Sunday, February 28, 2010

Week 3

Final UPDATE:  Week 3 is completed.

UPDATE to the Update:  Tuesday and Wednesday now added.
UPDATE:  Monday's reading now included.

Lent continues to throw challenges our family's way.  More illness all around (or is it just the same illness dragging on and on and on?) along with almost unbelievable drama.  We press on, though, and the joy of finding God in the craziness of life is sweet.

Here's a revision with today's reading.  The rest of this week's readings will come...I promise! 

From My Youth Master File

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Completion of Week 2

Ever try to sleep in a room with a dog, a husband, and a flailing four year with a head cold all snoring to a different rhythm?  It's an...interesting experience.  Looks like we're on the downside of our sickness, though.  Back to work!  Here's the rest of the revision for this week:

From My Youth Master File

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday of Orthodoxy

I love Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I mean, I LOVE Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to it throughout the year, and this year did not disappoint.  On the anniversary of my Chrismation, I remember what it meant to personally become Orthodox.  On this day, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude and beauty of the Church, and I thank God for leading me to the One, True Faith.

In 787 A.D., the Seventh Ecumenical Council met to finally reach some peace on the issue of icons.  This hadn't been just a mild disagreement.  This had been years of icons smashing and martyrs dying.  Even though we celebrate on this Sunday the day that brought icons back into the Church, this day did not bring icons back into the world.  We were blessed to have Fr. Stephen visit us this weekend, and I thought a lot about what he said at our city's Pan-Orthodox Vespers, which also made me think about other things.  (On a side note, what a lovely man Fr. Stephen is!  My priest knows him, so he spent some time at our parish.  It was a pleasure to remember my roots and chat with him in that truly unique Appalachian way.)

Icons are the first thing that separate us as Orthodox from the rest of the Christian world.  Most Protestants think we're wrong to have holy images.  Even the Catholics, who do have images, don't quite get our use of icons.  When I was in college studying for the comparative arts component of my Humanities degree, I was glad when we sped through the flat, dullness of the Byzantine era to get to the plump cherubs of the Renaissance.  Icons were kind of the definition of bad art.  Just what people did before the talent showed up.

Icons aren't just art, and they certainly aren't bad art.  They are a visual link between us an God.  When we venerate an icon, we aren't worshiping it.  We don't think the wood and paint is a god.  Instead, we pass on our love and respect to the person the image represents.  It isn't about the icon.  It's about God.  And if the Word became flesh, then it is right to make an icon of Him.  Christ was God and man.  The icon is our visual proof of the Incarnation.

God created us, and He created us to use all our senses.  Come to any Orthodox service, and you'll know that.  We touch, we kiss, we prostrate, we fast, we feast, we cross ourselves A LOT, we use our entire bodies to worship God.  Our worship celebrates both our humanity and our divinity.  Icons encapsulate all of that.

I drifted through many flavors of Protestant before I converted, and near the end, I attended the non-descript mega churches that are a trend now.  One of them inparticular looked exactly like a school auditorium.  Plain walls.  Plain stage.  Plain everything.  This was supposed to help everyone have an unimpeded experience with God.  So, what happened?  Well, like I said, God designed us to use all of our bodies to worship Him, and since the eyes were out, everyone focused on another sense...hearing.  At these churches, it's all about the music.  The ups and downs are crafted to give people that sensual experience they crave.  And interestingly, if you look around, a majority of people have their eyes closed.  The sterile surrounding in fact does not encourage interaction with God.  It leaves something lacking, so people have to close their eyes to reach their hearts.  They desperately search for that connection between their bodies and their worship.  Taking the Church out of church left a hole that ever-changing denominations are still trying to fill.  

At an Orthodox Church, we have much to complete our sensual experience.  When I sing about Christ, I can look at a cross, His face, or stories of His life, and those images surrounding me make God present in real ways.  Christ was born...there's the picture.  Christ heals...there's the picture.  Christ died and rose again...there's the picture.  Meditating on the events of Christ's life is more effective when those stories are everywhere you look.  Additionally, the harmony of the hymns and the cling of the censer bells fill my ears, and it sounds like Heaven.  I watch my prayers literally rise like incense, as the sweet-smelling smoke fills the building, and when I go home and catch a whiff of incense in my daughter's hair, it's an "Amen" to my soul.  I cross myself, bow, kiss and use my touch.  I taste the body and blood of Christ as my lips glow.  My whole body worships, and that makes it much easier for my heart to do the same.  Our worship is not a concert or a performance, and it's not just me and my personal experiences thinking about God.  Our worship is living out God and every aspect of His Creation.  Close your eyes and you just might miss something!

I doubt there's hardly an American home that doesn't have pictures.  We have pictures of our families, vacations, departed loved ones, and friends far away.  Even those plain churches often have pictures on the walls of founding members or clergy.  As humans, we like those visual reminders.  Get out a baby book and watch a mother come alive with stories.  The past crosses over to the present, and it becomes as real and fresh as if it was happening today.  Icons are the same thing.  By making pictures of Christ and His Saints, we open up the past and realize that with God there is no time.  Standing among icons is being surrounded by God yesterday, today, and forever.

Our culture doesn't get icons, though.  They don't get the wooden version, because they don't get the human version.  Whenever the priest or deacon censes the icons, he always turns to the people at the end and censes them.  Why?  Because we are the ultimate icons.  We have Christ literally within us.  We are the holy images of God in flesh and blood.  Seeing God in an icon makes it much easier to see that God is in you and me.  I'm a hypocrite if I love my icons and hate my brother.  I'm a hypocrite if I treat wood with a gentle touch of respect and give a harsh and unforgiving slap of the tongue to my fellow man.  

I am so grateful to live in an area that is full of Orthodoxy.  We have Orthodox churches everywhere of all types.  At our yearly Sunday of Orthodoxy celebration, we gather together from Russian, Serbian, Greek, OCA, Antiochian, Ukranian, Romanian, and other backgrounds.  To say the Creed together is a powerful experience.  This is the unity of the Faith, the knowledge that even though our ethnic backgrounds are different (or non-existent!), we all believe the same thing.

I cry every Sunday of Orthodoxy.  When I used to stand in that plain church with my eyes closed, reaching and searching for God, I felt something lacking.  I wished for the nameless place that had all the pieces.  I found that place.  It is the Orthodox Church.  I don't have to make it up as I go along anymore, and I can't tell you the depth of the peace that brings.  We have our share of problems in Orthodoxy.  Our parishes are screwed up sometimes!  Our people are really screwed up sometimes!  But that's just humanity.  It doesn't change the fact that our Faith hasn't changed for 2000 years.  The icons tell that story of rich heritage.  Surrounded by different languages and different stories, I blubber like a baby every year when the gravity of the gift God has given me in leading me to His Church hits me.  It's not just me and my Bible anymore.  It's me and a great cloud of witnesses.  

So, last night I cried and blinked through my blurry contact lenses as my favorite part of the service came.  The children and the priests had processed around the church carrying icons.  They stood in the front representing all those who have come before and who are yet to come.  Their icons spoke of blood and tears and joy.  Their icons spoke of man and God.  Everyone stopped singing and spoke the following words.  First gently, then building to a crescendo.  This is the day of God in His Church, God in His icons, and God in you and in me.  Thank you, God, for bringing me to this place... 

"As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles taught,
As the Church received, as the Teachers expounded dogma,
As the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth,
As Truth has revealed, as Falsehood has been dissolved,
As Wisdom has presented, as Christ has awarded,

Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach,
Christ our true God, and honor His Saints,
In words, in writings, in thoughts,
In sacrifices, in Churches, in Holy Icons,

On the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord;
And on the other hand honoring the true servants of the same Lord of all,
And accordingly offering them veneration.

(loudly and with feeling!)

This is the Faith of the Apostles,
This is the Faith of the Fathers,
This is the Faith of the Orthodox,
This is the Faith which has established the Universe."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revision for 2nd Week of Lent

Doesn't it always seem that when we get wonderful plans laid out, they all fall apart?  I was so looking forward to the first week of Lent.  I was going to go to church everyday.  I was going to fast and pray and write.  I was going to be peaceful.

Instead, I got slammed with a virus that gave me a fever, chills, extremely unfeminine sweating, and literally knocked me on my behind.  I spent most of this week on the couch sipping broth and watching the Olympics.  Now, we are huge Olympics fans, so the last part wasn't all that bad, but I missed going to church.  I missed having a clear thought.  I missed having the Clean Week I envisioned.  I didn't miss out on a good lesson, though.  Lent isn't about what we think it's going to be in our little well-crafted spiritual plans.  The Christian life is how we react to whatever is thrown at us.  Even when we're thrown a curve ball.

So, I'm a bit behind in writing.  Here's the next few days of readings, and I'll post the rest of the revision after this weekend and a bit of wrapping things up.  I pray that Lent has begun well for you all.  Even if it's not quite how you envisioned it!

From My Youth Master File

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Clean Monday

Lent is here.  Sunday night, at Forgiveness Vespers, the moment of anticipation was heightened when Lent began at a moment halfway through the service.  As the choir sang, all the colors of the church were changed from gold to purple.  The gold cloths under the icons were removed to reveal the purple ones waiting underneath.  The glasses in the lampadas were switched.  All the altar boys scrambled in hasty disarray behind the altar to change their robes along with the clergy.  Visually there had been a change, and you could feel it in the air.  It was subtle and serious.  Joyful and mournful.  The time has come.  Here we go!

After the service, we all participated in the rite of forgiveness.  The line snaked around the nave as we individually went up to Father, got down on our hands and knees in prostration before him and asked for forgiveness for anything we did to him this year or anything we left undone.  He did the same, and we embraced in the kiss of peace.  We then went down the line, repeating the same action with each and every person in attendance.  Even if you barely knew the person.  Even if the person was your own angst-ridden teenager.  You asked for forgiveness from them all.  We all fail each other in one way or another.  We all need forgiveness.  Lent is about repentance, and if we ever hope to be forgiven by God, we have to start by doing some forgiving of our own.

Even little Hilary participated this year.  She's been too shy in the past, but this time, she basked in the love of dozens and dozens of kisses.  I wonder what she thought she was doing?  She was told, but what did she really think it was all about?  When she came to me in the line, I had to hold her back as she immediately lunged at me to kiss.  I grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to look in her eyes.  I hadn't even asked for forgiveness yet.  She just smiled and pushed through my grip to kiss my cheeks.  Isn't that how it should be with everyone?  What if I could do that?  What if I could forgive before other people even get a chance to ask?  To push through the barriers of tension and baggage to forgive first.  To kiss and forgive with abandon.  What a place that would be!

Afterwards, we indulged in an ice cream social.  Piling the mounds of frozen goodness with chocolate and whipped cream, we enjoyed one last celebration.  The fast begins in earnest, now.  Meat has been gone for a week, and now dairy is gone, too.  We won't see them again until Pascha. 

Clean Monday, the first day of Lent, is a chance to clean out your body and your mind.  In Greece, they make it a celebration, complete with kite flying.  When I suggested that we try to fly a kite, my husband and daughter laughed so hard, I thought they might hurt themselves.  It really wasn't that crazy of an idea!  O.K.  Maybe it was...but it would have been a good memory.  No kite flying here on this bitterly cold day.  Instead, we walked our new dog at the park in between snow storms.  Isn't she cute?

There's something about Lent beginning on a cold, snowy day that is fitting.  We're at that point in winter which comes every year.  That point where I'm beginning to doubt that spring could ever come.  It's cold and wet and snows almost every day.  The cold has seeped into my bones, and I'm never truly warm.  Pascha in the spring seems years and years away.


Sin is like this winter.  It blows and drifts in every corner of my life.  It comes every day with no break and seeps down to my bones.  Sometimes, I can't begin to imagine a life without it.  I can't even begin to see spring.  Lent, the journey of repentance, takes me there, though.  Takes me to the Resurrection.

There's some cleaning I need to do this Clean Monday.  Clean my body.  Clean my soul.  The crisp, bitterness of the day is a good place to start.  In Christ it's warm and inviting.  In Christ, I'm just around the corner from the thaw.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Revision through Week 1

Finally an update!  Sorry for the delay.  Here is the revised document with readings through the first Saturday of Lent.  Remember, starting on Monday, there will be readings every day.  I'll post them in chunks of one week at a time with as much advance notice as possible.

I will give parents a heads up that in this revision, I talk one day about the Prayer of St. Ephrem.  In that discussion, I speak about chastity.  There is a brief reference to sex as I define chastity, but the emphasis is on the fact that there is much more to chaste behavior than sex.  Just wanted you to know I use the "s" word, though!

From My Youth Master File

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple


Christmas is over.  Granted, it has felt over for a long time.  Well, at least for me.  Apparently not to those who still have their Christmas lights up, but...  The Christmas season actually just ended today, though, for February 2nd is 40 days past Nativity.  On this day, following Jewish law, Joseph and Mary brought the Christ child to the temple for presentation.  The law stated that all firstborn males must be dedicated to the Lord, and women also had to appear to be purified of their ritual uncleanness from childbearing.

So, we have this feast, called Candlemas in the West.  In the East, we call it either the Meeting of the Lord or the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple.  Not the most famous of feasts, but I like this one a lot.  

We are reminded of the story of the righteous Simeon, who had been told that he would not die until he saw the Messiah.  The poor man was incredibly old, and the end of his life probably didn't sound like too bad of an idea.  Simeon was ready to go, but he had yet to meet his Lord.  When he came out and saw Christ, he sang the song from Luke 2 that we sing at every Vespers service:

"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, 
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people.  
A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel."

The church fathers and hymnographers can't seem to agree whether this is a feast of Christ or the Theotokos.  It's not either/or.  It's both/and.  Did Christ have to deign to follow Jewish law and be presented at the temple?  No, but He did, so all could see that the Messiah had arrived not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.  Did Joseph and the Theotokos have to keep the Law and treat Him like any other baby?  No, but they did, and through their actions, they show us that we should keep our vows to God.  On this day, we praise both the child who was the gift and the mother who made the offering. 

It's traditional to bless candles at this feast.  Just like we bless fruit on Transfiguration at harvest time, we bless candles in February when they were probably traditionally made.  The candles take on a meaning more than just a product of quiet, winter days, when the priest prays that not only will these blessed candles be brought home and lit, but that when we take those candles outside the church, we will also carry the fire of the Holy Spirit.  The Light has come into the world through this child, may we all be enlightened!  What better way to show that yearning for the Messiah than to light a candle?   The Holy Spirit is a fire that burns with a clear and true flame.  There can never be too many candles to light the darkness of our sin.  Christ is our salvation, and every light proclaims it.

For the past two years, our parish has celebrated Godparents' Day on the Sunday closest to this feast.  When I was going through some old papers, I found that our parish had observed a day of remembrance for godparents in the past, but the tradition had fallen away.  It was definitely something I wanted to bring back, so I looked at the calendar and tried to think of when a good time would be.  After some thought, I knew it had to be at the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  At baptism, the godparents also present a child.  They are the voice of the baby who can't speak for himself.  They say the words of declaration of our faith.  They offer the child to Christ, but they don't walk away.  They also make the commitment to pray for that child for the rest of their lives.  To nurture that child in the faith.  To be a spiritual parent.  Remembering that moment on this feast is fitting and true.

Since it's also a chance to bless candles, all the children of our parish decorate candles to be blessed and given to their godparents.  That candle can be lit throughout the year at special times.  I also brought some taper candles to be blessed for our family's use.  We'll light them on feast days, namedays, etc.  Anytime I can show the kids that there's a tangible and literal way to bring the church home with us, I jump at the chance.  They might not remember all the theology, but they're Orthodox kids...they know about fire! 

Additionally, we prayed for all those godparents and godchildren connected to our families.  Those who have passed away.  Those who have left the faith.  Those with whom we didn't have quite the relationship we would have wished.  For all of them we pray, and we remember a child, a mother, and a much-anticipated gift that was worth the wait.  

Let the gate of heaven be opened today,
For He who is without beginning, the Word of the Father
Has made a beginning in time forsaking His divinity
And as a Babe forty days old
He is, of His own will, brought by the Virgin His Mother
As an offering in the temple of the Law.
The Elder received Him in his arms,
Crying as a servant to the Master,
"Let me depart, for my eyes have seen Your salvation,"
Glory to You, O Lord, Who came into the world to save mankind.
----from Vespers for the feast; Tone 6

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sunday of the Prodigal Son


O.K.  So, Lent is definitely close now!  I successfully dug through my freezer last week and used up almost all my meat, while we still have the chance.  My husband cooked up the final thing Sunday night...a turkey.  Normally, I would cook a bird, divide the meat into measured portions ready for multiple meals in the future, and refreeze them.  No time for that now, so the menu for this week is turkey and gravy on Monday, turkey pot pie on Tuesday, turkey crescents on Thursday, and turkey soup with turkey salad for lunches.  We'll be so sick of turkey that Meatfare will be a welcome blessing!

No craft projects for this week.  Instead, we had a celebration.  When the Prodigal Son returns, the Father has a huge party.  Everyone rejoices that he who was lost is found.  Hilary helped me make a chocolate pie for our celebration.  I told her that we were going to have a party where we would eat the pie, but first we had to read the story in her Bible.  She said, "I dunno...I don't think my Bible has party stories in it."  Oh, my!  We had to fix that misconception.  Bibles definitely have party stories in them!

I identify with the Prodigal Son.  There was a time in my life where I ran away from my Father's house and went to live with the pigs.  I'll never forget the yuck and muck.  It wasn't pretty.  When I, too, had enough and realized my stupid mistake, I was welcomed back with unbelievable mercy.  This story reminds us that no matter how much we sin and how far we wander from God, there is always, always, always hope.  That's a reason to celebrate!