Advent Alms

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The weather has turned and all of my plants have been drinking in the moisture of the clouds. Rain is always a blessing here in Santa Barbara.

This weather makes me look inward–toward books and tea, toward the oven and the warmth. It’s a good season to plan, to prepare, and to give, isn’t it?

Recent Giving–Story Number One

Right before Thanksgiving I spent the afternoon baking and doing laundry, and working in the wet yard. My husband had taken the whole week off of work, so there were two extra hands on deck. With bread baked by noon, we had lots of time to give before dinnertime rolled around; that’s when we call it a day and sink into being together and try to ward off all thoughts (and happenings!) of carpooling and the such.

Anyway, off my husband walked to gather something from the grocers. Green beans, maybe, or pearl onions. I can’t remember. And with him went a lovely loaf of sourdough–a gift.

But the man standing on the corner–someone we had seen with a sign earlier that day–wasn’t there. He had moved on, so my husband went on a search. And he found a man next to the post office, hanging around, wanting to chat. So they chatted, and the bread was given, and my husband came home with a small and simple, yet significant story to tell. A story of a man by the post office, who was happy to receive a warm loaf of bread.

Story Number Two

Our church serves food to the homeless on a regular basis. This year we have made teams, and I am the Baker (!!!) for Team San Roque. Awesome. It was Monday, and it was cold, and the yeast was moving at its own, it’s-pretty-chilly-so-don’t-rush-me pace. I was patient, but with dinner across town at 4:15 and the final two loaves coming out of the oven at 4pm…. Well, there were folks lined up and ready to eat when I arrived. We quickly sliced up the molasses bread (the best bread ever for these types of events because of it’s full of taste and nutrition), and the hungry ate.

When I tried to take a photo of the event from a far off vantage point a homeless man chastised me and told me that I should get permission from anyone I might capture in the picture. I asked his forgiveness, but then told him that I only had the intention of taking a photo of people’s backs–that I understood that everyone was entitled to their privacy. He still eyed me with suspicion. And I agree. Having a camera at an event like that doesn’t promote an environment of one person connecting to another–it creates distance between people and can even invite harsh or frightened reactions. Next time the camera stays home.

Story Number Three

It was raining–again!!!–we love the rain here– and I went a bit nutty, mixing up double the fun with four loaves of bread rising, waiting, baking. At around dinnertime, with the pain de campagne cooling, I sent my daughter and her boyfriend off to deliver bread to some school acquaintances under an enormous golf umbrella. They walked three blocks there and three blocks back and came home to Asparagus soup.

Advent

We are in the midst of an Advent quest of preparing our hearts for the wonderful coming of Christ.  We are giving lots of bread this season, so I hope you don’t tire of me. Yesterday I finally spent some time gathering greens for our Advent wreath. A bit late, but never too late, is it? I raided my parent’s garden, clipping Acacia and pyracantha, and purchased a new wooden candlestick as a centerpiece.

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Two years ago I spent a bit more time, and created a wreath from our bay tree, pine needles from our Canary Island Pine, and used the berries from our nandina. You can see the post of that Advent wreath here.

But I’d love to hear what you are doing to prepare, and how you’ve been inspired to give. Please share. Please 🙂

And in leaving I give you this–a hymn from the Orthodox nativity service that tumbled across my work desk the other day. It’s even more beautiful when you say it aloud…

What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sake has appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature which You have made offers You thanks.
The angels offer you a song.
The heavens, their star.
The wise men, their gifts.
The shepherds, their wonder.
The earth, its cave.
The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer You a Virgin Mother.
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

The Mailman, the Advent Wreath and the Ugly Bread

Two loaves of no-knead sourdough

Mixed: 9:30 pm

Molded: 11 am next day

Baked: 12:30 pm

The bread was warm and it was only a little after midday. I love giving away bread right out of the oven–it’s like an extra gift–handing over something warm, something that speaks of right now, the heat making one conscious of that very moment.

I galloped down the walk, thinking I’d find Hector at the mail truck. Hector was one of my first fans–I gave him a copy of Hands Across the Moon right after its release in 2003 and he left me the sweetest handwritten thank you card in my mailbox (the book was for his daughter :)).  But Hector wasn’t at the mail truck, it was a new postman, PJ. I introduced myself and he took the bag, dipping his nose to smell the bread. “I worked in a bakery in Germany for 12 years!” he exclaimed. “You like to bake?” he asked, looking a bit perplexed. I nodded. “This looks like real bread.”

I smiled, pleased that that particular batch of bread came out well…

We chatted for quite a long time, my husband coming to the curb to join us, and John Ronan hurling greetings and exclamations from afar into the conversation. This was a good giving day for me…

And I needed a good giving day, because… just a few days ago I made the ugliest batch of bread ever. So ugly that I refused to pack it up and send it along, even to neighbors who love me. Just look…

Don’t EVEN try to respond and say that it doesn’t look that bad. Please. The photo doesn’t even do the ugliness justice. These three pale loaves looked sickly and forlorn. We ate two–but the third loaf still sits sadly in a bowl near the sink. I thought of cutting it up and making croutons, but truthfully, I don’t even want to bother…

All is well though. I redeemed my baking skills and even got crafty to prove that I’m capable of a wee bit of beauty. I’ve been wanting to make an Advent wreath for the house, to help mark the time as we approach Christmas. Typically, an Advent wreath in an Orthodox home should be ready to light on November 15th, but I was running–hardly breathing–when the first day of Advent hit back in November. I decided not to feel guilty, but to shoot for getting one ready as most Westerners do–on December 1st.

I also decided I would not run around town trying to find supplies. That I’d build the wreath as much as possible from the greens and such in our yard. Here’s how it went:

First, I plucked bay leaves from our potted tree out back. The tree is quite big now, about six feet tall, so it won’t miss a few leaves. I don’t know much about being crafty, so I winged this whole project. I pulled out my needle and thread, and individually sewed each leaf to an extra metal wreath frame I had in the garage. The sewing took quite a while, maybe a half hour, but it was relaxing, especially as I pierced each leaf and that sweet bay scent floated around me…

Then, I gathered pine needles from the ground out back, and sewed those in bundles to the frame as well.

We have three billion extra pine needles in our yard, so if you EVER need any, please come by. In fact, here’s a bonus photo of just one small pile back in September…

Next, I added pinecones (yes, plenty of those, too!) and some nandina berries from one of our shrubs out front. I placed the whole thing on a plate and smiled. The hard work was done–I just needed some candles to finish it off…

So, the following day I picked up several votives in just the right colors to sit inside the wreath, along with a raised votive to hold the center, white candle. (And… I popped into our neighborhood florist and bought from them one sprig of baby’s breath.)  I like the way it turned out. Here it is in the natural light of our backyard.

So, since we’re a bit behind, we lit the first three candles to catch up. Here’s the symbolism for the lighting of each candle. (I’ve seen variations on the colors and even the themes of the candles, but this is what we’re going with this year.)

Week One–green. Faith. For God’s promise to send the Messiah

Week Two–blue. Hope. Christ, born of a virgin, came in the form of a man and brings us hope

Week Three–gold. Love. For God so loved the world that He gave us His only son

Week Four–white. Peace. For the angels said to the shepherds, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Week Five–purple. Repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand

Week Six–red. Holy communion. For Christ comes to us through his body and blood

Week Seven–white. Christ. For unto us a child is born, pure and wonderful and who brings us light.

And here’s our home, dark, except for the three Advent candles, glowing.