The mystery of Christmas

Tragic events over the past couple of weeks have saddened and bewildered all Australians. For a variety of other reasons, this Christmas season will be a painful or difficult time for many people.

Perhaps the first Christmas was not all that different. Below is another version of the old familiar Christmas story.

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Mists and quinces

Autumn in Blaye, near Bordeaux in  France

Autumn in Blaye, near Bordeaux in France

I owe a debt of gratitude for my love of autumn to Sr. Mary Theophane, the nun who taught me most school subjects in years 8, 9 and 10, way back in the mists of time during the early 1950s.

Fanny, as we girls called her behind her back, was a woman who could turn her hand to teaching any subject that her superiors nominated. From my first day in her classroom as a twelve-year-old, I adored her. In the next three decisive years I  absorbed the knowledge, attitudes and skills that she bestowed generously on her students. At the same time she encouraged me question everything and to think for myself.

Not everyone had the same rich experience of being taught by nuns as I did, but the sisters were good to me and for me. Sr. Theophane and the others were quintessential feminists. They imparted  an understanding that women can do anything to which they set their minds.

Although the subject of John Keats’s romantic ‘Ode to Autumn’ bears little resemblance to an autumn in Perth, Western Australia, each year at this time I revisit the poem and the warm memories it evokes of my dear teacher, with her love of language and her enthusiasm (one of many) for poetry.

Autumn in Perth has few distinct markers. There are seldom mists here, and mellow fruitfulness appears a bit thin. Instead, in this city, we know it’s autumn when, after months of the searing heat of summer, one morning we sense it’s time to put a blanket on the bed; the day-time temperatures have dropped below the 30 degree Celsius mark; the roses that have been quiet in the heat of summer are blooming voluptuously again; in the shops, new season apples are crisp and even a little tart.

One of my own special markers of autumn is that, if you know where to find them, quinces appear. Until the last few years, they haven’t been readily available in the shops. In my childhood, there was a quince tree in our garden and my mother picked the fruit and made ruby-red jelly, and we ate stewed quinces until we were bored with them. Years later, I used to visit a quince and apple orchard in Dwellingup, where I often camped by the Murray River with my children and, later, grandchildren.

           Quinces

Quinces

This week, a stack of quinces at $4.99 a kilo confronted me in a local fruit shop. Surely that was too good to be true? I bought five, not sure what I’d do with them. Make jam, I thought, my mother’s jelly, perhaps. Or I’d simply stew them. The idea of making jam appealed to my housewifely heart, but the jars of marmalade (two varieties) from last winter still sit in the pantry, and we’ve hardly touched the green tomato chutney created from a glut of tomatoes that didn’t seem to ripen. It turned out later that they were Green Zebra variety that we’d planted by accident. They would have been perfect in salads in spite of their odd appearance.

Idling at the computer (as I often do) I checked for stewed quince recipes in case my old, well-tested one had been superseded, and found David Lebovitz’s site, living the sweet life in Paris  with, among many other lovely posts, his recipes not only for rosy poached quinces that judging by the photographs lived up to their name, but also for a quince tarte tatin. The poached quince recipe sounded fabulous and I was keen to try the tarte, too.

          Her hands

Her hands

       His hands

His hands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there was a problem. My arthritic right hand, the one the physiotherapist has been working on in an attempt to redefine its claw-like shape, refused to hold a knife that would do the job of cutting and coring the fruit, and the hard knobbly fruit resisted all my attempts. In the end I had to call in some big guns. The man of the house was happy to oblige, and cheerfully hacked away at the fruit until I was satisfied. Even though his hands are older than mine, they seem to work better these days.

      The finished product

The finished product

The result of our labours was not exactly what I expected. I followed the French rosy-poached-quince recipe implicitly, adding honey and lemon and wine, but they ended up looking little like the finished fruit in the recipe. Instead, mine were cooked until some bits disintegrated; and the liquid didn’t reduce as it was supposed to. In spite of how they looked, they tasted delicious.

 Dessert for two


Dessert for two

It is still autumn, and there are still quinces in the shops. Perhaps this week I will make some jam after all – and we can eat the chilled fruit later in the day, coated in the thick red jelly as I remember from my mother’s simple recipe –  and other years.

 

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Easter 2014

For the Catholic Church, the feast of Easter is the most important event in the liturgical calendar.

While the Christmas story of the baby Jesus born of humble parents in a stable in Bethlehem has a certain readily accessible charm, the Easter story of a Man who rises from the dead after being crucified like a common criminal because He has preached a message of love is considerably harder to understand.

But for those of us who believe, Easter is so important that it is celebrated, not just on Easter Sunday, but for eight days from Easter Sunday to the following Sunday.

Lent is the lead-up time to those liturgies that commemorate the events of the first Easter. Traditionally the forty days of Lent are a time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Catholic children are encouraged to ‘give-up’ something for Lent – lollies, chocolate, dessert.

As Catholics mature, and with it, hopefully, their faith, most of us take Lenten observances seriously. We begin on Ash Wednesday with good intentions. But I must admit, most years I expect to fail in much the same way as I find it hard to keep New Year resolutions.

Working on the idea that it is easier to take up something new as a way to break old habits, this year I enrolled in an eight-week course on St. John’s Gospel at the Maranatha Institute of Faith Education in Doubleview as part of my Lenten commitment in preparation for Easter.

The course facilitator, Ms Jan O’Connor, impressed and delighted me with her ability to impart knowledge about, and understanding of, the fourth Gospel, which scholars believe was written about a hundred years after the death of Christ, and which builds on the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. My Maranatha experience ensured that my appreciation of the Gospel of John increased and my Lent was far richer than it would otherwise have been.

Even in the most humble suburban church, the solemn liturgies around Easter are full of drama and beauty.

St Dominic's Church, Innaloo

St Dominic’s Church, Innaloo

John and I took part in the Easter Triduum in our parish church – the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper with the washing of the feet of a representative group of parishioners by the parish priest, followed by Mass on Holy Thursday; the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday; and of course, the solemn, joyful Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, with the Blessing of a New Fire, Lighting of the Paschal Candle, readings from the Old Testament, renewal of Baptismal promises and Mass to celebrate the Resurrection.

Paschal Candle as a priest celebrates Mass

Paschal Candle as a priest celebrates Mass

The Catholic Church in Australia and elsewhere has much for which to answer. Years of abuse inflicted at the hands of priests and religious have left thousands of suffering victims for whom there can be no resolution. Their situation is made even worse because of the failure of those in authority to acknowledge the crimes committed against them, and even, in some cases, the protection of criminals and the cover-up of their crimes.

Many Catholics suffer as a result. Even if we ourselves were not abused, we suffer for the pain inflicted on our abused brothers and sisters. We suffer from our loss of trust in the criminal men and women who inflicted such suffering. And we suffer from the loss of integrity of the whole Church.

In spite of all the suffering, the pews in the simple parish church of St. Dominic in Innaloo and, according to the media, many other churches throughout the nation, were filled this Easter with worshippers of all Christian denominations, full of joy and hope in the Resurrection.

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Eureka moments and epiphanies

In the olden days, when I was a girl, the Christmas season lasted twelve days. The season was celebrated in song and stories that everyone knew – think, for example, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In some cultures, Twelfth Night was a time for revelry. But, traditionally, in my family, the twelfth night was the time to take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away until the next year. By then, too, hopefully, the last of the ham, Christmas cake and puddings had been eaten, the holidays were over and life was restored to pre-Christmas normality.

In those days, on the sixth of January, the day after twelfth night, Christians commemorated the arrival in Bethlehem of strangers from ‘the East’, gentiles who had come to visit the little, Jewish Christ-Child. This was known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Now, at least in the Catholic Church, the feast day has been raised to a Sunday feast, so that the date is no longer fixed.

The Magi as depicted in popular culture.

The Magi as depicted in popular culture.

The Magi are traditionally known as kings and sometimes as wise-men. They may have been astrologers, which would explain their ability to follow the star to Bethlehem. Depicted on Christmas cards (remember when everyone sent and received them in the days before email?) the men do not look like travellers at the end of a gruelling journey. They’re always dressed in clean, colourful finery, sitting on camels and bearing precious gifts, often beautifully wrapped with ribbon ties. The Magi probably didn’t arrive on the first Christmas morning, and it is likely that by the time they got to Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph and the Baby had moved out of the stable and settled in the town.

In T.S. Elliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the narrator is an old man dictating his recollections of the journey the men undertook. Leaving their homes, ‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ and the silken girls bringing sherbets’, they went through hostile cities and unfriendly towns and dirty villages. In the end they resorted to travelling at night, sleeping in snatches. The narrator hints at scenes that foreshadowed the end of the life of Jesus. Although he says he would do it again, he is not sure if they had been led all that way for Birth or Death. After his experience of seeing the Child, nothing could be the same again. http://allpoetry.com/poem/8453741-The-Journey-Of-The-Magi-by-T-S–Eliot

The clock tower in Berne, Switzerland, said to be the source of a eureka moment for Albert Einstein. Source: www.dailygalaxy.com

The clock tower in Berne, Switzerland, said to be the source of a eureka moment for Albert Einstein.
Source: www.dailygalaxy.com

Epiphany, eureka moment and enlightenment are a few of the words used to describe an apparently sudden breakthrough. In reality, such new insights can only come as the result of long hard slog, after weeks, months, sometimes even years of total immersion in the mundane details of a problem.

Often, we’ve lived with the question for so long, seen the contradictions, chased down blind alleys and suffered so many failures that we’ve almost given up. At this point, we step back. Only then does the answer becomes apparent.  Breakthroughs cannot be anticipated and often come from an unexpected direction but always as a result of hard work.

 

The solution that comes suddenly at the end of such an arduous process can be helpful, useful, simple, beautiful, elegant, or more loving. It is always exciting. For scientists, the moment of discovery is their Eureka! moment; in the arts, as in psychology, it is an epiphany; and in spiritual or religious terms, enlightenment.

Looking back, the person involved may be able to see the steps along the way that led to the eventual discovery. But one thing is sure: his or her life will never be the same again.