Archive for the ‘Feast of the Church’ Category

The Last Week Is So Hard

March 30, 2010

Well, it’s Tuesday of Holy Week, and only 6 days to Pascha.  Are you like me and trying to switch your brain from visions of meat and eggs to the joy and peace of the Resurrection?  

Yesterday afternoon I went to my all-time favorite country meat market to get the requisite Pascha sausage.   I’m born and bred Texas Deutsch, so that doesn’t mean kielbassa.  I had to get my sausage fix at Penshorn’s in Marion (217 W. San Antonio Street, aka FM 78), about 20 miles from San Antonio, close to my Mom’s house.  It’s an old-fashioned meat market, still hand-cutting everything and the makers of, I swear, the best local German sausage you’ll ever eat in your life.   The market’s future was in jeopardy in 2008 when a fire destroyed the original building.  They’ve re-opened with a new, larger market and are better than ever.  Penshorn’s makes the two traditional types – a dry beef sausage (garlic or regular, often made in the winter with venison), and a garlicky, peppery beef ring that’s sort of akin to a bratwurst, and unique to the German Hill Country of Texas. 

Do you know what your car smells like with 16 lbs of smoky, garlicky, German sausage on a warm day?  After 45 days of Great Lent, do you know what kinds of thoughts were going through my head with 16lbs of German sausage sitting on the seat beside me?   I’m telling ya, the devil was riding in that car and he didn’t have a pitchfork; he had a bottle of brown mustard and a pot of sauerkraut.

Halloween and Orthodox Christians

October 26, 2009


Pews or no pews, kneeling on Sunday, headcoverings.  You think these cause consternation and discord among our “Little T” debates?  Try raising the issue of Halloween among 10 Orthodox Christians and you’ll get 10 different opinions, each centered around the question of  ‘what commonly observed, secular American activities are appropriate for an Orthodox Christian to take part in?   

 In this past Sunday’s church bulletin, I went back and forth about what exactly to put in concerning Halloween.  Knowing the range of opinions, I did not want to print anything that was too dogmatic or based upon my own beliefs, but was a more general treatment of the Christian holiday associated with the season and which was in line with our priest’s judgment, which is pretty neutral about Halloween.  On the other hand, very strong injunctions against the practice of Halloween have been preached in recent years, and not so recently.  You’d be surprised to know that St. John of Maximovitch, who I myself revere, dealt with Halloween in his own way back in his earliest days in San Francisco.   This is not an issue the Church has considered on a level in the way abortion or same sex marriage attack key doctrinal positions.  This is a pastoral issue and as such is subject to the various interpretations of clergy.

So in order to balance these competing pastoral opinions, I found the following explanation from the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Belief, concerning the history of All Hallow’s Eve and its connections with the modern celebration of Halloween.  Make of it what you will, but it presents a more moderate counter-balance to the usual explanation of Halloween as a strictly  Celtic, pagan influenced observance, and the gateway holiday that leads a Christian straight into Satanism and damnation.    (A few minor grammar edits are mine to adapt it for length and for use in an Orthodox publication.)

The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown. This is much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, where many people are honored on one day.   Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location, and many times local churches honored local saints. Gradually, however, feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in Saint Ephrem the Syrian (†AD 373).  Saint John Chrysostom (†AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance, November 1st, originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (†AD 741), and was likely first observed on that date  in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.

The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English-speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  While many consider Halloween pagan, as far as the [Western] Church is concerned the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints.  Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us.  However, for some Halloween is used for evil purposes, in which many Christians dabble unknowingly.

Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.”  The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.

As so often happens in our “internet as fact” culture, blog readers often visit  a variety of blogs to know what to think and believe.  They can pick and chose from millions of bloggers who use their electronic soapboxes to display a clever use of words and out-of-context sources, and to broadcast their “authoritative” opinions to the world.    I say this to dissuade anyone from using my post to argue “for” or “against” Halloween.  Opinions I have – but not the ability to make these spiritual decisions for you and your family.  That said, my own family practice has been to celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly night of dress-up, child-friendly scariness and block party revelry.  I have had many talks with the kids about the various origins of Halloween customs and some of the evils that have been improperly attached to Halloween (i.e. Satanism or animal sacrifice) and what is appropriate behavior for an Orthodox Christian.  My kids being kids, always list Halloween as one of their favorite “holidays”, right up there with Christmas and Pascha.  It makes for good segway talks into the difference between having fun and celebrating the life of our Lord and Savior, and what is truly important as a Christian.   In other words, fun in moderation and with a clear understanding of boundaries.

Is this what I think everyone should do?   Heavens no!  My opinion about Halloween may be based on my own poor discernment and failure to give all areas of my life over to the Gospel.  On the other hand, as another priest friend remarked once, “Why should the devil have all the fun?”


September 9, 2009

This icon clearly depicts the advanced age of Saint Joachim and Anna at the time of Mary's childhood. According to Holy Tradition, Saint Joachim was 60 and Saint Anna was 59 when Mary was born; both died ten years after her birth.

Everyone seems to be obsessed with the numerical oddity, some would say auspiciousness, of today’s date.   Weddings, lottery tickets sales, and lucky births are all being blessed with the smiling face of fortune today.

I hope you haven’t gotten caught up in this superstitious nonsense, and may I suggest an alternative blessing for this date?  Orthodox Christians observe September 9th as the feast of the parents of Mary, the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, falling naturally the day after the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (8th).   Since becoming a mother I’ve always had a special devotion to Saint Anna and I believe through her intercessions that I have been blessed.   It was to Saint Anna that I prayed through two difficult pregnancies and I continue to ask for her help whenever I have a special concern with my children.   Random sequences of numbers just can’t give you that kind of peace!

Most Holy Ancestress of Christ, pray for us!

Anna rejoices, released from her barrenness,
and nurses her most pure child.
She calls all people to glorify Him
Who gave the Virgin Mother to mankind from her womb.

                                                                  Kontakion Tone 2

June 15 Saints Peter and Paul Fast

June 15, 2009


Today is the beginning of the Saints Peter and Paul Fast, a moveable fast that precedes the celebration of the Feast of these Holy Apostles.  This year the fast will last 14 days and conclude with Divine Liturgy on Monday, June 29th.   The Fast is moveable because it is calculated from the date of Pascha, and always begins the day after the Sunday of All Saints, which itself always falls 8 Sundays after Pascha.   Confused yet?  Well, let’s keep going into the fog together. 

The length of the fast is determined by the fixed feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th, and whether you are an Orthodox Christian following the New Calendar (Revised Julian calendar) or the Old Calendar (Julian calendar), which results in a 13-day time difference.  A late celebration of Pascha often cuts into the New Calendar Orthodox observance of the Apostle’s Fast and whittles it down to just a couple of days.  This year we are fortunate to have the whole enchilada to participate in.

That’s a lot of information just to describe when the Fast is observed, but the “why” is a lot more difficult to pin down.   This is just one of those fasts that is a little off the radar for most people.  If you’d asked 10 Orthodox Christians at coffee hour yesterday, “why do we have a fast for Saints Peter and Paul?”, they’d just shrug their shoulders and offer you another cup of coffee and a doughnut.  It’s just one of those things we do.

 I spent a considerable amount of time searching the internet and couldn’t find more than two entries of any substance (Wikipedia) which stated

Having rejoiced for fifty days following Pascha (Easter), the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles began to prepare for their departure from Jerusalem to spread Christ’s message. According to Sacred Tradition, as part of their preparation, they began a fast with prayer to ask God to strengthen their resolve and to be with them in their missionary undertakings.

Sounds good to me.   Are there more practical reasons, like balancing the feast of Pascha with a corresponding fast?   Saint Leo the Great taught this to his flock during his reign as pope from 440 to 461 AD (he was one of the longer serving Popes).    Saint Leo’s teaching reflects a fasting practice that was ongoing for a considerable time; he speaks of it as common and customary practice.   As he observed in his 78th sermon:

III.  And so this fast comes very opportunely after the feast of Whitsuntide [Pentecost]

Therefore, after the days of Holy Gladness,  which we have devoted to the honor of the Lord rising from the dead and then ascending into heaven, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, a fast is ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perchance through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue licence has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was on this day Divinely bestowed on the Church may abide in us. For being made the Temple of the Holy Ghost, and watered with a greater supply than ever of the Divine Stream, we ought not to be conquered by any lusts nor held in possession by any vices in order that the habitation of Divine power may be stained with no pollution.

                    Sermon 78 (On the Whitsuntide Fast)

Let us all embark on the fast with the feeling of the newly descended Holy Spirit; seeking to emulate the devotion to the Church that Saint Peter and Saint Paul were willing to give, even through trials, hard work, and suffering.

When God is Born As A Little Child…

December 25, 2008


how can anything else seem important?  We should be out in the streets shouting for joy.  We should be falling down to our knees and praising God for this miracle.  We ought to be crying with happiness and amazement at what God has done for us.  Did I do anything remotely like this today?  Not at first…first I had to have a nose-out-of-joint, indignant snit, followed by a good ‘ol fashioned spell of feeling sorry for myself.  The cause?  Unfulfilled  expectations about the perfect family Christmas celebration.   Fatigue and stress caused by incessant cookie baking, house cleaning and meal preparation.  And unsympathetic and uncharitable feelings towards the entirely human nature and weaknesses of those closest to me, which at any other time of the year I freely exhibit, but which are more easily excused or overlooked without the magnification of Christmas hopes and dreams.  Basically, I’m a sinner with a Yule log in my eye.

So what pulled me out of my funk?  I went to Divine Liturgy this morning at 9 am and several things happened that brought me back to the reality of the Nativity.  The funny thing is that all of them weren’t even things that you could consider spiritual, but God isn’t always going to whack you with a cross to make you see what an idiot you are.

A beautiful, white Great Egret flying across a sun-broken cloud bank….angelic little babies and toddlers dressed in their sparkly, frilly Christmas dresses and suits….bright red Cardinals hopping in the leaf-strewn churchyard…the sound of a dearly loved former priest’s voice as he helped serve Christmas Day Liturgy….my kids playing happily with their new toys and giving me Christmas hugs.

As the Grinch learned, Christmas comes no matter what.  So how you spiritually profit from the day depends totally on your outlook.   If you’re looking for perfection in the human celebration of the Feast you will always be disappointed.  The only perfection is in Christ himself who was perfect God and perfect man and appeared this day as a little child.

God bless you all and I hope you didn’t have to go through the spiritual spanking I had to appreciate our Saviour’s birth.  Enjoy the video below that has been making the rounds of a few Orthodox blogs.  It is just beautiful and gets right to the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

Nostalgic Weekend

December 15, 2008

There are some days that make you all too aware that you are alive in the present, and others that remind you constantly that everything you know about life is shaped by the experiences of your past.  My weekend was kind of like that. 

For one, I connected with my dead grandmother through the mystical seance of baking.  My Oma, dead now for close to 20 years, was a great baker.   Homemade bread with butter and honey can make me feel like I’m 8 years old again, standing in her mint green, sunny, farmhouse kitchen.   At Christmas I have resurrected a couple of her recipes, most importantly her molasses cookies and Ranger cookies.   No one ever got the correct or true recipe for the molasses cookies, but I think I’ve done a fair job of re-creation.  The Ranger Cookies I have heretically updated with the addition of chocolate chips and my kids love ’em that way.  One recipe, though, I had never been brave enough to try because of its alleged difficulty and the vagueness of her directions – the faded, handwritten directions for Leb Cookies. 

Leb Cookies are not to be confused with Lebkuchen.  Lebkuchen is a traditional German honey spice cookie.  Leb Cookies, as far as I know, are a German cookie confined to the Texas Hill Country and are made with pecans.   You will find almost no references to them in local German cook books and even fewer people make them.  I’d be willing to bet that my attempt this weekend was one of only one hundred for a fifty mile radius.   Basically, they are a mixture of butter, shortening, sugar and pecans, cooked till they caramelize slightly, then a heaping seven cups of flour and leavening mixed in while the syrup is still warm, and then stirred until you think your arm is going to fall off.  The warm dough is spread in a big pan, cooled overnight, then sliced thin and baked.  Let me just say,  my family and I will be eating more than 9 dozen of my only marginally successful attempts to recreate this tricky recipe.  But the real success of the recipe was that I thought my Oma would be so pleased that someone remembered her and the happy memories made in her kitchen. 

My second, but more important nostalgic event, was on Saturday, December 13th – the Feast of Saint Herman of Alaska – the first canonized American saint of the Orthodox Church in America.   And, it was 16 years ago to the day that I was chrismated Orthodox.  I can still remember it so vividly.  It was exciting, awkward, overwhelming and underwhelming all at the same time.  I am just glad I was received by chrismation and not baptism.  I felt strange enough standing barefooted in church; a baptism in the Holy Horse Trough (literally, but it looks nicer with a white skirt around it) would have been totally strange. (And cold.  No matter how many buckets of water they heat up on the stove, the water coming from the outside tap in December is cold.)   If the details of my memory seem a little mundane, the whole significance of what I did 16 years ago isn’t lost on me.   I can never go to church on St. Herman’s Feast without tearing up because I am so happy and grateful to God for bringing me into his Holy Church.  Becoming an Orthodox Christian remains the single most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.   

Like most important things in life, it all boils down to the significance of one single event, and everything I’ve done since has been affected by that decision.  That decision has become the nostalgic nexus of my life and has put my nostalgia for cookies, traditions, family memories into a bigger perspective.