Category Archives: icons

Christmas is always today’s gift.

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For Christmas decor, I give you these lighted redwood trees in my town.

Because at my house, there is a wreath on the front door, and one on the playhouse door, and that’s it! I am so busy planning and packing for a long trip, starting with Christmas at Pearl’s in Wisconsin, that I had no room in my mind or schedule for more than that.

I’m not even baking! Soldier and his family were just here for a couple of days and I found a Sugar Plum Cake from last Christmas in the freezer, to eat for breakfast. It’s a stöllen sort of bread, the recipe for which was handed down from my Aunt Bettie; the grandchildren particularly liked the little colored bits in it.

If I were going to be home this year, I’d certainly find a new cookie recipe in this book which was gifted to me by one of the children:

But I’m not, so I’ll share a few cookies and cookie stories from the past:

Two recipes from my cookie tray

A traditional seedy one

I don’t think I love Christmas as much as my late husband did, but I enjoyed all the aspects of preparing and shopping better when he was still around. And his voice leading us in carol-singing! Oh yes.

For almost twenty years I’ve been learning about the riches of the Orthodox Church, which include an appreciation for the Incarnation on a level I never found elsewhere. It’s thrilling to focus on Christ’s Nativity this month, but the story of a baby in a manger would become boring after a few years if it were merely a historic event to think about. The soul requires more than thought, more than history, and this holy feast is an event that we can abide in the way the branch abides in the Vine. It makes possible our participating in that Life, in the ever arriving Today.

What happens in the present is connected in lovely and helpful ways to the past by what we retain and remember. Here are two more articles from the archives, on Christmasy things:

What Christmas trees teach

Reading the Nativity icon

Tradition is a word that comes up a lot during holiday seasons. Some people find great comfort in keeping customs like baking cookies and visiting Santa, but at the same time try to craft their own individual version of fundamental human personhood. I found this little Facebook posting to be thought-provoking:

Every human being born into this world starts as a traditionalist. What we have, what we begin with, is handed down to us from everyone and everything that has gone before. The rejection of that tradition is not only absurd, it is ungrateful. [Tradition is] also inescapable. We cannot become self-created. What we have is a gift. What we are is revealed as we fulfill that gift.

Be thankful. You are God’s gift to the world.

-Father Stephen Freeman

From each Christmas to the next, and every day in between,
“God is with us!”

Roses, a towel, and Isidora.

When you have washed the dishes and are letting the dirty water drain out of the sink, remember Saint Isidora, who is commemorated on May 10. Today I thought of her when I had occasion to wear a kitchen towel on my head; I have posted her story below.

isi cistus church 5-17
cistus at church

I had scheduled an oil change for my car this morning, and planned to drop it off at the mechanic early enough that I would have time to walk the mile to church, and join two other women to bake Orthodox communion bread called prosphora.

Because I was plotting about how long the walk would take me, what time to leave home, etc., I forgot to bring along the bandana I always wear to keep my hair out of the dough. When I arrived on the property I took some flower pictures and then hunted around for a substitute. I couldn’t find a spare scarf in the church or in the lost-and-found, but there was the stack of frayed but clean terrycloth kitchen towels in the corner of the kitchen, and a safety pin in a drawer… Ah, I thought: Isidora was known to wear a rag on her head, so I will do this in her honor.

Icon over the church hall porch

The following is from the website of the Orthodox Church in America:

Saint Isidora, Fool-for-Christ, struggled in the Tabenna monastery in Egypt during the sixth century. Taking upon herself the feat of folly, she acted like one insane, and did not eat food with the other sisters of the monastery. Many of them regarded her with contempt, but Isidora bore all this with great patience and meekness, blessing God for everything.

She worked in the kitchen and fulfilled the dirtiest, most difficult tasks at thisidora-of-egypt-frescoe monastery, cleaning the monastery of every impurity. Isidora covered her head with a plain rag, and instead of cooked food she drank the dirty wash water from the pots and dishes. She never became angry, never insulted anyone with a word, never grumbled against God or the sisters, and was given to silence.

Once, a desert monk, Saint Pitirim, had a vision. An angel of God appeared to him and said, “Go to the Tabenna monastery. There you will see a sister wearing a rag on her head. She serves them all with love, and endures their contempt without complaint. Her heart and her thoughts rest always with God. You, on the other hand, sit in solitude, but your thoughts flit about all over the world.”

The Elder set out for the Tabenna monastery, but he did not see the one indicated to him in the vision among the sisters. Then they led Isidora to him, considering her a demoniac. Isidora fell down at the knees of the Elder, asking his blessing. Saint Pitirim bowed down to the ground to her and said, “Bless me first, venerable Mother!”

To the astonished questions of the sisters the Elder replied, “Before God, Isidora is higher than all of us!” Then the sisters began to repent, confessing their mistreatment of Isidora, and they asked her forgiveness. The saint, however, distressed over her fame, secretly hid herself away from the monastery, and her ultimate fate remained unknown. It is believed that she died around the year 365.

I have seen this icon for years in the church, but only recently did I get a good enough photo to think about putting up here, and then I read about Isidora just a few weeks ago, close enough to her feast day that I waited to share it now. But who knew that I would so conveniently find another connection to the saint? My fellow bakers smiled at my enthusiasm and immediately asked, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

We enter the today of Holy Week.

In the past I have written a little about the atmosphere of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. I have only been breathing it by means of a few, perhaps shallow, breaths, over the years. I feel that way because of the distractions that I haven’t been able to avoid, or the weaknesses of my flesh and will, which prevent me from staying close to the Lord through this last week before Pascha. I suppose I am like His disciples that way.

Icon for Holy Tuesday, of The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

With all that, I have been affected, and every year finds me looking forward to the riches that we live in, this week that does indeed carry the scent of holiness. The days with their minutes and hours are not in themselves vessels for the treasures, but it is in the services of the Church and their rich liturgical hymnography and prayers that we receive the gift.

Even after years of knowing better, I still occasionally notice the thought trying to push itself forward: “Why would I want to go to another church service? Won’t I be bored, since it is basically the same as the last one, and it is so long?” I have to laugh, because of the ways that the idea is so silly. Do you ever get tired of your spouse or your child saying, “I love you?” It takes a while in church to settle oneself enough to really hear God speaking, and then, He says “I love you” with so many hymns and songs and words of Scripture, not to mention bread and water, wine and oil, candlelight and incense….

I suppose you could say that the message is always the same, but no two services are ever exactly the same. The message, essentially being the Giver of Life Himself, is never tiresome; in this life we barely begin to experience His Life.

Holy Wednesday – Washing the Disciples’ Feet

I am writing this a few days before, so as to keep my calendar as free as I can. I wanted to pass on this meditation that I saved from when I read it last year – I hope it is a grace-filled breath of fresh air to you.

HOLY WEEK: A MYSTIC TORRENT

As we enter Holy Week, the festal atmosphere of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday yields to the solemnity, sobriety and sadness of Holy Week as the Lord moves toward His voluntary and life-giving Passion.  The Son of God came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” and “to give His life as a ransom for many.” It is our privilege and responsibility to accompany Christ to Golgotha to the extent that our lives make that possible, especially by our participation in the services that guide us to Golgotha and beyond—to the empty tomb. 

As Father Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent.” Therefore, during Holy Week we are challenged to “lay aside all earthly cares” and focus on our Lord Jesus Christ, whether we are at a particular service or not. This is a week filled with school, church and other necessary responsibilities.  There is no room or time for worldly entertainment -— not when the Lamb of God will be slain for the sins of the world.

Holy Friday

At the services of Holy Week, we enter into the “today” of the events being reactualized so that the event and all of its salvific power is made present to the gathered community. Thus, we are not simply commemorating a past event for its dramatic impact, or presenting something of an Orthodox “passion play.”  Rather, we re-present the event of the Crucifixion so that we participate in it within the liturgical time of the Church’s worship. 

As Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev writes, “Each one of us receives Christ as our personal Savior, and so we each make our own all the events of Christ’s life through personal experience, to whatever extent we can. The feast day is a realization here and now of an event that occurred once in time but is always happening outside time.” And he adds, speaking of the great saints and their faith in the Resurrection of Christ, “They lived… by their experience of eternity and knew that Easter was not a single day of the year, but an eternal reality in which they participated daily.”

-Fr. Steven Kostoff