Eve of Nativity & Insurrectionists

Coptic church – Evidence of Egypt’s large Coptic Christian population

Today is the eve of the celebration of nativity for many in the East. While the West celebrates December 25th, the East continues its Advent waiting, finally coming together in celebration on the 7th of January. Even as I write this, people in Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, and many other places are at midnight liturgies celebrating the birth of Christ.

We unapologetically celebrate both. For something as lifechanging and miraculous as the Incarnation, God become man, it somehow doesn’t feel like too much. Instead, it feels like we are incredibly fortunate to have these rich traditions to live by.

In our first Christmas Eve, I lamented a pardon that felt particularly unjust, lamented that hard fought justice was overturned. This second Christmas eve or Eve of the Nativity I lament something else. I lament a mob storming the U.S. Capital. Scaling walls, knocking over barriers, vandalizing offices, proudly taking pictures to post on social media. I lament this country’s delusional idea that it shines as a beacon of light in the world.

But if that is not enough, my deepest cry is over Christian leaders applauding this and urging people on. A well known Christian leader who hosts a radio show tweeted a picture of the 21 Coptic men, martyred by ISIS for their faith. The audacity of posting this picture with the caption “What price are you willing to pay for what you believe in?” feels like an assault on all things good, on all things holy. Indeed, it feels like an assault on the faith I hold so close and so dear.

Those of us who did not grow up in this country have often been asked in our adopted countries about the United States. They are envious of many things, among them the fact that we elect leaders and have a peaceful transfer of power. This is unthinkable to many in the world. Elections result in military coups, in forced ousting of leaders, in violence and unrest. Until this time I could be proud of this in our country.

That changed today. Today I’ve read the news with a gasp and cry of anger. The anger has since turned to deep sadness.

And yet… it is the Eve of Nativity. The Eve of remembering an occupation, Roman rule, unrest, and marginalization of a people. The Eve of remembering a baby “born to set thy people free.” The Eve of Nativity, where I look back on the waiting and know it has come to an end.

And as I remember, I’m reminded again that this is my only hope. My hope is not in government. My hope is not in peaceful transfer of power. My hope is not in people “doing the right thing.” My hope is not in the next administration. This does not mean that I will not call out wrong. This does not mean that I will not seek the welfare of the city where I live. This does not mean I will not fight evil, confronting it with discernment and courage.

What it means is that my hope will not shattered when those Christians with influence and a lot of power seem to have lost their way. It means that my hope is in somehting so much greater, wiser, and stronger.

My hope is in the one whose name is called “Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Right now it is the only thing I have, and it is enough.

This poem was written after the Coptic Christians were martyred. I post it here, as a reminder of that which is good and true and holy.

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question…
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

“Two Rows by the Sea” ©Bible Society of Egypt

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

Merry Christmas Eve from Thessaloniki

The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.

Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.

Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.

It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.

As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.

The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.

This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”

Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.

Forgiveness Sunday and Housecleaning my Soul

“We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from others, but should link us to them with ever-stronger bonds”. [source]

Every two weeks I have house cleaners come into our home. They come in with their high-powered vacuum and buckets. They come in with energy and determination. And then they clean. They clean places that I wouldn’t think of, they polish and they dust and they scrub. When they are finished, the whole apartment sparkles. It smells good and it looks good. Everything comes under their scrutiny and cleaning tools. I love the days that these house cleaners come.

In my faith tradition, Today is “Forgiveness Sunday”. Forgiveness Sunday is set aside every year to remind us of God’s great forgiveness toward us. It also reminds us that because God forgives, we can forgive.

Forgiveness Sunday is the last Sunday before Great Lent begins. The focus is on two things: Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, which really means their exile from direct communion with God, and our need to forgive and be reconciled to others. The two have more in common than we might think at first glance.

The practical application of Forgiveness Sunday is not easy, either physically or spiritually. In a special service we go to each member of our parish and prostrate ourselves before them saying: “Forgive me, a Sinner.” Their response is “God forgives so I forgive. Good Lent.” At the end of the evening you are physically exhausted and spiritually humbled.

It takes a lot to ask for forgiveness.It is a humbling experience to say “Please forgive my for any offense.” It is even more difficult when there are specific things that need to be named. But once done, the sense of relief overwhelms all the other feelings.

Forgiveness Sunday is the beginning of housecleaning the soul, a process that takes place in my life during Lent. During Lent, the dirt of envy is cleaned, the dust of resentment is uncovered and cleared away, the filthiness of hatred and unforgiveness is exposed and wiped out, the refuse of malice is put into the garbage. My soul undergoes a process that is grueling and freeing.

And so the journey of Lent begins.

The Resilient Orthodox – Breathe in Holy

As I step into church, I breathe in pungent, sweet incense. I can see smoke rise in front of evening shadows on the wall. Fading light reflects off of gold and burgundy icons.

I take a deep breath and I breathe in holy.

I breathe it in, my whole being alive to incense and all that accompanies it. My ears take in three part harmony from the chant sung on the far side of the room. My body responds in reverence to the saints that surround us.

I was so hesitant to take this journey and yet, every time I enter, I know his presence in ways I cannot articulate. God is in this journey and I can rest.

So I breathe in holy and all else fades away.

Vigil before the Feast of the Ascension from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

“I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me!”


There are sometimes few words to describe spiritual struggles. The words seem trite and small compared to how real the struggle feels. So we are left wordless and longing, wishing that somehow, someway, the struggle could be over and our faith repackaged, reconstructed into something we understand.

But if we understood it, would it be too small? 

These are my questions these days as I wrestle with God and as I move into the second week of the Lenten Season of the Orthodox Church. The questions have led me to look at Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.

In terms of deceit, Jacob was a master and stole the birthright blessing from under the nose of his twin brother. Poor old Esau is left, becoming the hidden part of a title of a children’s book for the words that are recorded “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” I won’t even touch that because it’s too disturbing, but it should be noted that Jacob’s life hardly improved after he received that fatherly blessing. Instead, he ran away and ended up having to work hard for a wife, only to be deceived by his future father-in-law into marrying the wrong daughter.  He ended up with two wives and enough domestic disputes to fill a six-season reality show. Parents who want to censor books that their children read may want to begin with the Bible. It doesn’t take long to find deceit, murder, and rape. But it also doesn’t take long to find redemption woven throughout the narrative and God doing what he continues to do so faithfully: Take a mess and by his mercy change it into something remarkable. 

So while Jacob’s life from the beginning is interesting, my thoughts have centered around an event that is well-recorded in Biblical history; a time when Jacob physically wrestled with God. At God’s leading, Jacob left his father-in-law’s home, accompanied by his wives, his children and his flocks. He hears that his brother Esau is coming, and, remembering how he deceived him so many years before, he is rightfully nervous. Jacob ends up alone in the desert and he wrestles with God. Not an emotional wrestling, a physical wrestling. But here is the astounding thing – Jacob was winning. Jacob, a mere mortal is wrestling with God – and Jacob pins him down. “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” says God. But Jacob will not let him go.

“I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” These words have to be some of the most arrogant ever quoted in scripture. But God listens; God blesses him, and Jacob’s faith finally becomes his own.

I will not let you go, unless you bless me. These are bold words, yet Jacob said them.During this season, these are the words I want to say to God. I want the courage to hold on tight and say “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!”  

As for Jacob? In a few years he would face some of the worst trauma in his traumatic life when he was deceived into believing his beloved son Joseph was dead. Even so, his words as he told of his encounter with the living God are unforgettable: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”


REMEMBER! The book giveaway of Meditations is still open until the Monday after Western Easter! Leave a comment on that post and you will be entered into the drawing. Two copies will be given away, so your chances automatically double.

*Story is from the book of Genesis 32:24-32

Striving to be Kind

frederica quote

Whether it’s about a red Starbucks cup or a political opinion, we live in a world that is increasingly divided, even as it is more connected than any time in history. In this world of online chatter, I think alot about how to respond to those with whom I disagree. For a people pleaser, this is hard. I want to be true to who I am and what I believe, but I also like people and the truth is, I want them to like me.

These past weeks have been so difficult for me. Those of you who read regularly know that I’ve been writing about refugees since I began to blog.  Refugees, displaced people, the one who doesn’t belong – they have my heart, my time, and my money. So when I see misinformation, misguided claims, and pure meanness about refugees I find it difficult to stay calm, and incredibly difficult to be kind. I want to lash out.

But that doesn’t work. The idea that my being mean and angry will help the situation is ridiculous. “The battle is not won or lost on the public stage.”

And so I pen an audacious blog – “Striving to be Kind,”  as though I have a market on kindness. And I don’t, not in any way. But more and more I am struck by how important kindness is in my responses to people.

In a wise post last year, Robynn wrote: “It’s better to be kind than right.” Those words were important for me to read.

It’s in the book of Colossians that I find a framework for how to be kind.

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.  Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace,seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Continue in prayer and thanksgiving. I read these words and I realize that without prayer, I don’t have a chance. Just as I need time to strengthen relationships with my husband and my family, so do I need time with God. Prayer strengthens me. Prayer calms me. Prayer centers me. Prayer helps me to be kind, because through prayer I remember the kindness of God toward me.

Walk in wisdom. Wisdom is about knowledge and discernment. Wisdom is about insight and sound judgment. Wisdom helps me know when to stop talking. Wisdom helps me know when to challenge. Wisdom helps me to know when to slow down, when to warm my tone, when to watch my intent. 

Speak with grace. There are ways to speak that are gracious and affirm the other person, even as I disagree with them. Abba Dorotheos of Gaza is a saint in the Orthodox Church. He lived in Gaza in the fifth century. I was introduced to his writings about three years ago, but I began to reread them this fall. His writings are as pertinent today as they were in the fifth century, because they are written toward the heart of man and that hasn’t changed. One of his disciples said this about Abba Dorotheos: “Towards the brethren laboring with him he responded with modesty, with humility, and was gracious without arrogance or audacity. He was good-natured and direct, he would engage in a dispute, but always preserved the principle of respect, of good will, and that which is sweeter than honey, oneness of soul, the mother of all virtues.”*

Abba Dorotheos gives clear instructions not to attack the person’s entire character with our words. It’s one thing to say “The man lost his temper.” It’s quite another to say “That is a bad tempered man.” One speaks to a point in time, the other to the entire character of a man. Let’s be honest – in online communication, character and ad hominem attacks are the rule rather than the exception.

I wonder what advice Abba Dorotheos would give us in this age of online communication, where insults fly between total strangers and anger is ignited across the interweb. I think he would repeat the words that he wrote so long ago: “ Listen to what the Lord says: “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He shows here the root and cause of all ills and their cure, the cause of all good, namely, that self-exaltation has brought us down and that pardon cannot be obtained except through its opposite, humility.”  

For this is truth: I can’t be gracious if I am full of pride.

I have a long way to go to have this framework branded on my soul, but every day gives me opportunity to practice.  

*“Strive always to love those who hate you. Never forget that we aren’t dealing with a fog-like “movement” but with real three-dimensional persons, whom God loves just as much as he loves you. Christ saves only sinners—people like you. So be courageous, but always loving, for the battle is not won or lost on the public stage but inside the yearning heart of every person.” Frederica Matthewes-Green

*St. Dositheus – disciple of Abba Dorotheos.