God is with us, understand all ye nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!
When the Christ appears on earth, God is truly with us, all of us; not only with the Jews but with the gentiles, not only with the Orthodox Christians and Christians generally but with all people, including those who do not ask for Him and do not seek Him. All peoples and nations are called to understand this and to submit to it, not for God's sake but for their own. It is their honor, not their humiliation. It is their dignity, not their degradation, It is their freedom, not their enslavement. It is their very life.
- Father Thomas Hopko, from "The Winter Pascha"
I wish for you, all of you - you who love me, who hate me, who don't know me at all, you who are sick, you who are lonely, you who are frightened about the future, and you who are clinging with every ounce faith you can muster onto this Incarnation of Christ - a clear view, on this Feast, of our Mystical, fiery, indomitable Salvation. Christ is Born! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
With all my love and gratitude,
p.s. I'll meet you back here after the New Year
A Christmas Card
by Thomas Merton
When the white stars talk together like sisters
And when the winter hills
Raise their grand semblance in the freezing night,
Somewhere one window
Bleeds like the brown eye of an open force.
White stars that stand above the eastern stable.
Look down and offer Him.
The dim adoring light of your belief.
Whose small Heart bleeds with infinite fire.
Shall not this Child
(When we shall hear the bells of His amazing voice)
Conquer the winter of our hateful century?
And when His Lady Mother leans upon the crib,
Lo, with what rapiers
Those two loves fence and flame their brilliancy!
Here in this straw lie planned the fires
That will melt all our sufferings:
He is our Lamb, our holocaust!
And one by one the shepherds, with their snowy feet,
Stamp and shake out their hats upon the stable dirt,
And one by one kneel down to look upon their Life.
I usually take the naysayers' rants and cuts in stride; I know full well it seems crazy to believe in what cannot be comprehended with our finite minds. Yesterday, however, I heard on the radio a comedian mock with breezy irreverence the virgin birth of Christ and I was surprised by my own strong internal response of not anger, but sadness. I cannot imagine approaching Christmas, or any other moment in my life for that matter, detached from faith in Eternity and in the consistency of God's unbiased mercy. Along with the privilege of our free will come some inevitable and heartbreaking consequences, including abuse, manipulation and a misunderstanding of the Truth. This season elicits such a variety of emotions as we are confronted once again by the manger containing God in the flesh. For some of us the Nativity evokes joy, hope, peace - for others disgust, resentment, indifference.
I get chills when I read the above poem:
Here in this straw lie planned the fires
That will melt all our sufferings:
He is our Lamb, our holocaust!
And one by one the shepherds, with their snowy feet,
Stamp and shake out their hats upon the stable dirt,
And one by one kneel down to look upon their Life.
It's not my job, as one on my knees in awe of the God-man miracle unfolding among us, to convince anyone of anything. It's not up to me to heal the damage brought on by tragedy, or skewed interperations of the Gospel. It would be foolish to imagine I could ever make perfect sense of the Mystery that is salvation. No, I am not the Holy Spirit, who alone is capable of enlightening our darkened reasonings. I have but one responsibility on this Feast of Christ's birth: to be bold as the shepherds, the angels, the wisemen in living out my humble gratitude and amazement, loving everyone (because I am loved) all willy nilly, regardless of their scars and mine. This Christmas, with so much competing for my attention, with so much effort put forth to muffle the meaning behind the carols played in shopping malls and grocery stores, I'll need the Church to guide me like a star back to the stable.
One of my favorite hymns we'll sing is:
"What shall we present unto Thee, O Christ,
For Thy coming to earth for us men?
Each of Thy creatures brings Thee a thank-offering:
The angels -- singing; the heavens -- a star;
The Wise Men -- treasures; the shepherds devotion;
The earth -- a cave; the desert -- a manger;
But we offer Thee the Virgin-Mother. O Eternal God, have mercy upon us".
Isn't that just gorgeous?
It's almost time.
The kids are out of school. The packing has commenced. After practicing with our choir this morning for our Christmas eve and Christmas day services, I've got those Feast of the Nativity hymns in my head. I am anxiously anticipating that angelic announcement proclaiming, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!" All is not hopeless, or pointless! I am hungry for elation untainted by earthly cares. Come as you are, in whatever sorry state you are, to the manger. No one is excluded from the love of Christ; teach that to your children; live like you believe it with all your heart! Be gone with you fear, callousness and timidity! Prepare, my soul, to rejoice!
Go to Confession and Holy Communion regularly. Participate in the Church's sacramental life.
- Father Thomas Hopko
(Maxim number twelve)
I didn't grow up with Confession. It wasn't until I converted to Orthodox Christianity in my twenties that I first became aware of the incredible healing and resorative effects of participating in this sacrament. You can read more HERE about my personal experience with not only coming to terms with but learning to embrace Confession as an essential tool for staying focused on, and moving forward down, that narrow path towards salvation.
Anyway, while saying evening prayers yesterday with my older two from this wonderful little prayer book compiled by Christina Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) called "Growing in Prayer," I glanced ahead at the "Preparation for Confession" section before turning in for the night myself. This afternoon, I read it again, a tad more slowly. It is, being written for kids and all, clear and simple, and yet how strongly I could relate to the insightful questions being asked, based upon the, dare I say, sometimes overly familiar Ten Commandments. Those questions made me think, made me squirm in a good way.
Things are hoppin' around the Sabourin house: gifts are being wrapped, cards mailed, plans nailed down; tomorrow I'm volunteering for my daughter's class Christmas party. This is a festive season, for sure, but should also, for those of us anticipating the birth of Christ, be one of deep introspection. I'd like to share with you in this post the entire text of that Confession preparation section of our family's "Growing in Prayer" book. I pray it inspires and challenges you (to Love ever more both God and your neighbor), as it has me:
Preparation for Confession
from "Growing Prayer: a Child's Orthodox Prayer Book"
copyright 2009 by Christina Taylor
"I am the Lord Thy God; Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods before Me."
Have I tried to love God? Have I tried to remember Him and pray to Him daily? Have I forgotten to ask God for help? Have I thought more about myself than about God?
"Thou Shalt Not Make Unto Thee Any Graven Image"
Have I put God first in my life? Do I care more about the way I look, my clothes, my friends, having fun or anything else more than God? Have I been scared of people making fun of me for my faith? Have I tried to prepare for receiving Holy Communion?
"Thou shalt Not Take Thy Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain"
Have I treated the Lord's name with love and care? Have I treated holy things properly?
"Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep it Holy."
Have I tried to make Sunday special and holy? Have I gone to Church on Feast days? Do I complain about going to church?
"Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother."
Have I shown respect and thankfulness towards my parents? Have I disobeyed them? Have I been helpful? Have I shown respect to my priest, teachers, grandparents and elders?
"Thou shalt Not Kill"
Have I been angry or wished someone to be hurt? Have I hurt others with what I say or do? Have I helped those who needed help? Have I been mean or talked badly about anyone? Have I forgiven those who have hurt me? Have I been kind to all?
"Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultry."
Have I wanted to be admired by others? Have I been vain about my body and clothing? Have I been loyal to my family and friends?
"Thou Shall Not Steal."
Have I stolen anything? Have I cheated in my schoolwork or in games? Have I kept anything that did not belong to me? Have I given to the Church and to the needy? Have I been generous, or do I hide things away for myself?
"Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness."
Have I lied to anyone? Have I kept the truth a secret? Do I judge other people for the sins that I also do? Have I been fair to all, especially those younger than me?
"Thou Shalt Not Covet."
Have I been happy with what I have or do I want what others have too? Have I been sad when others receive gifts? Have I complained? Have I been thankful to God for all His blessings to me?
Lines for Winter
by Mark Strand
We are deep in the throes of our first winter blizzard of the season. Brrrrrrrr!
And since my husband and brother were CRAZY enough to brave the thousand mile per hour winds whipping through the city in order to catch a Chicago Bears football game, the kids and I are huddling up with my sister-in-law, Paige, and her girls for the afternoon.
It is Sunday. There weren't many of us at Church this morning, the roads being so horrendous and all, but the service was prayerful and ever so pleasant nonetheless. Father Thomas Hopko's 11th maxim is to attend liturgical services regularly. Awhile ago, I wrote the following podcast about attending Divine Liturgy as a convert to Orthodoxy and a mother of young children. It says everything I still feel about managing our expectations, and the unpredictability of God's mercy. I promise it's not a sad piece - don't let the title fool you!
Those of you in the Midwest, stay warm! Those of you in the South, please don't rub your mild weather in our frostbit faces! : )
When planning our honeymoon, the very first thing Troy and I did was to lower our expectations. It became obvious pretty quickly that my fiancé’s meager income, as a full-time employee of Barnes and Noble, combined with my miniscule hourly wage as a part-time publicity assistant for a small book publisher, was not going to fund a backpacking tour of Europe or a week long stint in Hawaii at a luxury beach resort. “We have friends willing to rent you their cabin in the Smoky Mountains,” offered my dad. “That’ll be fine,” we decided, ready to move on to other more pressing matters regarding silverware patterns and the thread count of our future bed sheets.
It wasn’t until the big day got closer, however, that Troy and I both became truly excited about our upcoming trek to North Carolina. With all the stress and wedding preparations behind us, it would feel awesome, we thought, to finally relax and soak in the peacefulness of quiet and nature. What I anticipated, throughout the entire twelve hour drive up there, was to find the winding roads, the dense forests, the isolation, dreamy. I envisioned us reading side-by-side on a porch swing, taking long evening walks and eating by candlelight.
Hot and exhausted, we finally, around dusk, arrived at the cabin - that picture perfect, cedar scented retreat from all of the hustle and bustle of Chicago. Leaving our luggage and empty diet coke cans in the air-conditionless Honda Civic parked out front, we ran eagerly inside for a self-guided tour. It was lovely - quaintly rustic and obviously well taken care of. Out back was a deck with patio furniture. On the walls were family photographs and framed needlepoint samplers. We were alone, far away from traffic, the sound of sirens, other people. I mean, really…no other people were around - no neighbors, no tourists, not a soul within earshot. It was just Troy and me -Troy and me by ourselves, and the sun was going down rapidly.
Wait! Sh-h-h! Did you hear something? Something like a grizzly bear, maybe? Oh how silly! How ridiculous! “Honey, be a dear and go out there in the dark to get our suitcase.” My brand new spouse, bless his heart, took a big deep breath, bolted bravely out the door, grabbed our stuff from the trunk and was back inside in seconds. Should we rent Deliverance tonight? He asked facetiously. And then we laughed, but just a little bit because to an urban couple secluded in the woods that sort of a joke is only kind of amusing.
In my fantasies regarding our first get away as husband and wife, we weren’t terrified by all the creepy nocturnal sounds we could hear but not see or interpret, there wasn’t a vicious swarm of bees hovering menacingly around my head on our hike by the waterfall, there wasn’t a three page long check-list of chores to complete in order to get the cabin ready for it’s next renters, we didn’t run out of things to talk about and we certainly didn’t become so stir-crazy and city starved that we drove all the way to Atlanta where my parents were staying for a conference and spend the night with them in their hotel room. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? How efficiently reality can rub the luster off our idealism. What you hope for isn’t always or, let’s face it, isn’t usually what you get.
If there is one thing that has dawned on me (slowly but surely) about family life, it’s that everything, every situation and experience, should be swallowed with a big old, sobering grain of salt. And though it sounds pessimistic, I can assure you that such pragmatism has saved me on countless occasions from throwing the proverbial baby out with the whining, moody, spit-up-ey, peed through, “gotta leave early because it’s nap time” bath water. By assuming all will not go smoothly, I am much less often discouraged and much more likely to appreciate the little victories woven into the over all frenzied existence and pace of being a raiser of children. If you make it out of any errand, vacation or excursion alive, for example, and still speaking to one another, without having to write a check for something that got broken, or to publicly apologize to store employees, other parents or (hypothetically speaking of course) a roomful of patrons at a Bob Evans restaurant for a sticky, syrupy mess your kids made or a high pitched outburst, you can consider that outing a grand success and be thoroughly pleased with your accomplishment.
I believe it is a positive thing that Troy and I have become calloused, by way of multiple blows to our vulnerable agendas, to the biting annoyance of “let-down.” My children, however, …well, they don’t really get it yet. “How could God let this happen!?” My son, Elijah, once wailed when our anticipated outing to a McDonalds Play Land was foiled by a dead car battery. I can see them writhing internally when unforeseen circumstances bar their pathway to that one item or event they just know will trump all prior gifts, parties, play dates, etc. in terms of coolness and I can empathize with them to a point but tire quickly of the theatrical sackcloth and ashes reaction we typically see around here when disappointment rears its mean and unjust head. Inevitably, I pull out the old, “Life isn’t fair, get used to it,” speech, which they never take to heart just as I never processed it when my own mother performed it two decades ago. Patience and long-suffering are only learned, are only earned, the hard way.
It’s no secret I struggled awhile to apply this recently acquired, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit" approach to Orthodoxy, specifically in regards to our attendance of services. I had to spend approximately 288 Sunday morning liturgies shushing, rocking, nursing, redirecting, wincing, warning and biting my cheek in frustration before I finally accepted that all of those distractions were, for now, necessary for my long term maturation. I’d been a feel good junkie for as long as I could remember and rearing children in the Church did a bang up job of teaching me to separate emotions from discipleship, and that Christ’s commandment to, “Follow me,” meant, “obey,” out of love, not chase relentlessly after soul soothing, heart warming validations.
In the dryness of just showing up each week, of exposing my family to the ancient prayers and hymnography of Orthodox Christianity without any guarantee that I, myself, would be able to concentrate or reflect on the mystery of the sacraments, I passed through a more shallow and romanticized belief and into the rigors of unconditional and lasting devotion. It wasn’t until I stopped expecting and depending on immediate spiritual gratification that I developed a true and rooted confidence in God’s perfect (and often maddening) mercy. It seemed, initially, like motherhood was going to have a stalemating effect on my faith but in all actuality, it instilled courage, groundedness, flexibility, and an unflappability imperative for staying focused in the midst of life’s turbulent ups and downs, where before there was only skittishness and doubt.
Every once in awhile (BAM! out of nowhere), I get completely bowled over by an overwhelming sense of Christ’s actual presence among us, within us, working through us – like during a pre-sanctified liturgy when I stood tearily in the communion line behind my mother watching her receive the Eucharist or when chills passed down my spine during the Holy Friday reading of the Ezekial passage about the dry bones (“Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.” Ezekial 37:13). I attended our local book club last week made up mostly of women from my parish and right there in my parent’s living room could hardly breath so thick and heavy was the sensation of paradise mingling with earth in the honesty and purity of our discussion about life and death, loss and forgiveness. The fact that these satisfying gems of enlightenment are not always tied to my ascetical efforts or attempts at conjuring up a geyser-like gush of giddiness for all things Orthodox, affirms that God’s grace is not limited by or contingent on my own failures and successes.
Eleven years ago, I envisioned myself being healed by our conversion and by my giving birth to our first child. In my fantasies about those significant milestones, I’d be freed instantaneously from selfishness, jealousy and insecurity, as one held captive by chains has the potential to be liberated by but a turn of a key. Never did I factor in a prolonged period of intensive training designed to build up my endurance. I’ve had to relinquish my skewed presumptions about what piety looks like, sounds like and yes, what it feels like, which is often like passing through a hot and stagnant desert dotted with cool and refreshing streams.
It is a hard, demanding, sometimes grueling journey, but one we travel hand-in-hand, carrying each other, encouraging one another, motivated always by the footprints of those who walked before us and stayed the course. My salvation is all wrapped up in this conviction that now is when we toil in preparation for the judgment and resurrection to come. I didn’t get what I hoped for (Hallelujah!); I got what I needed, and how rewarding, fulfilling and nourishing is becoming more Christ-like and durable, through the wisdom and compassion of God and His Church, than you ever in your wildest dreams thought possible.
Things have gotten a little heavy over here at my Close to Home site. The Nativity Fast (and Lent) has a way of bringing me to my knees and, as Mama Cynthia so kindly described in her comment, peeling me like an onion. I had no idea when I took on this Advent blogging project how challenging it would be. These 55 Maxims have indeed gotten under my skin, in a most salvific way. I continue to be so thankful for them. I'd like to pause for a moment, however, to share with you something else for which I am abundantly grateful. This week, I was able to lift my head up from out of the sand, from out of the chaos, and truly marvel at these joyful, funny, unique, sons and daughters God has blessed us with. It's so easy to slip into drill sergeant mode and forget how amazing it is to be a parent. I will warn you upfront that unless you are a blood relative, this post may not thrill you quite like it does me. School Christmas programs are a dime a dozen, to be sure. The one I attended on Thursday, however, just delighted this mom of four. Below is a taste of what still has me beaming.
The 6th graders wrote their own play in which my son, Elijah (up front) had a starring role. Oh, how I enjoy watching him light up while performing.
My sweet Prissy and her 4th grade peers tackled such classics as "Ode to Joy" and "Jingle Bell Rock" on their recorders.
My niece, Isabelle.
The 1st graders, my son, Ben, and niece, Isabelle, among them, were awesome. Their enthusiasm, though sometimes maddening, is just so endearing and contagious. This video (see below) of Ben and Isabelle taking part in a rousing rendition of "All I Want for Christmas" fills me from head to toe with joy.
Today is Saturday, family day. I am happy.
But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing
- Matthew 6:3
by Stanley Moss
You are Jehovah, and I am a wanderer.
Who should have mercy on a wanderer
if not Jehovah? You create and I decay.
Who should have mercy on the decayed
if not the creator? You are the Judge
and I the guilty Who should have mercy
on the guilty if not the Judge? You are All
and I am a particle. Who should have mercy
on a particle if not the All?
You are the Living One and I am dead.
Who should have mercy on the dead if not
the Living One? You are the Painter and Potter
and I am clay. Who should have mercy on clay
if not the Painter and Potter? You are the Fire
and I am straw Who should have mercy on straw
if not the Fire? You are the Listener
and I am the reader. Who should have mercy
on the reader if not the Listener? You
are the Beginning and I am what follows.
Who should have mercy on what follows
if not the Beginning? You are the End and I am
what follows. Who should have mercy
on what follows if not the End
He is impossible to avoid, the way he's positioned there by the entrance to my grocery store, with his hand bell, and monotone greeting of, Happy Holidays. Happy Holidays. Happy Holidays.
"Who is that?" asks my five-year-old daughter, Mary, as we approach him with our shopping cart and impossibly long list of things to buy, to remember, to do. "He's from the Salvation Army," I tell her. "He collects money for people who need a little help. Mommy doesn't have any cash," I add sheepishly. "Next time, we'll remember to bring some." I avert my eyes as we walk by him, the man whose disheveled presence pricks the protective bubble I abide within. He gets under my skin.
The next time Mary and I head to the store, I am prepared. Before leaving, I stick some money in my coat pocket. I will let her do it, I decide - will let her place our offering in the red plastic bucket. When we arrive, however, he is not there, the man with the bell. His bucket is there, yes, but apparently he has stepped away for a moment, for a smoke perhaps, or to use the restroom. Without even second guessing myself, I hold onto my money. I want to wait until we exit the store, I want him to see us contribute to his noble cause because I shop there all the time. Heaven forbid he not realize I have a generous and God-fearing spirit.
When we leave with our overflowing shopping cart, sure enough, he's back at it - back mumbling mostly to himself, Happy Holidays. Happy Holidays.
"Here are you are, sweetheart." I tell my daughter, placing the dollars in her small outstretched hand. I make eye contact with the man as she cheerfully shoves them in through the slit in the bucket's locked lid. "Thank you," he says.
Giving alms feels good.
Yesterday, I looked at my list again containing Father Thomas Hopko's 55 Maxims for Spiritual Living, mentally checking off the ones I've already covered. I came to number nine, and grimaced. Do acts of mercy in secret, I read. Just do some good things that no one knows about. And it dawned on me anew that trying to secure for oneself a consistent state of selflessness is so damn futile its not even funny. These spiritual maxims have thus far served to make more obvious than ever my maddening deficiencies. Of course they are too hard to master, of course even my best of intentions are poisoned with specks of vaingloriousness. No matter how hard I try, I cannot escape my glaring dependence on God to, despite knowing completely my private failings, save me (Who should have mercy on the decayed if not the creator?). Of course, I know all of that already...except when I forget and become deluged by the kind of faith-challenged remorse that extinguishes gratitude.
My friend, Kris, sent me this quote by C.S. Lewis recently:
The real problem of the Christian life comes... the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
I can't help but notice there is no mention in that passage from Mere Christianity of a final victory (on this side of the grave anyway), just a continuous struggle - a struggle to make more real to us than our earthly doubts and passions, the hope-abundant Kingdom of Heaven. In the excellent book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the life and teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, I was confronted again by that struggle via the following statement describing Elder Thaddeus' early spiritual revelations:
He began to understand, based on his own experience, that being a Christian meant waging a constant and ceaseless battle against evil and death in one's own heart, a battle with no front lines or cease-fires, in which the enemy neither sleeps nor tires.
Even this present disgust at myself for failing spectacularly to, among other things, keep my left hand from knowing what my right hand was doing is to be fought hard against. This current lingering disappointment threatening to muffle or mute entirely "that other voice" is my enemy number one. I learn a valuable lesson each and every time I fall: I am nothing. Christ is everything. Christ is everything.
The Feast of St. Nicholas
Carrots for St. Nicholas' donkey
Gifts from St. Nicholas
Up goes our tree
Making cookies for our neighbors
My sister-in-law, Paige, our kids and I getting ready to deliver our treats
Knock, knock, knock! Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!
Troparian of St. Nicholas
You were revealed to your flock
as a measure of faith.
You were the image of humility
and a teacher of self-control.
Because of your humble life,
heaven was opened to you.
Because of your poverty,
spiritual riches were granted to you. O holy Bishop Nicholas
we cry out to you:
Pray to Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.
Don't forget to visit THIS fantastic site with your children!
Much joy and love, love, love to you!