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On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: The Time of Easter (Pascha) and Pentecost (part 6 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

The time of Easter and Pentecost is a season of great rejoicing in the Orthodox Christian Church. In this part of the liturgical year, we celebrate Our Lord’s glorious resurrection, His ascension, and preparing our hearts for His sending of the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost. Each of these events has a feast of its own in our liturgical year, because of their great importance.

Easter (as it is called by the monk who wrote “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” though many of us refer to this feast as Pascha) is a feast in its own category: it is the Feast of Feasts, and is too important to be included with the other 12 feasts of the liturgical year. And rightly so, for it celebrates a victory like no other! “Easter is… the centre, the heart of the Christian year. It is on its date that the whole liturgical cycle depends, because this determines the moveable feasts of the calendar.” (1, pp. 176-177). “The celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church…is not a dramatic representation of the ‘first Easter morning.’ There is no ‘sunrise service’ since the Easter matins and the Divine liturgy are celebrated together in the first dark hours of the first day of the week in order to give men the experience of the ‘new creation’ of the world, and to allow them to enter mystically into the New Jerusalem which shines eternally with the glorious light of Christ, overcoming the perpetual night of evil and destroying the darkness of this mortal and sinful world…” (2, p. 105) “The day of the Resurrection has always been a day of profound joy and the festival of festivals.” (3)

To help us recall the importance of this feast, during the week immediately following Pascha, the doors on the iconostasis stay open and we don’t prostrate ourselves or fast. “Easter week, in Greek, has a very beautiful name: ‘the Week of Renewal.’ …The Resurrection of Jesus tells us that we can be changed.” (1, p. 181) The troparion of the Resurrection is frequently sung during the time of Easter, which continues through the Ascension and on to the eve of Pentecost. (1)

The Feast of the Ascension falls 40 days after Pascha. This “is the day when, in liturgical terminology, we ‘take leave’ of the Easter feast. We commemorate the last day of the physical presence of the risen Christ amongst his disciples; and to honour this presence, to honour the Resurrection once more, the Church on this Wednesday repeats the service for Easter Sunday in its entirety.” (1, p. 198) The ascension of Our Lord is important in part because, in ascending, He took His fleshly body into heaven. He did not discard His physical body, but rather restored humanity completely by taking it with Him! “The ascension of Christ is his final physical departure from this world after the resurrection. It is the formal completion of his mission in this world as the Messianic Saviour. It is his glorious return to the Father who had sent hin into the world to accomplish the work that he had given him to do.” (2, p. 111)

The time of Easter leads right up to the eve of Pentecost, a week and a half after Ascension. The scriptures read in the liturgy on the eve of Pentecost remind us that, “As long as we live, there is still time to make the essential decision and obey the word which tells us, as it told Simon Peter, not to be concerned with what others do, but to concentrate ourselves wholly on the only true essential: ‘Follow thou me.’” (1, p. 204) The blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives (thanks to Pentecost) makes that possible, but we are getting ahead of ourselves: we will discuss Pentecost in our next blog post!

Purchase your own copy of “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” by a monk of the Eastern Church, here: https://www.svspress.com/year-of-grace-of-the-lord-the/ This book, quoted above, will be an excellent resource for you to read and learn from, throughout the Church year.

May we learn more about the feasts of Pascha and the Ascension, so that we can celebrate them more joyously, and better teach our students about these important feasts of the liturgical year!

Footnotes:

1. A monk of the Eastern Church. The Year of Grace of the Lord. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 2001.

  1. Fr. Thomas Hopko. The Orthodox Faith volume ii: Worship. Syosset, NY: OCA, 1972. Fifth printing, 1997.
    3. Calivas, Rev. Alciviadis C., Th.D., (1985, 8/13). “Orthodox Worship”. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/orthodox-worship

    Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about the time of Easter (Pascha) and Pentecost:

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The book featured in this blog post offers a plethora of information about each of the feasts, and can help you to prepare to teach your students about Pascha and the Ascension! https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/gleanings-from-a-book-heaven-meets-earth-celebrating-pascha-and-the-twelve-feasts-by-john-skinas/

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Find ideas for teaching your students about Pascha in this blog post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/celebrating-the-feast-of-feasts-great-and-holy-pascha/

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This blog post offers resources Sunday Church School teachers may want to use when teaching their students about Pascha: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/pascha-celebration-resources-for-sunday-church-school-teachers/

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Teachers with younger students may want to share this picture book with their class, and follow up with a discussion and activities: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/gleanings-from-a-book-catherines-pascha-by-charlotte-riggle/

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Find a large variety of Pascha-related resources and ideas at this educational website: https://charlotteriggle.com/catherines-pascha/

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Teachers of middle-years students may want to consider discussing this book (which happens during Lent and finishes around the time of Pascha) with their students: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/gleanings-from-a-book-queen-abigail-the-wise-by-grace-brooks/

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Help your students learn what goes into their family’s Pascha basket (and why it is there!) with this educational resource: http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2014/04/pascha-basket.html
You may want to send this printable home with them after your discussion: http://www.holy12.org/holy12/files/PaschaBasket.pdf

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Together as a class, discuss Paschal traditions in the parish and in your students’ homes. Read pages 23-24 of the article “How Orthodox People Celebrate the Feasts” in the Little Falcons Orthodox Children’s magazine Issue #31, available here:  http://www.littlefalcons.net/pdf/2016_Backissues.pdf

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Find some ideas for teaching your class about the Feast of the Ascension here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/teaching-children-about-the-feast-of-the-ascension/

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Find additional suggestions for teaching about the Ascension here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/06/03/on-the-feast-of-the-ascension/

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Help your students to make these (free!) printable centerpieces for their prayer table or dinner table, for each feast: http://www.antiochian.org/1127698508

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On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: The Passion (part 5 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

Holy Week is often called such because of the great and holy events in the week (1), but “in the Orthodox Church the last week of Christ’s life is officially called ‘Passion Week.’”(2, p. 88) Passion Week is immediately preceded by Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. We are including those days in this discussion of the week, since they are an integral part of the last week of our Lord’s life on earth before His death and resurrection.

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday are the perfect beginning to this important week in the life of the Church. “The resurrection of Lazarus and the triumphant Entry of Christ into Jerusalem encapsulate the events and mystery of Holy Week: Christ is revealed as the source of all life and proclaimed and acknowledged King.”(1) Lazarus Saturday gives us a glimpse of Christ as “the Resurrection and the Life” as He raises Lazarus and demonstrates His power over death. (2, p. 84) Lazarus’ resurrection convinced many that Christ was the long-awaited Messiah-King, hence the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on (Palm) Sunday. Palm Sunday is one of the 12 major feasts of the Church Year. Every Lazarus Saturday and Feast of the Triumphal Entry of Christ, may we ponder and be willing to say: “the master calls me. He wants me to stay with him, not to leave him throughout the days of his Passion. During these days he wants to reveal himself to me – who perhaps ‘already stink’ – newly and overwhelmingly. Master, I come.” (3, pp. 137-138)

Passion Week itself is the most sacred week of the year, beginning with the feast celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, all the way through the anticipation of the resurrection which we feel on Holy Saturday. Monday through Wednesday we celebrate “Bridegroom” services at Matins, remembering the coming judgement; and striving to prepare our hearts for the coming bridegroom. On Holy Thursday, we remember the Lord’s Supper and celebrate with a Divine Liturgy. “The very event of the Passover Meal itself was not merely the last-minute action by the Lord to ‘institute’ the central sacrament of the Christian Faith before his passion and death. On the contrary, the entire mission of Christ… is so that God’s beloved creature, made in his own divine image and likeness, could be in the most intimate communion with him for eternity, sitting at table with him, eating and drinking in his unending kingdom.” (2, p. 91)

On Holy Friday and Saturday, as we encounter the trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of our Lord, “we are confronted with the extreme humility of our suffering God. His death becomes our true birthday. And so these days are at once days of deep gloom and watchful expectation. The Author of life is at work transforming death into life…”(1) The reading of the twelve selections from the Gospels which tell about the passion of Christ takes place at the Matins service of Holy Friday, usually celebrated on Thursday night. Those readings, combined with the Hours of Holy Friday, offer us the opportunity to hear and relive the passion of our Lord, interspersed with prophetic scriptures, Psalms, and even the beatitudes. The Vespers of Good Friday commemorates our Lord’s burial; the Matins of Holy Saturday is full of “spoiler alerts” and finally proclaims the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Holy Saturday’s Divine Liturgy is both somber and celebratory, for, “The Church does not pretend…that it does not know what will happen with the crucified Jesus… All through the services the victory of Christ is contemplated and the resurrection is proclaimed. For it is… only in the light of the victorious resurrection that the deepest divine and eternal meaning of the events of Christ’s passion and death can be genuinely grasped, adequately appreciated, and properly glorified and praised.” (2, p. 98) It is at this service, historically, that baptisms occurred. To this day, it is an annual opportunity for Orthodox Christians to die and rise with Our Lord. But all the events at the end of Holy Week point to Pascha: “The peace of Holy Saturday is entirely oriented towards the great event of Sunday morning, towards the power and the joy of the Resurrection.” (3, p.161)

When Thou didst submit Thyself unto death,

O Thou deathless and immortal One,

then Thou didst destroy hell with Thy Godly power.

And when Thou didst raise the dead from beneath the earth,
all the powers of Heaven did cry aloud unto Thee:

O Christ, Thou giver of life, glory to Thee!
Purchase your own copy of “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” by a monk of the Eastern Church, here: https://www.svspress.com/year-of-grace-of-the-lord-the/ This book, quoted above, will be an excellent resource for you to read and learn from, throughout the Church year.

Footnotes:

  1. Calivas, Rev. Alciviadis C., Th.D., (1985, 8/13). “Orthodox Worship”. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/orthodox-worship
  2. Fr. Thomas Hopko. The Orthodox Faith volume ii: Worship. Syosset, NY: OCA, 1972. Fifth printing, 1997.
  3. A monk of the Eastern Church. The Year of Grace of the Lord. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 2001.

 

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about the Passion:

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Find background information about Holy Week that you may find helpful prior to teaching about it here: http://www.antiochian.org/lent/holy-week

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Find additional background information about Holy Week here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/orthodixie/2010/03/orthodox-holy-week-2.html

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If you have electronic communication with your students’ parents, consider sharing this Holy Week resource with them: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/children-during-holy-week-tips-for-parents/

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Find activity ideas to help your students focus on/learn about each day of Holy Week, beginning with Lazarus Saturday, here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/holy-week-activities/

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Teach your students about Palm Sunday, the Feast of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Before you do so, check out some of the ideas in this post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/on-the-feast-of-the-triumphal-entry-into-jerusalem-palm-sunday/

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Find links to crafts and activity ideas to help your students learn about Holy Week here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/holy-week-resources-for-sunday-church-school-teachers/

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This blog post offers links to a variety of activities that you can share with your students as you approach Holy Week: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/orthodox-holy-week-activities-children/

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This blog post offers ideas of things to put in learning boxes for the days of Holy Week. These learning boxes would be a very hands-on way to teach or review the week with your students. http://www.sttheophanacademy.com/2010/03/pascha-boxes.html (updated here: http://www.sttheophanacademy.com/2011/04/revisiting-pascha-learning-boxes.html)

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Before you approach the subject of the Cross and Christ’s crucifixion with your students, you may want to read the ideas and insights presented by these brothers and sisters in Christ (including a priest, a child psychologist, parents, Church School director, etc.): https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/on-the-cross-of-christ-and-leading-children-through-holy-week/

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If you have a Holy Friday retreat or simply want to focus on activities for Holy Friday, check out these two ideas: http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2011/04/holy-friday-for-teens-and-children.html

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Teachers of teens may want to consider sharing some of the stories in “The Road to Golgotha” with your class, for discussion starters. Read a review of the book here: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/review-road-golgotha/

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On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: Great Lent (part 4 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

Great Lent consists of the 40 days leading to Holy Week, which, in turn, immediately precedes Pascha. Since its early days, Great Lent has been observed as a time of penitence, spiritual growth, and illumination. Although it is a time of great spiritual struggle, it is also a time of deep joy for Orthodox Christians, as we prepare our hearts to experience Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

In the early centuries, Church practice included baptizing people at the Paschal Vigil. This was also when Christians who had gone astray and returned to the Faith were reconciled to the Church. In order to train and prepare these people for joining (or re-joining) the Church, an “intense period of preparation, which included fasting, began forty days before Holy Week… it gradually became a universal institution, observed by catechumens and faithful alike for its salutary effects on the life of the Christian community.” (1)  

The monk-author of “The Year of Grace of the Lord” points out that the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reminds us that “Lent… commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, those forty years during which the chosen people…went forward with faith towards the far-off promised land…” (2, p. 109) He goes on to remind us that these years (as well as during Great Lent), God’s people relied on Him fully, and He provided physically with food as well as spiritually with His presence, the Ten Commandments, and many miracles. The monk continues, “Lent recalls the forty days that the Lord Jesus spent in the desert during which he contended with Satan, the tempter. Our Lent must also be a period of fighting against temptation… During the time of Lent, the Church leads us, as if by the hand, towards the radiant paschal feast. The more serious our Lenten preparation has been, the deeper we shall enter into the mystery of Easter and gather its fruits.” (2, p. 110)

Bishop Kallistos Ware said, “The primary aim of Great Lent is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” (1) We are encouraged to focus on three things during Great Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time for repentance, that we may turn from sins and earthly cares to focus our whole being on Christ and His glorious resurrection, which heals us completely. This truth grants us great joy amidst the struggles we encounter during Lent.

“Let us begin the lenten time with delight.. Let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, spiritually rejoicing.” (from Vesper Hymns)

Let us participate fully in the life of the Church throughout Great Lent. As we do, let us also struggle to properly prepare our hearts and the hearts of our students for Holy Week and Pascha. If we do, when we arrive at the Feast of feasts, we will be prepared and filled with joy!

Footnotes:

  1. Calivas, Rev. Alciviadis C., Th.D., (1985, 8/13). “Orthodox Worship”. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/orthodox-worship
  2. A monk of the Eastern Church. The Year of Grace of the Lord. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 2001.

 

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about Great Lent:

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Here is a blog post about Forgiveness Vespers, the beautiful way in which we begin Great Lent: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/on-forgiveness-vespers/

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This blog post suggests ways to help your students begin Lent well. It includes links to resources such as a daily lenten calendar that helps families learn about the themes of Great Lent with suggested activities for each day, among others. https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/on-beginning-great-lent/

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This blog post about the Presanctified Liturgy is geared towards families, but could be helpful to share with your students’ parents to help encourage them to attend these Lenten liturgies: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/presanctified-liturgy-children/

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During Great Lent, we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. Here’s a blog post that can help you teach your students about this feast! https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/620/

(An additional helpful resource is the quarterly publication “Blessed Children,” published by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA. Volume 4, Issue 1 is all about the Annunciation and contains articles related to it: ranging from the icon to the church of the Annunciation to a challenge to say “Yes!” just like the Theotokos did.)

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The second Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas. This blog post may be helpful as you help your students learn more about him: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/lenten-learning-st-gregory-of-palamas/

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The fourth Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. John Climacus. Here’s a blog post that could be helpful as you prepare to teach your students about him: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/lenten-learning-st-john-climacus/

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The issue of “Little Falcons” magazine that is called “Fasts” is filled with articles related to fasting. “What Can We Do for Great Lent?” (pp. 20-21) offers practical suggestions of things children can begin to do during Great Lent to grow closer to God and to be more like Christ. It would make a fabulous discussion starter near the beginning of Lent; and your class could return to it later in the fast, to give yourselves a “checkup” as to how you are doing in these areas. “Fasts” is Issue #30 of Little Falcons. It is available as a back issue here:  http://www.littlefalcons.net/pdf/2016_Backissues.pdf).

On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: Christmas and Epiphany (part 3 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

The feasts of the Nativity (simply called ‘Christmas’ in “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church”) and Theophany (referred to as ‘Epiphany’ in that same book) fall within days of each other, regardless of the calendar being followed. Christmas falls on Dec. 25 (or January 7), and Theophany follows on its heels, on January 6 (or 19). For many of us, local culture offers multiple traditions related to Christmas, but few (or even none) related to Theophany. The monk who wrote the book encourages his readers to think beyond our culture’s interpretations (or perhaps misinterpretations?) of these feasts, and embrace them in a truly Orthodox manner.

The monk notes that most of the western church, “officially assigns a place to Epiphany which is not inferior to that of Christmas; but the devotion of the faithful has definitely concentrated on this last feast; it would even seem that, for the majority… Christmas has become more important than Easter. However, being faithful to the early tradition, we consider Epiphany to be the highest and most complete celebration of the coming of our Lord amongst men.” (p. 66) He goes on to encourage his fellow Orthodox Christians to “consider the period which lasts from Christmas to Epiphany as an indivisible feast, of which Christmas is the starting point and Epiphany the culmination.” (p. 66-67)

His meditation on the Nativity reminds us that in our hymns, we sing of Christ as the Dayspring from on high, and we mention that those of us who were in shadow and darkness have found the truth. The monk continues by pointing out that the Eastern Church thinks of Christ in terms of light. “Byzantine Christians certainly do not forget that the Word became a small child who was laid in a manger; but, while Western Christians seem, since the middle ages, to cling with pleasure to this flesh and blood child, the East sees above all in the Incarnation the coming of light, its triumph over darkness, and our own conversion from the night of sin to the divine radiance.” (p. 67-68) He concludes that the spiritualization of Christmas found in the Eastern Church is a different mindset than the west. May we approach the Nativity of our Lord with the mindset of celebrating the coming of the Light into our world, and live in such a way that Our Lord can shine in our lives, driving out the darkness.

The monk’s meditation on Theophany reminds us that “Epiphany is the first public manifestation of Christ. At the time of His birth, our Lord was revealed to a few privileged people. Today, all those who surround John… witness a more solemn manifestation of Jesus Christ. What does this manifestation consist of? …On the one hand, there is the aspect of humility represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son.” (p. 82) As we celebrate this important feast, may we honor Our Lord’s humility while also being awed by His glory.

So, let us take some time to learn more about what the Church teaches and practices with regard to both the feasts of the Nativity and of Theophany. Let us teach our students what we have learned. In this way, all of us together can better celebrate these blessed feasts!

 

Purchase your own copy of “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” by a monk of the Eastern Church, here: https://www.svspress.com/year-of-grace-of-the-lord-the/.This book, quoted above, will be an excellent resource for you throughout the Church year.

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about the Nativity and Theophany:

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This link offers quotes from saints, excerpts from books, festal music upon which to meditate, and homilies from recent bishops all focused on the Nativity of our Lord: http://www.antiochian.org/nativity/great-feast

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Read about Middle Eastern traditions for Theophany, such as “baptizing” dough in water and letting it hang outside to dry for a few days, then using the dough to make donuts at Theophany; and leaving a window in the home open so the Holy Spirit can enter; in the article “Holiday = Holy Day” by Natalie Ashanin, in “Feasts,” Issue #31 of Little Falcons magazine. This issue is still available here:  http://www.littlefalcons.net/pdf/2016_Backissues.pdf)

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“The Treasured Traditions and Customs of the Orthodox Churches” by Mary Paloumpis Hallick offers a variety of Christmas traditions from different Orthodox jurisdictions. It would be interesting to study the different customs as a class! From Serbians saving a piece of Christmas bread for the first visitor to their home; to the 12-dish Carpatho-Rusyn “Holy Supper” served over straw or hay on Christmas Eve; to the youngest Ukranian child watching through the window for the first evening star to appear before the Christmas Eve feast can begin; to the Russian babouschka offering gifts to children in attempt to make up for not offering food or shelter to the Magi; to the Greek sweet Christmas bread called “Christopsomo”; to the Romanian children caroling through their neighborhood while carrying a pole topped with a large wooden star bedecked with ribbons and bells… There are so many different traditions, and all of them are interesting. Consider sharing some of these traditions with your students over the course of a class or several class periods in a row, and be sure to invite them to share their family’s Christmas traditions, as well! Find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Treasured-Traditions-Customs-Orthodox-Church/dp/1880971690

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Check out the AODCE’s nativity board on Pinterest for inspiration if you need ideas for teaching your students about the Nativity of Our Lord! https://www.pinterest.com/aodce/nativity/

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Help your Sunday Church School students learn about the Nativity of our Lord! You may want to include some of the ideas we posted in this blog: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/on-the-feast-of-the-nativity-dec-25jan-7/

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There are many educational activity ideas for helping students of varying ages to learn about the Nativity in this blog post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/ideas-for-keeping-our-focus-on-the-nativity-of-christ/

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Find some ideas of ways to teach your students about Theophany in our blog post about the feast: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/on-theophany/

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Find a few links that can help you learn more about Theophany so that you are better prepared to teach your students about this feast here: http://www.antiochian.org/nativity/post-feast

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In the fall 2002 “Handmaiden” magazine (sadly, now a no-longer-published magazine for Orthodox Christian women), Heather Zydek wrote an article called “Baptizing the Waters of America: the Theophany Traditions of the American Orthodox Church.” If you are able to locate a copy, read this article to find the variety of Theophany traditions that Orthodox churches across the United States employ in their celebrations of the feast! These traditions vary from region to region, as well as jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is very interesting to read how our brothers and sisters celebrate the feast! Perhaps studying these traditions will help our students better appreciate our own traditions by helping them see the reasoning behind each tradition.

On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: The Time of Advent (part 2 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

Beginning on November 15 (or 28), Orthodox Christians around the world begin to prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ at Christmas. This time of preparation and fasting is 40 days long and leads right to the Feast of the Nativity. (It is the same length as Great Lent, which leads to Holy Week and Pascha; but there are different restrictions in each fast.) The Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple takes place during the Nativity Fast.

This season of the Church year is called “Advent” by many Christians, as they focus on the coming of Lord. In “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” the author, a monk of the Eastern Church, writes “One might perhaps feel that this term ‘coming’ is purely symbolic, for in fact Christ comes to us at all times, and even lives in us. Nevertheless, this approach and this presence of Christ, both of which are eternal, take on a special character at Advent-tide… A special grace of the ‘coming‘ of the Lord is offered us. The Lord Jesus is already present to us; but the grace of Advent allows us a more vivid, and quite new, awareness of this presence.” (p.45)

The monk continues the chapter on Advent by summarizing our prayers during this season with one word. The word that we pray during Advent-tide is “Come!” When we pray the word sincerely, this one-word plea fills us with hope, and we anticipate the Lord’s coming with greater fervor. As the weeks of Advent-tide pass, God willing, each day that we pray, we pray more purely. The author continues, “Our prayer at Advent, ‘Come’, could… be interpreted thus: ‘Oh, let me be aware of Thy presence in me — May the whole world feel Thy presence.’” (p.46)

Our focus during Advent is on the light which will be shining forth. Just as the days begin to lengthen after Christmas, the darkness in our hearts will be enlightened by the Son which Christmas brings into the world. After all, He is the Light of the World!

This year, during the Nativity fast, may we continually pray, “Come!” and prepare our hearts – and the hearts of our students – to receive the light that shines forth in Christ!

Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away; born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making godlike the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve, and they call out: ‘Thy good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind.’

Purchase your own copy of “The Year of Grace of the Lord,” by a monk of the Eastern Church, here: https://www.svspress.com/year-of-grace-of-the-lord-the/ This book, quoted above, will be an excellent resource for you to read and learn from, throughout the Church year.

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about the Nativity Fast:

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Prepare your own heart before you begin to teach your students about the Nativity Fast by taking advantage of these articles and resources: http://www.antiochian.org/nativity/pre-feast

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Find a plethora of Nativity Fast ideas and resources for families to use with children (some could also be used in the Sunday Church School context) in this blog post: http://www.sttheophanacademy.com/2011/11/living-nativity-fast.html?m=1

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Find helpful Nativity-Fast-related resources for students at various levels here: https://oca.org/news/headline-news/dce-offers-educational-resources-for-the-nativity-fast

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“Each celebration in the church is preceded by a preparation… Leading to Christmas, we have Advent… When we see Christmas decorations and lights being set up, we know that something soon will take place. In the Church, there are events and hymns sung to remind us and get us ready for the event. This is the way we prepare for the celebration of Christmas.” (from “Preparing , Waiting, Expecting,” p. 13, of “Fasts,” Issue #30 of Little Falcons. Available here:  http://www.littlefalcons.net/pdf/2016_Backissues.pdf)

This article would be a great way to begin discussing the Nativity Fast with younger students.

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“November 15 is the starting point for a spiritual journey to the day of this great joy.  This journey is one one that requires our development of greater humility so we can fully appreciate what God have given to us.  This is by nature an ascetic journey. Like our journey to be united with God, it is not one where we can make use of our social relationships or our material possessions.  This is a journey where we must learn to surrender our souls to the will of God, relinquish our control over the journey to Him whose birth we are about to celebrate. This is the spirit we must embrace as we enter into this fast. It is a period of preparation just as the manger was prepared for Christ.” ~ from http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2011/11/nativity-fast.html

This article would be an excellent “Nativity Fast” discussion starter with older students.

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Help your students keep their focus on Christ throughout the Nativity Fast with some of these ideas: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/ideas-for-keeping-our-focus-on-the-nativity-of-christ/

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Help your students prepare their hearts for the birth of Christ with ideas and activities such as these: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/11/13/on-preparing-our-hearts-anticipating-the-birth-of-christ-each-day-of-the-nativity-fast/

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This brand new book is an excellent resource for teachers and parents to use with children during the Nativity season: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2017/08/18/gleanings-from-a-book-welcoming-the-christ-child-family-readings-for-the-nativity-lent-by-elissa-bjeletich/

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Find ideas of ways to help your students learn about the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/on-the-feast-of-the-entrance-of-the-theotokos-into-the-temple-nov-21-or-dec-4/

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Find ideas of ways to help your students learn about the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/on-the-feast-of-the-entrance-of-the-theotokos-into-the-temple-nov-21-or-dec-4/

Gleanings from a Book: “When Mama Had Cancer” by Marjorie Kunch

Marjorie Kunch has already given Orthodox Christians a wonderful resource in her first book(s), “When My Baba Died”/ “When My Yiayia Died.” These first books drew on her experiences as a mortician. Now she offers, again through her own personal experience – this time, with breast cancer – another valuable resource: “When Mama Had Cancer.”

 

Suffering has been part of our human experience ever since the first humans’ choice to disobey God. We all suffer, some of us much more than others, but we all suffer. What we do with that suffering either makes us or breaks us in the long run. Author Marjorie Kunch has turned her recent suffering, her battle with breast cancer, into an opportunity. She documented this painful period of her life in order to help not just her own children, but anyone who reads her new book. The book teaches its readers that God is there with us when we suffer, there are helpers at every turn, and all of us – even the youngest – can help each other in times of suffering.

“When Mama Had Cancer” follows a family through the entire cancer experience: from diagnosis to head shaving (“the chemotherapy she had to take would make her hair all fall out anyway so she wanted it to come off on her terms”) to chemo/its subsequent side effects to surgery and finally back to health. The book acknowledges that not everyone fights cancer and continues their earthly life. The book offers gentle reminders that, in that case, it is “not their fault, your fault, the doctor’s fault, the priest’s fault, or even God’s fault, even though you may feel that way… It is simply their time to join the Heavenly Kingdom.”

This book explains difficult words in simple terms that will help children of varying ages to better understand what their loved one with cancer is experiencing. It is very positive in its outlook. The book does not gloss over the difficulty of the experience, but rather is positive in that it offers suggestions of hands-on ways that even children can help their sick loved one. It is full of scripture and Orthodox Christian traditions. The book suggests saints to whom someone with cancer can pray for help. Essentially, this book takes a very difficult and frightening experience and brings peace to the children reading it by helping them to understand what is happening, framed in the context of Orthodox Christianity, while also offering concrete ways that the children can help their loved one.

“When Mama Had Cancer” will likely be of the most help to people who are experiencing cancer for themselves. However, we recommend it to all Orthodox Christians working with children, even those (currently) without any family members experiencing cancer. After all, “…if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it…” (1 Corinth. 12:26) and there are plenty of other Orthodox Christians and other neighbors suffering from this terrible disease. The book helps to clarify the cancer experience, removing some of the fear that comes with uncertainty and misunderstanding, and offering hope in the form of Orthodox Christian ways to respond and help, so it is a good one for young Orthodox Christians to take in!

The illustrations in this book are photos with a brush-stroke effect, very similar in appearance to the photos in Marjorie’s previous books. These illustrations help the reader get a better sense of what the family is experiencing during the course of the experience. Kristi Tartara (who wrote “What Do You See At Liturgy”) did the graphic design and was the layout artist for the book.

“When Mama Had Cancer” will be available in early October 2017, from Pascha Press. Visit http://www.paschapress.com/home.html for details. Or order the book from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/When-Mama-Cancer-Marjorie-Kunch/dp/0996404554/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505956315&sr=1-4 or Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/when-mama-had-cancer-marjorie-kunch/1127082593?ean=9780996404556.

Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as suggestions of ways to use the book in your Sunday Church School class:

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“Cancer is a difficult topic, especially for children… Marjorie’s new book, “When Mama Had Cancer”, helps children see cancer from a Christian perspective. Her book explains what cancer is, what symptoms to expect, and what children can do to help… this book points children toward Christ. We are reminded that God has not forgotten us, and that cancer is not a reason for despair. During times of sickness, we are encouraged to trust in the love of God, the support of the Church, and the power of prayer.” ~ from Fr. Joseph Gleason’s forward to “When Mama Had Cancer”

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“Papa said that if these fears do not go away, I could talk to our priest about it, and he will teach me ways to combat these thoughts. I can also read comforting verses in the Bible or say the Jesus Prayer… At church we lit candles and said a prayer for all of the people who are fighting cancer. This made us feel better since we helped out in this important way.” ~ “When Mama Had Cancer” by Marjorie Kunch

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After reading the book “When Mama Had Cancer”, talk together about the children in the book. How did they help their mama? Talk as a class about anyone in your parish who is fighting cancer. How can you best help them? Brainstorm a list, and find a way to do some of the items on that list. Minimally, you can say a prayer for them. Younger students can pray the prayers for the sick (found in your service book or here https://www.goarch.org/-/prayers-for-the-sick). If you have older students, print the “Akathist to the Theotokos the Healer of Cancer” found here: http://www.stvladimiraami.org/sheetmusic/akathistvsetsaritsa.pdf. Pray parts of this akathis or all of it if you have time. You may also want to invite the students to make cards for the person fighting cancer, to cheer them up. You can send the cards all at once, or one at a time: that’s up to you. You and your students will likely also come up with other ways in which your class can help this person and their family in their time of need. Some of those ideas may require additional materials and will need to be carried out in a separate class time.
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“When Mama Had Cancer” offers a list of Orthodox helpers for those fighting cancer. If you have not yet studied the lives of these saints who are known for helping cancer patients, consider sharing their lives with your students. The list includes St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, St. Luke the physician, and St. Nektarios. You can find information about each of them, as well as ideas of ways to teach your students about them, here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/learning-about-a-saint-st-john-the-wonderworker-of-shanghai-and-san-francisco-commemorated-on-july-2/, https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/learning-about-the-saints-st-luke-of-crimea-commemorated-june-11/, and https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/learning-about-a-saint-st-nectarios-the-wonderworker-commemorated-on-nov-9/.

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After reading the book “When Mama Had Cancer”, hand each of your students a Bible. Practice locating scripture passages by searching for each verse mentioned in the book (Ps. 104:24; Ps. 31:24; James 5:13; Proverbs 17:22; Matthew 25:35; Philippians 1:21; and/or the list of helpful verses at the back of the book). Ask a different student to read each verse. After all of the verses have been read, invite each student to select their favorite. Talk about their favorite verses: why do they like this verse so much? How can this verse help a cancer patient? How can it help each of us in our own life? Have the students copy the verse out on a piece of paper, then decorate the copy so they can hang it up at home or give it to someone who needs the encouragement it contains.

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With older Sunday Church School students, talk about St. John Chrysostom’s quote, “Sickness is a blessing for man in the sense that, if one uses it appropriately, one can draw from it considerable spiritual benefit, thereby making what was originally a sign of mortality into an instrument of salvation.” Ask students to share stories from their own experience or of people that they knew for whom illness was of benefit – or the opposite – depending on how the person used the experience. Encourage them to trust God’s support and willingness to help them grow through difficult experiences such as illness. Ask them how author Marjorie Kunch has used her experience, and whether or not they think that anyone besides her will benefit from the experience.

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From “biopsy” to “JP drain” to “oncologist” to “venerate”, the glossary at the end of the book “When Mama Had Cancer” is very helpful. To help your students learn and understand these terms, create a matching game with one card containing the term, and its match containing the definition. Pair the cards together after reading the book. Then practice with them by playing a simple game like “memory” or “go fish” where the students gain points when they match each term with its definition.

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Gleanings From a Book: “Sasha and the Dragon” by Laura E. Wolfe

Author’s note: I would have loved to have read (and re-read) this book with my children when they were younger! “Sasha and the Dragon” is a powerful story of a boy who conquers his fears with the help of St. Michael the Archangel. Although it is a picture book, “Sasha and the Dragon” is appropriate for Orthodox Christians of many ages because of all that the book addresses. This story opens the door for conversations about how strange a new country feels to the person entering it; what to do when you are alone and afraid at night; the reality of the saints’ readiness to come to our aid if we ask them to; and how the light of Christ illumines our world when we invite Him to do so!


Sasha has just moved to New York City from Russia. He misses the familiarity of his old village near the river: its sights, smells, and sounds. He felt safe there, and close to God. His new home, however,  is filled with shadows and seemingly uncaring people. It is grey and cold, and no one seems to know or love God or His saints. Other boys his age seem to mock Sasha at every turn instead of befriending him. Even his new house is not a very comforting place: his Baba who used to sing to him lies still in a scary room at the end of the hall. Sasha is afraid of everything in New York City.


Night time is the scariest for Sasha. Even though he signs himself with the cross before going to bed, he always feels the grey, unfamiliar shadows of the city lurking. One night, as Sasha lies in bed trying to go to sleep, he hears sounds under his bed, which he discovers to be a huge dragon. To his dismay, the dragon comes out from beneath his bed. Sasha is terrified and just wants to hide under the covers. Instead, he finds the courage to do all the right things: he kisses the cross he is wearing and then prays for help! An icon of the Archangel Michael hangs on the wall by Sasha’s bed, and Sasha is confident of the Archangel’s help. He asks St. Michael to kill the dragon with his sword.

As the dragon approaches, St. Michael’s icon begins to radiate heavenly light into the dark room. He races out of the icon on his great red steed and kills the dragon with his sword. As he does so, the room is filled with peace and hope. Sasha drifts happily to sleep. The next morning he wakes to find a slash from the dragon’s claw still remaining in the floor of his room, covered with a golden feather from St. Michael’s wings.

That very morning Sasha begins to notice and enjoy New York’s colors and good smells. A scarlet feather drifts into his hand as he walks. When he meets up with two of the mocking boys, instead of cowering or retreating, he surprises them by offering the feather to them. Sasha even braves the spooky hallway to take the golden feather to his Baba. Her delighted smile encourages Sasha, and he begins to sing to her, for he is no longer afraid!

This story is a delight, and Nicholas Malara’s drawings fit it perfectly. The art in this book is part “normal” picture book, part superhero story. The figures that are the most realistic are the accurately styled icons found on some of the pages. The tone of the illustrations changes from gloomy greys and muted colors at the beginning of the story to cheery bright colors at the end. This change is clearly intentional, and it greatly strengthens the story.


“Sasha and the Dragon” is an excellent addition to an Orthodox Sunday Church School’s library. It has a great story which also presents multiple possibilities for classroom discussion. It can be used with students of varied age levels, because it offers opportunities to discuss so many different relevant topics for children of different ages.

“Sasha and the Dragon”  is available from Ancient Faith Publishing here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/sasha-and-the-dragon/


Here are a few discussion ideas and suggestions of ways to learn together with your students after reading “Sasha and the Dragon”:

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If you have younger students, consider bringing a few basic props to class when you share this story. After you have read it to the class, invite them to act it out as you re-read. Possible props: a beanie and/or jacket for “Sasha;” a head covering for his mom; head covering and blanket for Baba; shawls/hats/baskets/etc for other New Yorkers; hats for the “mean boys”; icon of St. Michael that someone can hold “in Sasha’s room”; blanket and pillow for Sasha’s bed; dark gloves and hoodie for “dragon”; plastic sword for “St. Michael”; a red feather; a “gold” feather (spray paint or spread glue on a feather, then sprinkle it with golden glitter)
After acting it out, talk together about the story and what we can learn from it. Help each student to create their own gold feather and/or St. Michael icon to put in their room to remind them of his constant watching and willingness to help if we ask him to do so.

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How does a new world feel to those entering it? Have you ever gone someplace completely different? Did those around you speak your language? Is anyone near you experiencing this right now? How can you help them feel most welcomed instead of making fun of them (as the boys did to Sasha in the book)?

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With middle-years or older students, talk about why many Russians immigrated to the United States around the time that “Sasha and the Dragon” appears to take place. Look online to find some ideas and additional information. (For example, https://www.ancestry.com/contextux/historicalinsights/russian-immigration-1800s offers a short description along with actual photographs.) Discuss what it would be like to come into a completely foreign place and try to live there. Then think of any refugees that you already know, or look into how you could connect with refugees who have recently settled in your area and may feel like Sasha did in the story. Brainstorm ways to make them feel at home. Select one of those ways and do it!

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“Sasha’s Dragon” features a little boy who has recently moved to New York. Perhaps he was a refugee. Help your students learn about what a refugee is (if the term is new to them), and how a refugee’s life changes radically when they arrive in their new place. This (non-Orthodox, but helpful) website suggests a activities and lessons you may wish to share with your students in a discussion about refugees: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/teaching-resources.html

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Who is St. Michael? Learn more about him on the page dedicated to him in the back of “Sasha and the Dragon.” Look up other icons of him and compare them to the one in Sasha’s room. Read a real-life miracle that St. Michael and his spear caused to happen here: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/archangel-michael-at-chonae-icon-of-a-miracle/

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Discuss the following with your Sunday Church School students: What does our priest mean when he says at every Divine Liturgy, “The light of Christ illumines all!” and how does that affect us? What does it mean for our life? In what way does the light of Christ illumine Sasha’s life in the story “Sasha and the Dragon”? If your students are older, you can share this article (quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory) as part of your discussion: http://orthodoxmeditations.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-light-of-christ-illumines-all.html
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With older children, discuss the story. Also talk about the meaning/symbolism behind the story and many of the illustrations. For example:

  1. In the beginning of the story, everything in Sasha’s world is dark, grey, hushed, shadowed, and Sasha’s baba’s room “smells like the dead crow he had found at the park”. Why do you suppose it is this way? Do the shadows reflect how Sasha feels in any way? How do the pictures in the beginning of the book make you feel?
  2. Sasha sees dragon shadows everywhere at the beginning of the story. They are not mentioned in the story, per se, but show up in the illustrations. How many dragon shadows can you find in the book? What do  you suppose is the reason that the illustrator included these shadows in these illustrations? What do you think they represent?
  3. How do the other children respond to Sasha at the beginning of the story? Why do you suppose they do that? Does Sasha like it? How do you know? Have you ever felt that way around other children?
  4. What does Sasha do to help calm his fears? What do you do when YOU feel afraid? Can you tell about a time when you did something just like Sasha does, and it helped you? Why do you think it helped?
  5. The dragon in Sasha’s room was very real to Sasha! Do dragons exist in the world? What do you think Sasha’s dragon was or represents? Do you have any “dragons” in your life?
  6. Why did Sasha turn to St. Michael for help with the dragon in his room? What do you know about St. Michael that makes him a good saint to ask for help with your own “dragons”?
  7. What other saints can help us with the “dragons” in our life? How can we get them to help us?
  8. The illustrations in the book make us look hard at the difference between God and His angels and saints and satan and his “helpers” (for example, in this book, the dragon). How do the illustrations help you to see the difference between the two? Does that difference appropriately illustrate the difference in real life?
  9. Sasha does something that shows his complete trust in St. Michael’s ability to save him. What does he do? When you are feeling afraid and attacked, to whom do you turn? Do you have the courage to trust God and His saints fully to help you in those times? Why or why not? Try to remember Sasha kneeling on his bed, pointing right at the dragon, and shouting, “Kill it with your sword!” every time you are feeling afraid!
  10. How does St. Michael enter Sasha’s bedroom? Why do you think the author included smells and sounds in her description of his entrance? How does it make you feel about St. Michael’s presence with Sasha?
  11. Describe St. Michael’s victory over the dragon. If you were there, what would you have thought? Did St. Michael accomplish what Sasha asked him to do, or did he accomplish even more? What makes you think that?
  12. Is Sasha’s life any different after St. Michael kills the dragon in his room? Just by looking at the picture, how can you tell?
  13. Sasha finds a feather on a gash in his floor. What is special about the feather? How would you feel if you found a feather like that in your room? What would you do with it if you found one?
  14. How does Sasha’s world change on the morning after St. Michael’s visit? Describe what Sasha sees as he goes out for a walk with his mother. Is anything different? What is missing?
  15. What does Sasha do with the two feathers he receives? Why do you suppose he does that? How do the others feel after they receive a feather from Sasha?
  16. Compare the first illustration in the book to the last page of Sasha’s story. Are these illustrations alike or different? How so? And how did it happen that they came to be that way? Then compare Sasha at the beginning of the book to himself at the end. Is he the same, or different? How can you tell?

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“Sasha and the Dragon” author Laura Wolfe has created lesson plans (for varying ages) which incorporate her book. The plans can be used to teach about “arrow prayers”, big feelings, and helping others. Find them here for use with your SCS class: http://lauraewolfe.weebly.com/educational-resources.html