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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lazarakia Saturday

If you read this blog, you know my commitment to observing Lent IV with a Simnel Cake.

The last Saturday before The Sunday of The Passion (Palm Sunday) has its own culinary tradition.

On that day, that Saturday before Holy Week, there's something that hangs in the air.

Anticipation? Yes. Expectation? Of course.

But, there's something more. A discernible shift. In mood. In tone.

Just like Palm Sunday Liturgy.

We're about to walk into the history of our faith. We're going to put our bodies where our mouths have been and live more fully and deeply into the story of the last week of the life of Jesus.

This includes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Feast of the Passover, the last supper with his disciples in that Upper Room, his betrayal and trial, his death on the cross, his burial in the tomb and, three days later, his resurrection.

In Orthodox Christian Churches, the last Saturday before the beginning of Holy Week is known as "Lazarus Saturday". It is an important story for several reasons.

The first, of course, is that the healing and resurrection of Lazarus a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Importantly, however, the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead is the last miracle performed by Jesus before his own death and resurrection.

It is also notable that He performed the miracle on the Sabbath.

Indeed, some scholars have posited that this miracle was "the last straw" with the civil and religious authorities. It was at that point, some say, that the decision was made to bring charges against Jesus, to bring to an end his scandalous ministry by bringing his life to an end.

So, the story of Lazarus - the dear friend of Jesus, the brother of Martha and Mary - is an important way to begin Holy Week. It is important because it reminds us that from death comes resurrection and from resurrection comes new life.

It is a long tradition in the Greek Orthodox tradition to observe Lazarus Saturday with Lazarakia - sweet bread filled with a sweet, nutty jam or marmalade or honey which is made in the shape of Lazarus as he emerged from the tomb.

On the Island of Kos, all engaged girls make a Lazaro the size of a small child filled with countless goodies to send to the groom.

I'm told this song is often sung as the Lazarakia are being made:

Λάζαρος απενεκρώθη, Lazarus became undead,
Ανεστήθη και σηκώθη. Was resurrected and arose.
Λάζαρος σαβανωμένος Lazarus was shrouded
Και με το κηρί ζωσμένος And all tied up.
-Λάζαρε πες μας τι είδες "Tell us Lazarus, what did you see?
εις τον Άδη που επήγες; When you went to Hades?"
-Είδα φόβους, είδα τρόμους "I saw fears, I saw terrors
είδα βάσανα και πόνους. I saw troubles and pains.
Δώστε μου λίγο νεράκι Give me a little water
Να ξεπλύνω το φαρμάκι So that I may wash off the poison
Της καρδίας, των χειλέων From my heart, my lips
Και μη με ρωτάτε πλέον. And don't ask me anything else.
(From Magdalini's blog)

The recipe for Lazarakia is basically a raisin bread.  You can use your own favorite sweet bread dough to make Lazarakia, but to be "traditional" it must be "Lenten" (ie there are no eggs, butter or milk in the recipe).

The Lazarakia are usually decorated with cloves for eyes and are shaped with the arms crossed over the chest to resemble the funeral winding sheet wrapped around the dead for burial. The yeast bread is sweetened with sugar and often (but not always) has a filling made of ground nuts and raisins, cinnamon and sugar, honey or marmalade.

The following is the traditional Greek recipe which has been adapted to American kitchens.

The "lesson" of the Lazarakia is that, because of Jesus, even in the midst of the sorrow of death, there is the sweet joy of Life Eternal.

Here's a video on how to braid the Lazarakia without the filling, in case you're a more visual learner.

  • 8 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
  • 3/4 cup olive oil (or 1 tablespoon tahini diluted with 3/4 cup lukewarm water)
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 2 packets active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 2 cups lukewarm water, or more as needed
  • A pinch of salt
  • Whole cloves
  • Greek honey
  • Sesame seeds
For the filling
  • 2 cups raisins
  • 3/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup ground walnuts
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cognac
In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour with the olive oil or the tahini diluted with water. Add the sugar, the yeast, the water, and a pinch of salt, and knead using the paddle attachment until the dough forms.

Place the dough in a large bowl greased with a little olive oil, turn to coat the dough and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and allow it to rise for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours.

To prepare the filling, process the raisins and sesame seeds in a food processor, until chopped as finely as preferred. Stir in the ground almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and cognac and set aside.

Once the dough has risen, cut it into pieces about 6 inches long and 2-3 inches wide, and flatten it out and place 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center and fold over the dough to cover the filling.

Shape the dough into a little Lazarus by pinching in at the neck to form his head and using two small strips of dough to make his crossed arms as he appears in the icons.

Here is a video that will show you how to make the "shroud". Note: in the video, the Lazarakia is made without filling. If you use filling, you would simply make "arms" to wrap around the shroud.

Use the whole cloves for his eyes and mouth.

Use another small piece of dough to form a strip to wrap around him like swaddling bands. Place on a baking pan covered with wax paper.

Continue with the rest of the dough, making sure to place them at least two inches apart as they need space to rise.

Cover the Lazarakia on the pan with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour and a half to two hours.

Check if the dough has risen enough by pressing the dough, it should rise back immediately.

Brush with a little honey diluted with water, and if desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour or until lightly golden brown.

Enjoy with a lovely hot cup of tea after you've prepared the church or your home - and your own soul - for Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


March 11, 2018
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

John 3:16. There are children’s songs about it. It’s rare to watch a football game on TV and not see someone holding up a sign in the stands that says, “John 3:16.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The great theologian of the Reformation, Martin Luther, said that one sentence was the entire gospel in miniature. It has freed millions of generations of people to know essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its essential doctrines of Incarnation, Salvation, Resurrection and Eternal Life.

That one sentence has also injured millions of generations of people because of the qualifying statement . . . . .

“ . . . .SO THAT he who believes in him . . . .”

Which raises the question: Is heaven only for Christians?

I don’t know about you but I know my answer to that question.

Personally, I wish John 3:16 would never be spoken without John 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Of course, the Gospel writer contradicts himself in the very next sentence but I hang onto the belief that the whole purpose of God sending Jesus into the world was not to condemn the world but to save the world. The rest is just details and, I think, over selling the point.

I don’t find it helpful to scare people into believing something – especially about God and Jesus or, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, I would challenge that practice by saying that people acting out of fear is not really belief.   

It is, well, fear.

Some things simply have to be experienced to be fully believed. I can be warned that I will be burned if I touch a hot stove but I would argue that there is something in each of us that compels us to touch the stove for ourselves in order to believe it.

Some call that “original sin”. 

I call it “human curiosity”.

Ever watch a child touch something hot after being warned? Most don’t flat out touch the hot object. They tentatively put the tip of the finger on to the surface and, once they feel the heat, pull away just as quickly as they can. And now, they believe.

Often, faith development works the same way – for children and adults. We have to test it. Put our finger on it. Poke our nose into the closed tent. Smell the sulfur. See the red hot flame. Walk beyond the sign that says, “Danger: Do Not Enter”.

We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

When I was Chaplain at the University of Lowell in Lowell, MA, there was a Greek Orthodox priest with whom I worked. After the baptism of a baby, he would carry the child in his arms around the church, introducing the child to her or his new “family”. 

He would stand in front of an icon or a stained glass window and say, “Ah, and here is your Uncle Paul. He was a proud, stubborn one. This is when God knocked him off his high horse. You’ll hear that story later.”

“Oh, and this is your Uncle Peter and there are your Uncles James and John - the Sons of Thunder. They are in the boat with Jesus – see him there? – and Jesus is calming the storm. I’ll be telling you that story when you get a bit older.”

“And there is Mother Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of us all. See? She is holding baby Jesus in her arms just as Jesus will hold each one of us in his arms when we get to heaven. See how lucky we are to have all these people in our new family?”

The BEST part, however, was that every single adult - male and female - followed him around the church, hanging on every single word. We all love stories. We all love to see interpretations of stories. For some Christians, stained glass windows are the only Bible stories they ever read.
We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

I am forever grateful to my grandmother for providing tangible examples of Gospel stories in much the same way. I loved the way she used everything in life to tell the stories of God.

One of my favorite stories happens to be about this day we are observing in church – the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s known as Refreshment Sunday. It was the one Sunday in Lent when those who were observing a strict Lenten fast could enjoy something sweet and special.

My grandmother always made a traditional Simnel Cake on this day. I have made one for you, today. It’s waiting for you in the Parish Hall for Coffee Hour.

But, my grandmother didn’t just make a Simnel Cake. She used it as an opportunity to do a little teaching about Jesus.  She called them Bolos do riso “Laughter Cakes”.

We made the cakes on the Saturday before Lent IV. My grandmother and I would put the raisins to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night. I was the oldest granddaughter, and we lived right upstairs, so I was allowed and nobody else was. Ha!

We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.

We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).

And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. I was also allowed to make the marzipan balls that went on the top of the cake. Eleven for the disciples. "None for Judas," my Grandmother would say, wagging her finger. And, a big one for Jesus in the middle (You can see that I used blue and pink Peeps Bunnies on mine.)

And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe saved only for sorcerers and magicians.

And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do riso - "Laughter Cakes".

Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes". 

After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.

And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again.

She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake.

And yes, she would put the brandy my grandfather made in the cake AND the frosting. Hmm . . . maybe that's also why she called them "Bolos do riso".  Nah, laughter was the special ingredient that "made" that cake - special for Refreshment Sunday.

I believe in the Incarnation. I believe that God so loved the world that God sent part of God’s self into the world to become human like us.

I believe that Richard Rohr is right: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

I also believe in the gift of Free Will, which allows us to touch a hot stove to learn about hot stoves for ourselves, and that getting burned, is sometimes the only path to belief.

I believe in the gift of Grace sometimes can only be found at the bottom of the place where Free Will sometimes takes us. I believe Grace gathers and pools there, allowing us to float and find our way back up to the surface.

I believe, that once you experience being forgiven when you’ve done something wrong, or being loved when you feel you are unworthy, you then become the best proclamation of the Gospel truth of God’s unconditional love for us all.

Not fear. Love. Grace. Joy. These are the best vehicles of evangelism.

And, I believe, laughter – especially in the face of evil – is the best statement of faith. Indeed, laughter, for me, IS “the Gospel in miniature”. . .  .

SO THAT . .  whatever evil you are confronting will know and believe that you are not afraid. Evil will understand and believe that you believe that God is greater than any Evil.

Even the kind of evil, disguised as fear, that keeps us, one from another, in the name of Jesus.