Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears


Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash


The Resilient Orthodox – Healing a Hole in the Heart

hole in the heart

When I was six years old in boarding school, we had prayer and devotions every night. We would pray for the teachers and the house parents; we would pray for our parents who lived far away and did important work; and every night we would pray for Esther Cutherell. I had never met Esther Cutherell, but I knew that we prayed for Esther because she had a hole in her heart. As a little girl, I couldn’t imagine this. A hole in her heart? How is she living? How can she walk around? She was three years younger than I was. I didn’t understand it, but in my child-heart, I prayed.

And then one day the news came. Esther was better. The hole in her heart was gone. She had surgery and she was alive and well, and one day we would all meet her. There was great rejoicing in our little girl’s dorm. Our prayers had worked – a little girl was now well, the hole in her heart was healed.

Esther was a beautiful little girl and she turned into a beautiful woman. I always thought it had something to do with the miracle that had healed the hole in her heart.

I knew that it was doctors who had helped with the miracle, but that didn’t make it any less a miracle in my mind. As I got older, I began to meet people who had different sorts of holes in their hears. These holes were holes left from death and divorce, from pain and abuse, from betrayal and disappointment. I learned that they were just as life-threatening as the hole in Esther’s heart. I learned that those holes desperately needed miracles – only it was a different kind of miracle.

It’s been a long time since Esther’s miracle and the truth is, miracles are not something I talk about or think much about.  They don’t come up in conversation in my rational every day world. When they are talked about, it’s usually in dramatic terms like “we need a miracle to get this grant out the door in time,” where the reality is that we just need someone to do their job correctly.

But on Friday morning I longed for a miracle. The why is not important, it’s enough to know that my heart was heavy with things far beyond my control. It was grace that the timing was perfect. In the Orthodox Church icons play a big role in worship. And there are some rare icons around the world that are considered “miracle-working” icons. On Friday night, I would be going to see one of these icons, an icon of the Theotokos – the Mother of God.

I had purposely left Friday morning free to pray and read. I didn’t know if I would witness a miracle but I did know that my cynical heart needed softening. I reached out to Robynn, I told her about my cynicism, my sadness, and my hurting heart. She responded both wisely and practically.

“Light a candle. Take some deep breaths. Take your heart (frayed, fragile, falling apart) and lay it down next to you….ask Jesus to come be there with you next to your heart. If you are brave, ask him to take it up–all of it: the pain, the disappointment, the longings, the hole, the cynicism…..Imagine your heart in his hands….he’s turning it around, he’s looking at it gently with care and compassion….He looks up at you…into your eyes….quiet yourself and listen–what is he saying to you as he holds your precious heart and all it contains? Consider what he says. Receive it. Rest in it. If he doesn’t say anything rest in the silence. Even silence is sacred and sweet when Jesus is making eye contact with you…when he’s holding all that is you. Can you identify where the hole is?”

I found myself sobbing as I read the words. “Can you identify where the hole is?” As I sat in silence, I knew exactly where and what the hole was, and I longed for it to be healed. My broken, hurting heart needed the touch of the One who heals. In one of those all too rare times of soul confession when it’s just you and God, no human to comfort or collect the tears, I gave it up to God. All of it. Like handing over a back pack that is so heavy I could hardly bear the weight of it another second, I handed it over to God.

The day moved on and at five in the evening I found myself in Friday traffic heading to our church. I knew only one thing – I wanted a moment with that icon, preferably alone. I knew the minute I arrived that the alone moment was not going to happen. The church was packed with people, mostly strangers to me. Word had traveled far – I was not the only one with a hole in my heart.

And so we came, the holes in our hearts wide open with longing for the touch of God.

It is too difficult to explain with mere words the power of the evening. But as I think back on it, and as I contemplate miracles, I know this: In every situation, the real miracle takes place in the heart. It may have outer manifestations, like the miraculous healing of the body, the eyesight, the hearing – but the real miracle always, always includes the heart. Because it doesn’t matter how whole the body is, if the heart is not right, if the heart is not fixed, then the healing can only go so far. A healed body is temporal, a healed heart is eternal.

On Friday night, like my friend Esther so long ago, the hole in my heart began to be healed. And that is miracle enough for me. 

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 7 “From Mary in the Blue Dress to Most Holy Theotokos”


The image comes from my Sunday School days of long ago. Mary is pale and pure, always in blue, probably to match her distinctively blue eyes. Her head is draped with a white cloth, somewhat like the dupattas I’m so familiar with. She is sweet, submissive, and not a little frail. She looks a bit like the wind could blow her away as she sits in reverent awe of the wee one in her arms. Joseph is always standing. “Does he never sit” asks the irreverent child in an audible whisper.

And of course there are ox and ass and sheep and shepherds and a dirty stable. Because that’s the story that made its way into 20th century Sunday School classes, no matter how erroneous it is.

Mary, just a girl, a teenager who said ‘yes’. Just like you or me.

And then I meet Eastern Orthodoxy and the image goes from white and blue to brilliant golds and reds, deep greens and oranges. I’m aghast! Where is my wee Mary? Where is my sweet Mary?

It turns out she doesn’t exist in the Eastern Orthodox church. Not that Mary. The Mary I’ve been introduced to is a warrior. She is the Theotokos. The God-bearer. She is far more than the young thing that said yes to the angel Gabriel.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

I have been introduced to the woman to whom Elizabeth cried “Blessed art thou among women!” and “From now on, all generations will call you blessed!” These are powerful words, words that many in Christendom have forgotten, for I’ll be honest – I’ve not heard Mary, the mother of Jesus, called blessed once in the past 20 years in any protestant church I’ve attended. She’s not mentioned but on Christmas, and then only in the scripture passage read during the Advent season.

Mary, who both nursed the Christ-child and wept with tears that pierced her soul at his blood stained body on the cross. Mary who urged Jesus to intervene at a wedding. Mary who scolded Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem, worried sick was she at her son’s disappearance.

And I can’t help thinking, she must abhor the controversy about her. She must shake her head in despair at the extremes that emerge when it comes to views of her role in Christianity. The skeptic in the west who fears any mention may lead to an out of control adoration and the superstition in the east that can lead to a view that puts her on equal footing with God.

So I ask and I search to find out more about this new Mary, who bears no resemblance to the old Mary, the one I was so comfortable with, who was so safe.

I read and I question and I first find what the Orthodox do not believe. They do not worship Mary. They venerate her — just like they don’t worship icons, they venerate them. They hold them in high regard and respect, they are careful in the ways they treat them, careful not to treat them with apathy and disregard. The Orthodox do not believe Mary was born without sin. Nor do they believe that she is “co-redemptor” with Christ.

And then I move farther and I find that Mary is a picture of what it is to become Christ-like. As the bearer of God, the Theotokos, she represents a willingness and humility to bear the Son of God. She, just as all humans before and after her, had free will. She used that free will to say “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

Mary was a precious and contributing member to the early church, cared for by the apostles and loved by early believers.

It turns out when it comes to Mary, I am not a Reluctant Orthodox, but a hard-core believer that this woman who exudes strength, humility, truth, and the deepest obedience is worth respecting and loving. I am grateful for a fresh view, a new view of Mary. She is, after all, the Mother of my Lord.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 5 “On Icons and Changing Vision”

I sat and stared at the icon feeling guilty. I didn’t feel a thing. I had no attachment to icons. I had no emotion other than guilt for not having emotion. I didn’t feel in any way like they were ‘graven images’, that common response of Protestants to icons, rather I didn’t feel they were anything special, anything ‘other’ worldly.

Perhaps that was worse than not liking them. Hate and dislike we can work with, indifference is the real killer. 

These were the thoughts that went through my heart and head a few years ago, as I watched my husband make the sign of the cross and then prostrate before a large icon in the narthex of a church. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why he liked them, why he viewed them as ‘windows’ to worship.

I didn’t get it, yet it was all my fault. A few years before I had given him an “icon-writing class” as a birthday gift. Icons are not painted, they are written. The person making them is writing the life of the person depicted through pictures. The class involved 52 hours of instruction. The instruction turned out to be both instruction and meditation and healing as the class read and contemplated the life of the person they were depicting on the icon.

The writing of an icon is serious work, not to be taken lightly or as a ‘hobby’. Prayer, fasting, and meditation are all part of the process of iconography. It became something of a joke for us as we told people he had to do some of this in complete silence — we are both talkers. Distinctive in the making of icons is the iconographer’s meditation and attention to the life of the one they are depicting. They study as much about the life of the person as possible, they write the icon while prayerfully meditating. And they are never signed – it’s not about the artist, it’s about the Saint whose image is on the icon.

At the end of the class he brought home the icon. It was breath-catching. It was a Russian icon of Mary the Mother of God, the ‘Theotokos’, the ‘God-Bearer’ holding Jesus in a tender embrace.

I slowly began to learn about icons. I learned that icons are not new to worship, not new to the Church. They were found in catacombs and places of worship since the early church. When a worshiper came into a church, they could see the entire Gospel story told through Icons on the walls. For ancient congregations with low literacy rates, this made complete sense.

And then came a period of history during the Byzantine Empire where icons were decried as idolatrous, where priceless icons were defaced and destroyed. This was a dark period – ‘We don’t worship the wood, we don’t worship the paint” was the cry of the faithful. “We venerate the person who is depicted on the icon. We adore God, we only venerate icons.” And therein was a huge distinction.

And so I began to pray, pray the the indifference would leave, that I would see with new eyes, that my vision would be changed. Mostly I prayed that I would be okay with mystery – that I wouldn’t try to analyze everything, breaking it down to my limited understanding.

I began to see these icons, with their deep colors of gold, burgundy, deep green, and brown, in a new way. I began to appreciate them. I still didn’t feel a lot, but I could now look at them and wonder about the life of the saint, want to know more about the living person looking back at me from the inanimate wood and paint.

I realized that I had pictures of family, including dead family in my home. I would look at them and think about them, about their lives, about how they reflected Christ to me – particularly my maternal grandma. How was this different?

And then came the day this fall – the day when I suddenly felt something. I was by an icon of Jesus, it is called the Pantocrator, the ‘ruler of all’ and it depicts Jesus Christ as both lover of mankind and as a righteous judge. With a rush of emotion I saw the strong and suffering Christ, the one who gave all, who lived as man so he could experience our story — the pain of the human condition.  Then the final seal of his great love, his separation from the Father in his death on the cross.

This Reluctant Orthodox of the stubborn heart and the dim eyesight, felt tears begin to form. Herein was a window to a greater understanding of my faith, a greater understanding of the lives of those who have gone before, who lived lives of faith, often accompanied by great suffering, because of their love of God.

I find that the questions in my heart about icons began to change. No longer was the question “Why do Orthodox find icons important, ” but rather “Why don’t Protestants?”

“Icons lead one to prayer, to standing before something beyond comprehension and resting in it in trust. Their meaning cannot be exhausted by analysis but only by entering in on their terms and allowing the icon to speak to you, perhaps to change you.” Frederica Matthewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now