Christ is Born!
January 8th always holds a mix of emotions for me. Yesterday, we celebrated Christmas. We woke early and opened stockings and quickly left our home festivities to join in the feast day service of Nativity, At church we participated in the Divine Liturgy. We sang. We hugged our fellow parishioners and exchanged gifts. We left full of love. As my daughter said, "I wake up so excited for Christmas, and I see all our presents and I am so happy, and then we go to church and I am filled with JOY!
Celebrating Christmas two weeks after the majority of those around us can be a bit tricky. It is hard to explain (we celebrate on the "old" Julian calendar) and by New Year's most people have moved on from Christmas--evidenced by the discarded Christmas trees lining the sidewalks in our town. Yet, it also feels like a sacred time for me. A time apart, our family holding space to still drop out of everyday life and celebrate, sing, and welcome the light of Christ into our lives anew. That is what makes January 8th so hard, I want to keep everyone out of school and work the whole week afterwards to bask in the joy together, but today we all went back to life.
I am comforted because even though we return to life, Christmas isn't over. We will celebrate our twelve days of Christmas, sing carols, light our pyramida, and enjoy the foods that were off the table before the feast. Our parish Christmas party, a highlight of our year, is this coming weekend. These traditions help me each year to hold on to the beauty of Christ's Nativity. To remember that the joy of Christmas grows each day as I open my heart to the love of God, and share that love with those around me.
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Almost two years ago my brother Michael suddenly passed away. It was a very painful shock for our family and his death brought up a lot of pain, lost opportunity and loss. At the time of his death Michael and I did not speak regularly. It wasn’t due to a falling out, more to the fact that we were almost 10 years apart and lived in different states and were at different stages of life. My grief was as much for the immediate loss of him, as for the time we wouldn’t be able to reconnect and for the deep pain felt by my Father and younger siblings who would acutely feel his absence in their daily lives.
In our Orthodox faith we are blessed to have a way in which to view, understand and process death. The Orthodox funeral is a deeply spiritual one, focusing on the soul of the departed and praying for unification with God, It is customary to view and kiss the body of the deceased before burial and for the mourners’ graveside to help bury or put dirt upon the casket. The hymns and prayers of the service help to move the souls of both the living and the deceased through the process of death. Michael died at the end of March, just as spring is beginning to show signs of renewal and new life. He died during Lent, a time of penitence and introspection. I am very aware of his death during this time of spiritual warfare and as the beauty of nature starts to emerge and we prepare for the promise of Pascha (Easter). During the Lenten season we offer commemoration and prayers on special days for those who have departed.
It is the Orthodox belief that the prayers of the living can help the souls of the dead. It gives me great comfort to know that although my brother’s journey in his body ended, the journey of his soul continues and through my prayers I can aid him and comfort him on that path. During the services for the departed a special offering of Kolyva (sweetened wheat berries) is prepared. Preparing Kolyva in his honor for the commemoration of the dead helps me to move my grief from a heavy weight of pain in my heart, to a place of hope. It helps to honor him and his memory. The prayers of commemoration, the petition for the peace of his soul, and tears that flow during the hymns of the service help to heal, giving comfort and hope.
I wrote the passage above almost two years ago as we were preparing to remember my brother on the second anniversary of his death. Now, two years later, we are once again in the midst of Lent and his fourth anniversary is nearing. I will never forget the devastating phone call from my father telling me of my brother’s untimely death. The quick plans to fly my family hundreds of miles to be with my now 8 siblings, father and stepmothers to mourn together and bury my brother. We were blessed to be together and devastated that it took a funeral to get us all in one place after many years.
The visit was a blur, but there are moments that will be in my heart forever: Holding and crying with my brother Daniel. Laughing with my siblings in our childhood home about Michael's pranks. Crying through the beautiful and heart wrenching chanting of Memory Eternal shortly before I kissed my brother for the last time.
My two young daughters never met my brother alive, but they witnessed the love we all felt for him in his death and got to say goodbye to the uncle they would never get to know. I am grateful for the time we had as a family to grieve. It is good to have ceremony and space to mark the moments. Since then, we continue to remember him and pray for his soul. Making Kolyva is one of the ways I can still love him outwardly.
It takes me three days to prepare the Kolyva. I like this recipe and preparation process because it is an offering of love to the deceased, to my fellow parishioners and to God. Taking the time to slow down, reflect on the soul in prayerful love is healing. There are many variations to the recipe but the one below is my favorite:
4 cups hard winter wheat berries (dried)
1/2 cup Sugar (coconut sugar, rapadura, brown sugar or white sugar)
Grated rind of 1 orange
2 Tbl. toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup almond meal
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup cranberries
1 Tbl. cinnamon
*all amounts are adjustable according to your preference for sweetness, etc.
Soak the wheat berries in a large bowl overnight. Make sure there is an inch or two of water over the berries.
Rinse the berries, and put them in a large pot cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the berries for 2-4 hours (this depends on what type of wheat you use). Check each hour to see how they are cooking. You want your berries to be soft and easy to chew throughout but not popped open and mushy. They should retain their shape.
When they are finished cooking drain the berries and rinse in cool water. Next, you need to dry the berries. You can lay towels on your counters and spread the berries out to dry over the next 3-5 hours. You can also put them in a large colander and turn them every thirty minutes or so over the course of the day if you have limited space.
While the berries are drying you can mix your sugar (I prefer rapadura or coconut sugar), cinnamon, nut meal, sesame, and fruit. Put the berries in a large bowl and add the orange rind, stirring well. Next combine the sugar mixture and stir well. Put the kolyva in your serving dish and gently press down with the back of a wooden spoon making a smooth surface. Use raisins or nuts to make a cross in the center of the dish.
Cleaning up the dishes tonight, this phrase starting going through my head...She taught us. I was pleased with how my thrown together dinner had turned out. Rich, nutritious, and quite good. I started imagining what my daughter would say in the future about what she learned from her mother about cooking and food. I started to imagine what else I hope my daughters learn from me, directly and indirectly. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but what I hope most for them, what I hold most dear. In writing it, it also helped me to clarify where I need to spend more time. It is a nice exercise, I recommend writing one of your own.
What I hope my children will say about me when reflecting on my life:
She taught us to cook and eat nourishing and delicious food.
She taught us to eat when we were hungry, to respect our body and feed ourselves what we needed to carry us through our days.
She taught us that we are spiritual beings and to listen to our inside voice.
She taught us to love God, and that we are unconditionally loved.
She taught us to see our wrong, and to repent, and to move past our wrongdoing with an open heart.
She taught us we were beautiful, from our hearts.
She taught us to be outside, and to notice the natural world, to love and respect it.
She taught us to dance, and feel the joy of running, moving, feeling our bodies.
She taught us to share what we have, even when we don't want to, even when we'd rather have it all for ourselves.
She taught us love one another, that we are each others greatest gifts.
She taught us not to be afraid to try, and to fail, and to try again, this is how we learn.
She taught us to pray, with our lips and our hearts, in church, in the home, on the tops of mountains. To let prayer be love within our hearts, unceasing.
She taught us to ask questions and to seek the answer when none was given.
And above all, she taught us to be Kind, and to care for those who are not yet able to care for themselves.
It is one of those mornings when I am trying to get out of the house and am running late and trying to remember everything. My youngest is finally contained in her carseat and crying, my oldest is bopping around doing everything except getting ready and what I ask of her. I hear my voice get harsh, my throat get tight. I try to remind myself in these moments that this is not a crisis. This is not what a crisis looks like at all and everything is ok. I do not need to overreact and get upset. My oldest has started acting like this, like me, getting worked up about very small things and I actually do say to her, “this is ok, we are ok, I’ll help you, this is not a crisis.” And she replies, “Yes, it is a crisis!”
Back to this morning. Even though I’ve told myself, we are not in the middle of a crisis, I have yet to calm the panic I feel in needing to get out the door NOW. As I’m moving around getting things together I ask my daughter one more time to come over to me so I can zip her jacket and I hear myself say, “Why is this so difficult? Why aren’t you listening to me. What can we do to make this work?" She replies, “You need to sing to me”.
Stillness. Everything stopped in that moment and I melted. Of course, sing to her. That is how I envisioned my life as a mother pre-parenthood. I really wanted to have children and imagined our beautiful life together. Learning, cuddling, loving and yes, singing through our days. That was the movie of motherhood I had in my mind.
I smiled and laughed, and hugged her and started singing about brushing her teeth (a hauntingly, beautiful tune actually) things flowed smoothly and we got out the door. A wise daughter.
I’d like to say I don’t end up in crisis mode over menial details or my voice doesn’t get harsh when I’d prefer to speak calmly and lovingly, because I am still working that out. However, this moment, was a big one for me and a big reminder that although reality is different than the movie versions I used to play in my mind of motherhood, I need to keep my visions alive. I need to remember that we are creating this life together, my children, husband and I. In our daily adventure, I am the director, I set the stage and call the shots. My direction gives the nuance and flow to the action. My crisis, becomes their crisis. One day at a time, one moment at a time, I am trying to calm down and enjoy.
Source. God is love and the source of all that is good. The bounty and the beauty of nature, the light in our souls, and the beginnings of dreams all flow from this goodness.