Category Archives: Advent

Busy being alive.

It was a drippy and drizzly morning when I drove to the post office to ship Christmas presents to a few of my family. I thought there would be a long line, so I gave myself plenty of time, because I wanted to go directly from there to the cemetery in time to pray with a friend at her husband’s interment.

But few people were at the post office, and three workers, so I finished that business and was out the door with time to spare. Before I got my car door open a man with a long and full beard said, “Hi, Gretchen!” but I didn’t recognize him behind his face mask. Actually, I wouldn’t have known him without the face mask, because I hadn’t seen him in six years, and never with such facial hair. I had to ask, “Who are you?” and as soon as he told me his name I gave him a big hug and a kiss. Mike doesn’t live in my town, but the last time we’d met was in the same shopping center, the year in which we both lost our spouses. Back then we weren’t in the talking mood, but this time we stood in front of the post office and caught up for half an hour. He told me that recently he has fallen in love — with the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom! What a joyous meeting we had.

I had another visit with friends yesterday, for which I made a big pot of chili beans; this afternoon a little tea time with a sister from church when I got back from the cemetery; and last week, a walk with two friends. It’s still fall here, but the colors are all turning to browns and grays, so I was surprised to see this mushroom, the brightest I’ve ever encountered. It was one of several of its kind popping up under bushes.

Some of my family are expected to arrive next week for a nice long Christmas visit. I need to hire a Christmas elf assistant, to help me accomplish all my projects — but that doesn’t sound likely, so I cheerily push one thing after another on to the list of what we can do together, after they arrive.

And for this month, our church women’s reading group has picked a great pair of books: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I am just amazed at us! Last month when Pippin’s family was down for Thanksgiving, the Professor and I were sitting around chatting about church history and doctrine, and he shared with me a paragraph from the first chapter of On the Incarnation. My response was that it was crystalline. That’s probably the first time I ever used that word, which just popped into my mind — that’s what Athanasius will do! And I told the Professor that since I was soon to start reading the book again, I would be sure to post that passage on my blog.

Beginning to read St. Athanasius again has been soothing and encouraging. I got the idea of posting a series of excerpts this month of Advent, when we anticipate The Incarnation. But as I looked over my past blog posts to make sure I didn’t repeat myself too much, I discovered that I have already posted that very paragraph the Professor read to me, plus many more long and short quotes. Maybe I will find something different, but not likely a series.

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Conception of the Theotokos. I’m looking forward to attending Liturgy for the feast. I feel very happy at the moment, thinking about it. The world is full of trouble and strife and unknowns, questions about what governments will do, and what I should do. But for at least many hours of every day, I know what to do, and I do it — one thing after another. My mind gets distracted constantly, but often when I bring it back to here and now, a great gush of joy falls on me, knowing that I am alive.

Even though the world has upended itself.

Ever since the King of Glory was born into this world of death, His people have suffered under and among the kingdoms of this world. We talk a lot about how He was weak and helpless, being a baby. But any of us mothers might remember the vulnerability of women in pregnancy, in the very season when one wants to be most in control, so as to nurture and protect.

I think a lot about my children and grandchildren, who are likely to live on after I am gone, and what they might have to endure in this earthly world, where it seems that the rich and powerful, and often the evildoers, are getting stronger; in any case, the relative impotence of the majority is being revealed. I was very glad to see my friend Anna Mussman write about these concerns last spring, in “Why I’m Grateful to be Pregnant During This Pandemic.” It may be that I linked you to her article back then. She safely gave birth to her fourth child after publishing this article, in which she reminds us of reasons for confidence, even in the face of vulnerability:

We can’t say for sure what will happen to our children, our children’s children, or their children, but we can remember that our God’s promises are just as true for them as for us. 

We need not mourn past seasons of prosperity “as those who have no hope” mourn. We know that sometimes suffering is exactly what we humans need to recognize our sin, repent, and receive forgiveness. Besides, suffering does not last forever. Eternity, the answer and fulfillment of all seasons, is yet to come. 

Babies are cute and adorable and fill us with love, but they also remind us that we are vulnerable. Strangely enough that is actually the most comforting thing about them. Their very perfection forces us to realize we will not be able to save and protect them in the way we wish. We mothers cannot guarantee that our babies will be safe and happy in this world. 

That’s how babies drive us to God. Through our babies and the difficult seasons they may bring, we are reminded over and over that our hope is found in the Father who has promised never to leave us, to never forsake us or our children. God’s love is not seasonal. 

That is why even though the world has upended itself and the media is declaring this year a bad one to have a baby, the world and the media do not get the last say. God does.

In his Advent collection Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite offers a sonnet of his own for December 22. With its reference to the facts of Christ being despised, cast off, “never on the throne,” under imminent threat of murder even as an infant, it reminded me of Anna’s exhortation. We who are followers of Christ can expect no less than the treatment He got; kingdoms rise and fall, and there haven’t been very many truly good kings in all those millennia.

It doesn’t matter. Christ’s Kingdom is real, and the only lasting one, and it is where “we ourselves are found.” It is even right and proper, given the presence of this Kingdom, that we be cheerful, because He told us to be: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

O REX GENTIUM

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,

You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.

We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,

O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

Therefore thus says the Lord God, See, I am laying in Zion for a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ (Isaiah 28:16)

-Malcolm Guite, in Waiting on the Word

Let us eat of it and live forever.

Many, if not most, Orthodox Christians in the world will celebrate our Lord’s Nativity on January 7, as was the custom for all Orthodox until less than a century ago. Under various pressures to westernize, some began to use the “secular” calendar as had been requested of them since the 16th century. I happen to have been baptized into a “new calendar” diocese, so here I am! When I announce a feast day or a calendar date of a commemoration, saying “We –,” I don’t disregard the vast numbers of my beloved brothers and sisters who are waiting thirteen more days for their holy day. But here I go again:

We have entered the Forefeast of the Nativity of our Lord:

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 Divine Fruit:
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!

Set every peak and valley humming.

This Christmas carol with words by Eleanor Farejon came into my life only a few years ago. I can see why it’s not as favored as some that have a fuller theology of the Incarnation, but there is so much that could be said about the significance of God taking on human flesh, I want to make use of all that has been written about this event.

This one is lovely in the way it captures some of the anticipation I feel as I also try to “make my house as fair as I am able.” It’s comforting to have the wisdom of a woman combined with the upbeat melody, a different tone altogether from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — but it is in sync with that joy of preparation of the material aspects of our Christmas feast. And after all, we are celebrating the mystery of God becoming material.

As St. John of Damascus said, “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” God entered His creation of seed, stars, birds, and dirt, and because He did, they are made glorious. Now, we give them back to him in celebration.

PEOPLE, LOOK EAST

People, look east. The time is near 
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

-Eleanor Farjeon

If I from California look east across the globe, I might come eventually to Ukraine, where these monks are singing carols. I don’t understand the words, but I know well what they are singing about. We are singing all over the earth about the pivotal event of history.

(Get ready to) REJOICE!