I am making a grave. In my clean morning kitchen, I pour onto a platter the mix of boiled wheat berries, nuts, and dried fruits. I pat it into an oval mound, and it rises like a newly made grave. My grandfather died two years ago, and I am making this dish, called "kolliva," to bring to a memorial service.
In the Orthodox Church, at regular times of the year, we hold a group memorial service. Members of the church give the priest a list of the names they'd like remembered at the service, and each family brings a dish of kolliva as well. The wheat berries, small nut-like grains with a satisfying crunch, symbolize the hope of new life; as Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Once it has been mixed with fruits, nuts, and honey, the concoction is heaped on a platter and shaped into a mound. It is then covered with white powdered sugar to symbolize purity--the state of the soul newly received into Heaven. Candy and fruit decorations mark the kolliva with a cross.
Before the memorial service begins, all the plates of kolliva are placed on a table near the front of the church. Candles are plunked into each mound, one to represent each person you are remembering. The candles represent light and resurrection. At Christ's death on Holy and Great Friday, darkness covered the earth, but we know that he rose again; he is the light that extinguishes all darkness.
At the end of the service, the sweet kolliva is served up for everyone to eat. When everyone has been served and there are still leftovers, women start going around with their platters, doling out extra helpings. Before long, there is an assortment of different kinds of homemade kolliva on your plate, representing several different families' prayers. Everyone's kolliva is mixed together, just like everybody's loved ones, who are now acquainted and "mixed" together in the Place of Eternal Rest.
After many, many years of waiting and hoping, I am now four months pregnant for the first time in my life. Early this morning as I patted my little mound of kolliva, layer after layer of patting, smoothing, feeling the curvature of its little grave-like mound, I could not help but notice that it feels exactly as my budding belly feels these days. I am just beginning to swell, and the shape, at the end of four months, is the same as my little kolliva. The firmness was like the strange firmness to my stomach. The curve of one imitated the curve of the other.
The kolliva beneath my hands was being offered for my grandfather, who passed from this life two years ago. For him, I was making the mound of the grave. The swell in my hands was the shape of death. But the swelling stomach beneath my nightgown early this morning was the swell of new life. And yet, as a friend pointed out last night while we were preparing the ingredients, "Your grandfather is alive. You are the one that is dead."
How very right he is. They, the ones beneath the smooth, snowy mounds of graves, are the living. We, yet to be perfected, are the dead.
In doing this we blur the boundary between the mortal and the immortal. We blend the physical and the spiritual. We dissolve the barrier between the living and the dead. How beautiful is this mixing of this life and the next life, of this world and the next world; of things visible and things invisible! Whether we know one another or not, we share, materially and spiritually, in our kolliva, our prayers, our loss of loved ones, our grief, our hope, our expectation of the resurrection, our light, our joy. This simple act of preparing food, attending church, and sharing what we have made resonates with profound meaning. I am four months along, waiting for a birth that will change my life. But I look forward to another birth, one my grandfather has already undergone, that will change it for all eternity.