Bethlehem, Make Ready

Christmas music is on the radio. Christmas trees are in houses. Santa is at the mall.

And it’s November 30. When my students ask me if my Christmas tree is up, I say no. It’s not going up until December 23. (I tell them that it’s because that’s the last day of school before break, so putting up my tree while listening to The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack and sipping hot chocolate is the perfect start to break for me.) They ask why I didn’t put it up last weekend or some time this week.

Because it’s November freaking 30. It’s not winter yet. We had a predicted high of 58 degrees today. Yes, the next few days will cool off, but it’s too warm for Christmas in my mind. It’s too early for Christmas. Besides, before we can have Christmas, we need to prepare for Christmas.

Preparing for Christmas isn’t just about shopping or baking or cleaning your house. You also need to prepare yourself for Christmas. On Sunday, I put out three “Christmas” decorations. I put out my Nutcracker music box/snow globes that are more about winter than Christmas for me, and I set up the Nativity scene. Jesus is NOT in the manger yet; he’s chilling in my jewelry box. The Magi are looking through a stable window because they have a long way to come. It’s a long trip from Persia to Bethlehem; we aren’t at Bethlehem yet. But like Bethlehem, we need to prepare ourselves for the coming of our King.

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It’s the feast of St. Andrew today. One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the Fast of Philip/Advent is the way that the Church gifts us with the feasts of certain Saints who point us towards Christ in a special way in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Andrew invites each of us as he invited his brother, Peter, to come and see the Lord. (John 1:40-42) Several Old Testament prophets have their feasts in the next few weeks; each stands as a reminder of God’s love for people. St. Barbara (December 4) reminds us of the sacrificial nature that our love for God ought to have. St. Nicholas (December 6) reminds us that we are called to give of ourselves both to God and others. (He always reminds us to punch heretics in the face.) A few days later, the Conception of St. Anna reminds us of the faithfulness of God’s promises to us.

And so on…there are many feasts to point us to the coming of Christ. I love the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of the Americas) for many reasons. St. Lucy whose feast falls eight days before the Winter Solstice in a season of long nights and darkness reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5) These feasts are here to remind us to focus our gaze on Bethlehem.

I’ve been feeling a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge this week because I’m not ready for Christmas trees or music despite the fact that the secular world is. But perhaps that’s the point. It isn’t just the calendar or the weather. I’m not ready for Christmas. I have work to do before my heart will be ready for Christmas. As I said earlier this month, during the Fast of Philip, I’m focusing on how the Lord can satisfy all of my needs and is in fact all that I need. I can still grow in that area. (Okay, I’ll always have room for growth in that area.) But I’m not ready for Christmas. I still have spiritual prep for Christmas. My personal Bethlehem is not ready for Christ. I need to make myself ready to welcome Christ.

When Christmas is actually upon us, I will put up the tree and set up the Christmas decorations. First, I’ll prepare myself spiritually, and then I’ll decorate my home. Bethlehem has to be ready before the king can come. Similarly, I must be ready. I must make my heart ready in order to welcome the King of Kings into my heart this Christmas and every day of my life.

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden is opened.
Prepare, O Ephratha, for Adam and Eve are renewed.
Salvation enters the world and the curse is destroyed.
Make ready, O hearts of righteous men,
Instead of myrrh, bring songs as an offering of wisdom.
Receive salvation and immortality for your bodies and souls.
Behold, the Master Who lays in a manger
urges us to complete our spiritual songs.
Let us cry to Him without ceasing: O Lord, glory to Thee.

-Vespers for December 23

Better Things Ahead

(Note: This post is published on this date intentionally. It was on this day in 1963 that C.S. Lewis departed this life in the hope of life eternal. May his memory be eternal.) 

It’s no secret to those who know me well that I love words. I have a Favorite Quotes board on Pinterest that is full of quotations and thoughts that I love. As I was looking over it recently, I realized that I have pinned one quote from C.S. Lewis several times. “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Now, I love C.S. Lewis. That’s a known fact. I have many quotes from him on that Pinterest board. But clearly this quotation speaks to me at a deeper level. The quote is from Letters to an American Lady, and it is not meant to be optimistic about the future or a platitude for a graduation speech. Rather, it looks at and towards eternal life.

When I first realized that I had pinned this quotation at least three times, I was surprised. Yes, the quote is prettily formatted each time, but why did it keep popping up in my life? Why did I keep being encouraged and inspired by the same quotation? Yes, it’s from one of my favorite authors. Yes, the formatting is lovely. But why did the idea of better things ahead (in heaven) speak so strongly to me?

Some of it has to do with certain things that I’ve faced over the past few years. On difficult days, it is encouraging to look at this quote and remember that when we’ve shrugged off these mortal coils we will be in a place that is infinitely better. It’s also just a refreshing thought. When I’m slogging through a hard day, it’s nice to look at that quotation and realize that life won’t always be like this. Better days will come, and one day, a better place will come.

It’s also encouraging because it’s a very Biblical idea. This idea of better things ahead is something that the Lord has promised us.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

-Revelations 21: 2-7

Let me repeat my favorite piece of that. Behold, I am making all things new. When we get to the other side, all things will be made new. No more death, no more mourning or crying or pain-we can’t escape those things in this life. They’re part of life in this world. But when we enter eternal life, the former things will have passed away. In the new Jerusalem, we will have far better things than we could have ever imagined. And it will be so good.

But until that day, we live in hope. We live with our eyes fixed on what is to come.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

So we’re all clear on this: I really like Harry Potter. I’ve read the books. I’ve seen the movies. I listen to the soundtracks. I’d seriously consider naming a daughter Hermione. Do we all understand that?

Okay, good…that said, it shouldn’t surprise you that I would go to an opening night showing of the new addition to that universe: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. After all, it is a Harry Potter film (!!!) set in New York (!) in the 1920s (!!). I was going to learn more about the American Wizarding World. (!!!!!!!!!!) How could this go wrong?

via comingsoon.net

via comingsoon.net

Honestly, there are many ways that it could have gone wrong, but for the most part, this movie stayed the course. It carried on the themes that I love from the books and the original movies. It helped that J.K. Rowling wrote the film and David Yates who directed four of the eight HP movies directed it. That provided the film with stability and continuity.

The film introduces us to Newt Scamander who we only previously knew as the author a Hogwarts textbook-Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them-and as the grandfather of Luna Lovegood’s husband Rolf Scamander. Through the original series, I’d always thought of Newt as an old man, but meeting him in the movie (as played by Eddie Redmayne) was a delightful surprise. Newt is adorable, nerdy, socially awkward, and curious. He’s incredibly passionate about the magical beasts that he cares for. Redmayne brings a level of clear Hufflepuff generosity to the role. (It probably helps that both he and his character are from the Badger house.) Redmayne brings a level of endearing awkwardness to his character that helped me to understand why he could be likable to some of his contemporaries and irritating to others.

The supporting cast was good. Colin Farrell makes a brilliantly complex Percival Graves. Katherine Waterston plays Tina Goldstein as a strong woman who is determined to do what is right regardless of what her authority figures tell her. Tina makes a good role model for young girls. Dan Fogler is delightful as Jacob Kowalski, the No-Maj who serves as our representative as we explore the Wizarding World of New York and Newt’s magical beasts. Fogler was bumblingly endearing and did a great job of conveying the wonder, delight, and confusion of encountering such a colorful and unusual new world. Eza Miller’s turn as the complicated Credence Barebone was haunting and intriguing.

Rowling did a great job of creating intriguing characters. I wanted to know more about Scamander’s life. How did he get those beasts? Why was he expelled from Hogwarts? What is his relationship to Albus Dumbledore? I’m hoping that the future movies will answer some of these questions.

Farrell kept me guessing throughout the film, and I loved it. I knew he was a complex character. I didn’t necessarily like him, but I was curious. The script kept me guessing. It was fun to wonder what his actual motivations were.

The script wasn’t brilliant. It was good, but it wasn’t great. The plot was relatively easy to follow. It kept me engaged. It appealed to my love of the Harry Potter universe. I loved the references to what I already knew. However, it didn’t strike me as the greatest movie of the year. It left me with questions that probably won’t be answered in future movies.  I felt like some things were just thrown into the movie to appease me as a fan. (Did I really need that twenty-second Hogwarts vs. Ilvermorny argument? No, because I don’t know enough about Ilvermoney yet? What houses were Tina and Queenie? Don’t let me with unresolved threads like that.) I felt like some characters needed more development. I wanted a better explanation of need for secrecy in the American Wizarding World. Why did it have to be so hidden from the No-Majs? (I’m guessing it comes from things like the Salem Witch Trials, but I’d like that explained to me.) I also wonder if that’s what life was like in Britain during the 1920s or were relationships between wizards and muggles more open in Britain at the point? Was muggle-wizard intermarriage banned in Britain too?

So what did I love? The colors/cinematography, the music, and the CGI…this movie was aesthetically beautiful. The settings, the costumes, the beasts-they were all gorgeous. I loved looking at the colors that the artists used to create the beasts. The CGI artists did an amazing job of bringing the beasts to life. It was easy to believe that they were real. The costuming was also gorgeous. The colors, the textures-it was all beautiful. I loved the visual feast.

And the music…I love the music from the original soundtracks, so I was thrilled that James Newton Howard was taking on the soundtrack. It was gorgeous. It helped guide the mood and draw me into the film. I don’t think that it deserves an Oscar, but it was delightful.

Overall, I give it four out of five. It was good but not great. I enjoyed it, and I’ll probably see it again. I’ll probably buy the DVD. I’ll definitely see the next movie. I can’t wait to see where this goes from here. Hopefully, the plot will be stronger, and the movie will be even better than this one.

 

(Now I want a Quidditch Through the Ages movie.)

Finding Focus

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to choose a focus for liturgical seasons such as the Fast of Philip (also known as Advent) and Great and Holy Lent. I usually start thinking and praying about a theme a week or two in advance, and if I’m lucky, I’ll stumble upon The Right One the day before the season begins.

This year, I knew that I wanted to work on incorporating Eastern Christian spirituality into my life more and more. To that end, this will be my first Fast of Philip incorporating Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Winter Pascha into my morning prayer time. The book has forty short meditations-one for each day of the Fast. I purchased an icon of The Root of Jesse to give me a visible reminder of those who have come before me (and before the earthly life of Christ) in faith. (To be fair, I’m working on acquiring icons for all of the major feasts/seasons of the Church. It’s slow going.) All of this prep was done at least two weeks in advance of the impending fast.

But I also knew that I wanted a quotation or a verse from Scripture to pray through during the Fast. I ended up finding two things that really resonated with me.

The first is the chorus from a song that my parish sings on the Sundays of the Fast of Philip:

He shall be born unto us,

And God will be with us.

And we will find him in the cave at Bethlehem.

He shall be born unto us. This (Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth) isn’t just something that happened a long time ago. This is something that can happen here and now. If we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be taken to the cave at Bethlehem, God will be born into our hearts, into our lives. That’s an area where I want to grow during this season. I want to grow closer to God, and looking at his humility is a way for me to work on that.

The second quote is from Lady Julian of Norwich, and I think that it nicely continues the theme of the previous quote.

God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me.

This is something that I’ve been praying through lately. I’m struggling through the idea that I fixate on “needing” things that I don’t need. I just need Jesus. I don’t need money or success or more yarn or a husband or all of the coffee in the world. I just need Jesus.

Scratch that. I need Jesus and more yarn. Shut up.

Okay, I don’t need more yarn. I want more yarn. All that I need is Jesus. He can meet all of my needs and wants. If it is his will, he will provide the rest. He is enough for me. That’s a fact that I know in my head, and I want to spend this season leading up to Christmas focusing on my only true need being a need for Jesus. My hope is that doing this will help me to grow closer to him and bring him into my heart more fully come Christmas and throughout the rest of my life.

(Dear Jesus, all that I want for Christmas is more yarn, all of the coffee in the world, and for you to be born in my heart. A pony would be nice, but all that I really need is you. Please complete me. And send coffee.)

But really, what do I really need to work on during this season of preparation for the Winter Pascha? I need more Jesus. I need to allow him into my heart and my life in a further and deeper way. I need to allow him to be born not only in the cave of Bethlehem but also in my heart. I need to depend only on him for my sustenance. He will provide all that I need.

Love.

I was unhappy when I awoke this morning. I probably would have been unhappy with either presidential candidate’s election, but the fact remains that I was unhappy. I went on Facebook prepared to post the following status: “Anybody know any good Byzantine Catholic men in Canada who’d like to marry a nice but stubborn American Byzantine Catholic lady? I like Canada.”

Then I looked at my “On This Day” feed. Apparently, on this day six years ago, I had posted one of my favorite quotes from St. John of the Cross. “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on our love.”

I felt convicted by my twenty-two year old self. I’ll be judged on my love. I will be judged on how well I love others. In fact, realistically speaking, I’m always being judged by others (and by God) on how I treat other people. I need to treat others with love, with respect, and with kindness in all that I do. If I agree with them or disagree with them, I need to respect them. I need to love them.

There’s too much anger, too much fear in our world today. My nation is very divided, and that concerns me. But I insist on believing that people are worth loving. I may not always like them or understand them. But people are still inherently good even if they’re not always well-behaved. They deserve to be loved and to be respected. I don’t have to like everyone or agree with everyone. But I do need to love them.

Ultimately, my life isn’t judged by how other people treat me. God won’t say to me “Well, it’s okay that you were mean to those people because they were mean to your first.” He’s going to remind me that he called me to love others as he loved me, to treat others the way that I want to be treated. That’s true for all of us. We need to love always because ultimately that’s where the true measure of our lives is found.

Let’s live well. Let’s be respectful of others. Let’s love one another and show ourselves to be the best possible version of ourselves.

But if you know any good Byzantine Catholic men in Canada who are in search of a nice Byzantine Catholic woman, send them my way. You can tell them that I like Canada, but please just warn them that I’m really stubborn.

The Places Where Magic Happens

People who know me know that I really like baseball. I love the Detroit Tigers. Love. Those who know me really well know that I have a thing for the Boston Red Sox pitcher, Rick Porcello. (He used to play in Detroit; he pitched a complete game shut-out on my 26th birthday-when I was there.)Now, I’ll freely admit that at least part of this has to do with the facts that he’s Italian-American (like me!) and that his full name, Frederick, is the name of one of my favorite Jane Austen characters. (Also, he has great mileage to be called Froe-drick!) So it was no surprise that I managed to convince one of my closest friends to go see the Red Sox play the Tigers at Comerica Park on the night when Porcello was pitching. (We were celebrating my new job!)

Another incentive for me (besides my darling Tigers, seats that allowed me to see J.D. Martinez up close, and Pretty Ricky) was the opportunity to see David Ortiz. I’d never seen him in-person before, and he’s David Cussing Ortiz. I had this weird feeling that I was going to get to see him hit a home run. He did. In the first inning. Sure it contributed to my Tigers losing the game (which was supposedly my fault for finding Pretty Ricky attractive-according to my friend’s husband), but it was David Cussing Ortiz hitting a home run. Man alive, it was cool to see. I was now able to say not just that I’d seen Ortiz but that I’d seen him hit a home run to right field.

It was a magical moment. And for a cynical woman who doesn’t believe in magic or fate, that’s a big thing for me to say. I don’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but when I’m at Comerica Park, I believe that magic can happen. It’s a loophole in the time-space continuum where anything can happen. I’ve seen the Tigers come back from crazy deficits there; anything can happen there.

I say that I don’t believe in magic, but there are two places where I have to make an exception to that rule. One is baseball fields, and the other is bookstores. Both of these places allow me to suspend my belief in reality and to believe that anything can happen. Bookstores contain books that can allow readers to travel anywhere in time or space. Books allow you to explore other places and other times. Baseball fields offer limitless potential (for joy or disappointment) to fans and players alike.

Books and baseball are two of my favorite things in the world. I have strong feelings about both of them. I believe that their homes are sacred spaces. They are where people can escape their lives and find freedom from stress, hope in bad situations, and joy in the little things. Justin Verlander pitching a 96 mph fastball may not cure cancer, but it does bring joy into his audience’s hearts for a time. Reading a really good book may not bring world peace, but it can bring peace to a troubled soul or rest after a difficult day.

That’s magic in my book. The ability to bring joy or hope or rest to a person is an amazing gift, and it take a kind of magic to do that. For me, that magic is found on the baseball diamond and in bookstores. Chase the magic.

FO: Stripe Parade for Laura

It was my beloved C.S. Lewis who once said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…'” A few years ago, I became friends with a young woman with whom I share many common interests. We share (among many other things) a love of fashion and creating clothing. She sews; I knit.

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So when she asked me to knit her a sweater, I jumped on the opportunity. This is someone who I knew would I appreciate what I knit for her. She’s always admiring my knitting. She likes to look at my patterns and feel my yarn. She once took the yarn from my Birkin to pet-and then her mother took it and started petting it. She’s knitworthy.

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We agreed on a pattern-Stripe Parade, one of my favorites. She picked out the colors she wanted, and I bought the yarn. Then, I knit the sweater.

Man, that sweater traveled while I was knitting. It went to several baseball games. It saw Bridget Jones’s Baby three times. (What can I say? It has the hots for Colin Firth.) It went to Canada and saw three plays. (It really likes Sondheim musicals; Arthur Miller plays make it cry.) It went to Canada a second time and learned that I get really cranky during the last day of the baseball regular season.

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And then, I finished it early in a day of Poldark binge watching. I blocked it. And last night, I gave it to Laura. Okay, first I let several of our friends touch it, and I got a lot of praise for it. But the best compliment of all? I gave it to Laura and she immediately went to the bathroom to put it on.

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I think she likes it. She definitely looks good in it.

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Raveled here.