds little by little each day.  For Holy Monday, we remember the Cursing of the Fig Tree.  Christ warns us that we must bear fruit.  My priest gave a lovely sermon explaining this story.  He said that all our observances...coming to church, praying, fasting, etc....those things are not the fruit.  They are the leaves that protect and develop the fruit.  The fruit itself: humility, love, patience, etc. is under the leaves and sheltered within the tree.  You can't have one without the other.  They go together.  If we've struggled through Lent and kept "the rules" only to think that observance is the fruit, we've lost sight of the big picture.  It doesn't matter how much we fast or act like good little Christians on the outside.  It's the inside that must change and grow and bear real, tangible fruit in our lives.  If not, then we're wasting our time just sprouting leaves. 

Here's the learning box for Holy Monday:

*  "Behold!  The Bridegroom comes at midnight!"
*  A tree for the withered fig tree and a block with a drawing of a fig.
*  Grapes for the fruit we should bear.
*  The Old Testament Joseph, who we remember this day.  In icons, he is shown with regal Egyptian garb on, so I was pleased to find this Egyptian figure I thought would go well.
*  Also on this day, we read the prophecy in Ezekiel of the four-faced figure with faces of an angel, a lion, an eagle, and an ox.  The Church sees these to be symbols the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Jared drew the images on the block for us.

On Holy Tuesday, we remember the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  Here's that reference to the Bridegroom!  Five wise virgins were prepared and had enough oil for their lamps, as they waited for the bridegroom.  Five foolish virgins were not prepared and did not have enough oil.  While they went off to buy some, the bridegroom arrived and only the wise virgins were allowed into the wedding feast.  When the foolish virgins returned, it was too late.  Christ is coming..are you ready?

When I first experienced the Orthodox Church, I was perplexed by the services.  Every Sunday morning it was the same thing.  Over and over with only slight differences.  How boring it sounded on the surface!  As I began to experience more of the services and really started paying attention to the Divine Liturgy, I saw that no two services are ever exactly the same, and they are far from boring!  Yes, we have consistent parts that do appear over and over, but that sameness is comforting...not monotonous.  Each time I hear the words, it adds a new layer of meaning in my heart.  You can never hear the Truth too many times.  I also used to think there was very little Scripture in Orthodox services.  That one makes me laugh out loud when I think about it now!  There is Scripture everywhere in our hymnography.  Every hymn overflows with it.  I just didn't know my Scripture as well as I thought I did, so I didn't recognize it!

The beauty of the Bridegroom Matins service is how they daily set up the story of Holy Week.  The structure is the same each day, and some of the readings and hymns are the same, but verses change daily and cry out with a depth I found so lacking in my previous experiences.

How shall I, the unworthy one,
Appear in the splendor of Your saints?
For if I dare to enter Your bridal chamber with them,
My garments will betray me;
They are unfit for a wedding.
The angels will cast me out in chains.
Cleanse the filth of my soul, O Lord,
And save me in Your love for mankind.

Verse after verse.  Song after song.  Each word carefully crafted to tell a story...the story of our salvation.  No boring repetitiveness.  No mindless chatter.  The Orthodox services drip with meaning from every breath.  We do not cater to individual preference.  We do not perform.  We do not entertain.  We pray...we pray...we pray to God with all of our unworthiness and strive to have communion with Him in every part of our lives.  We do not separate life and church.  Orthodoxy is not a worship style.  Orthodoxy is a lifestyle.   

The learning box for Holy Tuesday:

*  "Let us love the Bridegroom, O brethren.  Let us keep our lamps aflame with virtues and true faith, so that we, like the wise virgins of the Lord, may be ready to enter with Him into the marriage feast, for the Bridegroom, as God, grants unto all an incorruptible crown."
*  Hilary drew the figures of the virgins.  The wise virgin has a smiley face.  The foolish virgin has a frown.  Between them is their lamp.  
*  The Parable of the Talents is also read today, so a coin is included.  We sing much about using what God has given us for others and not just burying our resources and our heads in the ground.
*  Lastly today, we remember the Last Judgment and the sheep and the goats.  Another reminder that when the Bridegroom comes, we need to be ready!

Holy Wednesday has a third service added to it with Holy Unction.  Unction is the Orthodox version of an old time healing service.  Seven Epistle readings and seven Gospel readings about healing and love comprise the majority of the service.  At each Gospel reading, the priest turns to the crowd and asks for a sick person to come forth.  He lays the Gospel book on the head of that person as he reads aloud.  Everyone else circles around and kneels or stands while touching the priest or the person closest to them.  There is an intimacy that is palpable.  Everyone lays their pretense aside and comes together to pray for the healing of ourselves and those around us.

I've had the pleasure of attending this service at a couple different monasteries.  There, it is truly magnificent with perhaps a dozen priests and hundreds of people.  It feels like you just became best friends with a crowd of strangers.  It's the true representation of loving your brother.  Peace fills the air...oh, the peace!  No falling down on the ground or emotionally charged hype that other traditions have in their healing services.  Unction is a sweetness, a quietness, a vulnerability that is unique and precious.  

It might be a physical ailment that brings us to our knees, but Unction isn't just about healing the body.  Emotional and spiritual healing are sought as well.  At the end of the service, everyone is anointed with oil and we leave with a brightness and comfort.

The learning box for Holy Wednesday:
*  "With his hands the betrayer receives the Bread.  With his hands he secretly receives the silver, the price of Him who fashioned man with His hands; So the servant and deceiver Judas remains depraved"
*  Today we remember two extremes involving money.  The harlot approaches Jesus at dinner and anoints Him with oil valued at almost a year's wages.  She does this in symbol of His coming burial, which she probably didn't understand.  She just knew she loved Him and wanted to show it in an extravagant way.  A perfume bottle is included to represent her gift as well as a figure of her.  At the other end of the spectrum, Judas agrees this day to betray Christ...for thirty measly pieces of silver.  I'll be keeping my eye out for some silver coins to include, but I couldn't find any locally.  Instead, we wrapped wooden circles in aluminum foil.  Good enough for now!  What a contrast today between the giver and the betrayer.  What am I willing to sell Christ for?  What earthly pleasure will I give up my soul to have?  I caution myself not to just assume I'm the loving harlot.  I can be just like Judas, too. 
*  Lastly, a bottle of oil is included to represent Holy Unction.

The Passion is close now.  The deal is done.  The preparations are being made.  It won't be long now.

I don't know if I'll be back to write about the rest of the boxes before Pascha.  So much to do and yet so much not to do.  We're trying to just rest between services and pray continually.  I'll be back when I'm able to complete the learning box series and share some pictures of other things we did during Holy Week.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

We got up this morning and dressed just a little bit nicer than normal.  Hurried to church with a bit more pep in our tired steps than usual.  Holy Week is in the air now.  Christ is making His entrance.  The atmosphere is electric with anticipation.

The palms from yesterday's assembling awaited us.  Kids and adults alike shook their branches and the attached bells throughout the entire service.  Yes, that's ninety minutes of tinkling and clamoring...depending on the size of the bell.  Some brought their own bells from home, and it was a festive mix of tones from shrill to deep.  The bells I strung together for the learning box sounded like sleigh bells when I shook them.  For a moment, I had Christmas carols running through my head.  Bing Crosby is a persistent fella...hard to get rid of him!

Orthodoxy is all about moving your body.  God is the god of our bodies as well as our mouths.  Crossing ourselves, kissing icons, prostrating, and even shaking a bell until our arms ache help us pay better attention to the service and makes every movement more meaningful.  We pray with every part of us, and this day was no different.

Usually, we process around the outside of the church at the end of the service, but alas, this day of jubilation didn't carry over to the weather.  It was cold and rainy.  No one wanted to go outside, so we stayed in and Father led the children through an extra procession in the center of the church.  We all shook our palms with a little extra bit of "umph" to make up for not going outside.

The learning boxes have become a bit of a sensation at church.  People are starting to look for the next one.  This idea is turning out to be just as useful for the adults as it is for the kids.  I know that making the boxes has taken my Holy Week experience to another level already.  It keeps me from going through the motions.  I'm listening for the symbols in the readings just as much as Hilary, and I get a little lift of excitement every time I hear one like she does.

Yesterday's learning box for Lazarus Saturday looked like this:
Martha and Mary are there.  Jared misunderstood my plans for Lazarus, so he drew grave clothes on one of the figures.  My plans had been to wrap a figure in linen strips.  He liked his, and I liked mine, so we compromised by putting both versions of Lazarus in the box!  This drove Hilary crazy.  She insisted that there could not possibly be two Lazarus figures.  Oh, of the many times in a day that I do not do exactly as Hilary desires!  The box also has a stone for Lazarus' tomb, and a quote from the Gospel reading of the story where Jesus reassures Martha that, "I am the Resurrection and the Life."  Lastly, the box has a wooden cube with the number "4" written in different styles and languages (English, Spanish, Greek, Russian, and Arabic) to symbolize Lazarus, the four-days dead.  We stumbled across these wooden blocks, and I'm going to use them often in the boxes for the things that are difficult to find an actual 3-D symbol to represent.

Palm Sunday's box looked like this:
It included:
     *  a donkey
     *  bells
     *  a palm cross
     *  the Troparion of the day
     *  two figures waving palms (note how those tiny crosses that Jared wove on Lazarus Saturday came in handy...the male figure has his very own palm cross made to scale!)
      *  a friend from church is intrigued by the boxes, so she gave me a special gift of a rock from the Mount of Olives.  She suggested including it on this day to remind us that if we do not praise God, even the rocks will cry out.

My Protestant upbringing had a giant gap in Holy Week.  Well...there was no Holy Week.  We had two celebrations: Palm Sunday and Easter.  No services in between.  Now, having the chance to go to church every day (God willing, multiple times a day) during this week really cements the events for me.  I'm so grateful for the lessons of Holy Week.  There's betrayal and death and tears this week.  There's agony and sacrifice and denial.  It's not just two parties!  Daily reminders of that this week are extremely helpful.

We've had our first celebration.  We're rejuvenated and anxious to continue our journey.  In just a few short days, the voices will be crying, "Crucify him!", but today, it's nice to feel just the joy of:

Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord! 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lazarus Saturday

Lent is over.  Where did it go?  It seems like this season has just flown by.  It is a bittersweet passing.  I feel excited on the one hand that the big day of celebration is almost here.  On the other hand, I feel like there is so much more I could have done with this Lenten journey.  So many opportunities I missed.  Missed time to pray.  Missed time to repent.

Holy Week begins.  It stands apart from the rest of Lent in its own time and space.  Holy Week is like a different world, a parallel life to the hustle and bustle around us.  Time seems to stop its chaotic churning and matches its step to the rhythmic flow of the services.  There's a slowness.  A purposefulness.  Everything comes together to march on...on to Pascha.

I decided to try my hand at Lazarakia this year.  These spiced breads in the shape of Lazarus in his grave clothes are just the cutest thing ever!  We had fun making them last night to bring to church to share this morning.

They turned out pretty good.  I think they'll be even better when I tweak some things for next year.

We had a baptism at this morning's Liturgy.  The sweet baby girl had absolutely no desire to be there.  She didn't like the people smiling and cooing at her.  She didn't like the cold.  She especially despised the priest!  Father can be encouraged, though.  It seemed to me like she didn't like anyone in a cassock.  Even the altar boys.  Men in dresses just don't sit well with her.  Makes sense I guess.  Of course, I must include the gratuitous naked baby shot.

As we sang "As many as have been baptized into Christ", I found myself making that mental switch to Holy Week.  It's so easy to get caught up in the fast of fasting.  To get distracted by the food.  But just how many times can I remind myself that it isn't about the food???  This baptism is what it's all about.  Dying with Christ.  Bathed in the water.  Rising again.  Lent is just a drop in the bucket.  A moment in an eternity of preparation.  It's all been building up to this.  Not just for the last forty days.  But since the beginning.  God's been preparing this moment for us.  The moment of our salvation that we enter in the Resurrection.  Life and death.  Time and eternity.  Love...boundless love.  How shallow and simpleminded I am when I just make it about the food!!!!

It's going to be a long week.  Full of so many services, it will begin to feel like we moved into the church building to stay.  What a comfort it will be to be able to do that.  To get lost in Holy Week time.  I'm ready!

After Liturgy, we decorated the church with palms.  We tied palm branches with bells for everyone who will come to the service tomorrow.  We'll wave them with gusto during the entire service.  The green was lovely to see.  Especially with the cold snap and snow we've had this week, I was beginning to forget that spring actually officially began.  The green looks and smells of life.  The whole church glowed with a new warmth and vibrancy.

It looked like a jungle with all the branches awaiting their blessing for tomorrow's festivities.  In addition to the large branches, we wove small crosses out of palms for people to take home and put on their icons.  I don't know how Jared did it, but he managed to weave the tiniest crosses I've ever seen.  We're using one of them for a figure in the learning box for Palm Sunday.  (Pictures of the latest boxes to come tomorrow!)
I feel like I keep saying this lately, but I wish more people knew what they were missing when they miss this service.  In Orthodoxy, we love to prepare.  In fact, we even love to prepare to prepare.  Lazarus Saturday gets us ready and motivated for Holy Week.  A resurrection on the way to the Resurrection.  It's going to get dark very soon.  Will I be like Martha and be short-sighted?  Will I worry about the stench...the stench of my own death?  Will I pay attention enough to hear Christ when he tells me to come forth like Lazarus?  Will I believe Him when He says, "I am the Resurrection and the life."?  Will I wiggle and hop my way out of the grave, tightly bound in cloths, struggling to break free?  Will I? 

Christ is the resurrection.  Christ is life.  Oh that I not stay in the grave! 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I fell in love with Anna's Pascha Boxes, and I just had to have my own for my four year old.  Once I got to thinking about what we could do for Holy Week, it also got me thinking about feasts in general.  I decided to make this an ongoing project.  We will be making boxes for all the Twelve Major Feasts, Holy Week, our namesdays, and who knows where it will stop!

Jared and I have turned this into a school project of sorts.  We're taking full advantage of his creativity and amazing patience.  I am raising a boy who actually enjoys standing in a craft store and listening to me babble on about, "Maybe we can do, maybe we can do that."  Amazing!  Well, he does have his limits...mainly related to his little sister and her lack of shopping cart navigation skills.  It's been fun, though, to spend our afternoons searching for supplies and dreaming of possibilities.

The first box is actually not for Holy Week.  It's for March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.

Mary had been brought to the temple as a child and dedicated to the Lord by her parents, Joachim and Anna.  One day, the angel Gabriel came to her and told her she would give birth to the Messiah, even though she was a virgin.  From that moment on, the world would never be the same.  The hope of the Resurrection of us all began at Annunciation, and it is there that we also learn to love the Mother of God for her humility and willingness to obey. 

The juxtaposition of Annunciation and Lent is always striking to me.  Since Pascha moves and this feast doesn't, it comes at different times during the period of the Fast.  This year, as we are knee deep in weeks of preparing and contemplating the death and Resurrection of the Son of Man, we make a dramatic switch to celebrating a girl being told she's going to have a baby.  The dissonance and the harmony makes me pause.  To God, there is no time, so it only makes sense that the beginning and the ending of a life overlap in this way.  It also refocuses us on who Christ really is.  He's not just a man.  He's the Messiah, and His death is not the end of the story of our salvation.  As we prepare for Christ's death, we celebrate the announcement of His birth.  Let us continue to anticipate the glorious Resurrection!

I think Annunciation often gets lost in the shuffle of Lent, but I encourage you to stop and embrace this feast.  It's full of symbolism and meaning.   

The boxes for the feasts of the Theotokos will be blue.  The feasts of Christ will be red.  The Annunciation box contains:

*  Theotokos and Gabriel figures.
*  A white flower to represent the Theotokos' purity.
*  Grapes for "the fruit of your womb".
*  In some icons, the Theotokos is shown spinning thread.  Since she lived and worked at the Temple, she probably helped weave the Temple veil.  The Temple veil was blue, red and purple, so there are threads of those colors included.
*  The Troparion of the Feast:

"Today is the beginning of our salvation.  The revelation of the eternal mystery!  The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.  Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with You!"

*  A book of the story.

Our parish observed the feast this evening at our Presanctified Liturgy.  The box was a success!  Hilary absolutely loved it.  She enjoyed reading the story and hearing me explain the symbols.  She really liked it when I reminded her that the icon of the Annunciation is always on the Royal Doors in an Orthodox Church.  I think it truly helped cement things for her!  Plus, it definitely kept her busy.  When Presanctified was over, she asked, "Why was the service so short today?"  Time flew by as she played with the figures and other items.  I'm pretty sure Gabriel and Mary were not just discussing holy things in her game, but thoughts of the Mother of God filled her head for 90 minutes straight.  That's a lovely thing! 

Can't wait to make the rest of the boxes!

Mary was the first Christian.  She literally took Christ into her own body.  Her willingness to be obedient, even when she didn't understand, is a compelling example for me.  As we approach Holy Week, I pray that I may also be obedient to God and all that He asks of me during this time.  May I put aside all my own desires, doubts, and fears and cry without hesitation:

"Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord!  Let it be to me according to your word."
I'm so sorry I disappeared.  This Lent has been one constant challenge for our family.  Illness, transition, and drama have overwhelmed us.  It has been quite the learning experience, but it required me to devote all of my energies to other things.  I am so sad not to complete the Lenten devotional this year, but it is NOT over!  I will complete it and have it ready for next year.  For now, I'm going to be posting about the other ways we are preparing to celebrate Pascha.  Thank you for understanding!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Week 4

I thought I would finally get an entire week posted at one time.  Alas, I don't think it's going to happen today.  I wrote a lot of this week by hand with good old-fashioned pen and paper, and I'm not done typing it and formatting.  My dear godmother's mother has died, and I have to leave now to help at the wake.  Also, I'll be going to our deanery's service for Veneration of the Cross.  In this time of sorrow for my kuma, I'm glad we can also remember that after the cross comes the Resurrection!  Amid death, there is life!

Here's today's reading.  After the funeral tomorrow, I'll type the rest of the week and post it.

If you're able, please say a prayer for the handmaiden of God, Julia.  May her memory be eternal!

From My Youth Master File