Today is the halfway point of Orthodox Lent, and is the feast of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. These were soldiers serving under Agricola who chose to suffer death by standing in freezing water rather than give up their faith. The Romans ordered heated baths to be built to entice the Christians to relent and accept the pagan faith, and one of the men who would be martyrs stepped out of the water to become warm, betraying his faith in Christ. One of the soldiers guarding the martyrs saw forty crowns of martyrdom descending from Heaven, and stripped, ran into the water, and joined the Christians in order to claim the rejected crown. The martydom served as his baptism.

This is the time that the larks return in Russia, and so to commemorate the saints, and to rejoice in the Spring, Russians make a vegan treat called “Zhavoronki,” or “Larks.”

My recipe follows.

The feast of the forty martyrs was the first time I ever went to Orthodox vespers, and my goddaughter Emerald is named for one of the martyrs, Saint Smaragdus, whose name means “Emerald.” I love this feast because of the bravery of the martyrs, their contagious love for Christ and each other which spread to their pagan guard, and I also love the ideas of the birds returning. My favorite Shakespearean sonnet is number 29, in which, when the speaker remembers his loved one, his heart “like to the lark at break of day arising/from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”

The poem continues, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ that then I scorn to change my state with kings.” I like making the larks, then, for my husband, whose love makes everything better. When I grate the orange peel that goes into the dough, I remember that the next orange peel I grate will be for my cheese pascha that I will make for Easter. For today, the whole kitchen fills with a yeasty, wonderful smell. Winter is on the run. Lent is halfway over. The crowns of victory are near. Whether the buns come out beautifully, like my friend’s zhavoronki above, or more like Mothra, like mine, below, from 2011, the making, baking, and sharing of zhavoronki brings us closer to light, Spring, and the Resurrection.

Photo credit: Ann McLellan Lardas

Here’s the recipe. Be uplifted!

Zhavoronki – Lark Buns
Serves 40
• 6 cups flour
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 sticks margarine
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 cups warm water
• 1 package dry yeast
• orange zest, to taste
• raisins, for eyes
Mix the warm water, yeast, sugar, and enough of the flour so that you have a batter about as thick as sour cream. Let the batter sit until it has risen slightly and is bubbly.
Add the rest of the flour, the margarine and the orange zest (if using). Knead well (about ten minutes). Place in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled in size.
Using a knife or pastry cutter, divide the dough into 40 pieces. Roll each piece into a long hot dog shape. Tie each piece into a knot. Make one end into the shape of a head for the bird by pinching a beak. The other end will be the tail feathers … with a knife create that look. Put a raisin on each bird for the eye.
Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes at 325 degrees.

Tincture of Time

When a problem or sorrow defies easy solution, I think of the elderly endodontist in Houston who soothed my spirits while he fixed my teeth. He had an office filled with Native American art, which he bought on vacation at reservations, and he played Classic Oldies Hits on the radio, to which he whistled harmony, loudly, while he worked. The first time I went to see him, I did not yet find these things familiar or comforting. I was in deep pain, so confused I couldn’t tell exactly which tooth hurt.

He took something that looked like the bottom of an icicle and tapped it methodically against each of the teeth that I thought might be the aggressor. Nothing. Then he tried the tooth to the left. Nothing. Then he tried the tooth to the right.

I winced.

“Ah!” he said, and got out that probe thing, the one with the point on the end, and turned it around. He banged the thick, ridged handle on each of the teeth he had tried before. First tooth: nothing. Second tooth: nothing. Tooth to the left: nothing. Tooth to the right….

I screamed, and jumped back in the seat. I covered my mouth with both hands and hot tears ran down my face. I was ashamed at so big a reaction, but he handed me a tissue as if this happened routinely, and put away the instrument.

“That,” he said, “is what is known as a ‘hot tooth.’ I’m not going to touch that tooth today.” I relaxed slightly. He continued, “We’re going to treat this with tincture of time.”

I said, “Tincture of thyme? What’s that, some herbal cure, like oil of oregano?”

He said, “No, t-i-m-e. I’m going to put you on antibiotics for two weeks, and then I’ll try to touch that tooth. I can’t get anywhere near it now.”

Two weeks later, the tooth was ready to be treated. My fever was gone, the swelling had stopped, and healing could begin.

I cannot whistle.

But when confronted with a thorny problem, a suffering child, an affronted friend, now, sometimes I step back.

I picture tincture of time being poured over us all, like a heavy healing oil, soothing, fragrant. It drips down our hair, it softens our skin, it sinks in where nothing else can reach.

I picture myself leaving it there, to do its work without me, penetrating silently, working unseen.

And I turn on some music, and hum my own harmony.

And wait for healing.