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Holiday Almanac: Good Friday mourns death of Jesus

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Bas-relief in Angelina's sanctuary, Santa Catarina, Brazil, By Ezequiel Gruber on SXC

Bas-relief in Angelina’s sanctuary, Santa Catarina, Brazil, By Ezequiel Gruber on SXC

Christians today mourn the death of Jesus Christ as Good Friday. Despite his agonizing death on a cross, the holiday is called “Good” because Christians believe Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins. ‘‘The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the New Testament calls him.

In Catholic churches, the traditional Good Friday service includes the Stations of the Cross, a series of meditations based on the 14 recorded events between Jesus’ condemnation in a Roman court and his burial. The Stations are represented with plaques or bas-reliefs around the church auditorium.

Catholics also hold a ‘‘veneration of the cross” ceremony, during which churchgoers approach the altar to kiss the feet of a statue of the crucified Jesus.

Sometimes observed by ecumenical Protestants is Tre Ore, a three-hour service examining each of the ‘‘Seven Last Words” Jesus uttered from the cross. The service is useful for having seven or more ministers take part.

Another type of service is Tenebrae, in which a church is slowly darkened to illustrate Jesus’ death, then relighted to show his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

April 18, 2014 at 8:30 am

Holiday Almanac: Passover, the oldest freedom festival

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Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today (Monday, April 14, 2014) for the world’s 13 million Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of plagues on the land. The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made the angel ‘‘pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, the festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. The foods include a lamb shank; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— James D. Davis



Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2014 at 5:21 am

Holiday Almanac: Palm Sunday

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Photo: Diane Groves via sxc.hu

Palm Sunday today starts Holy Week, the most solemn yet joyous time on the church calendar. The day takes its name from an impromptu welcome given Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the last week before his crucifixion.

According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey, with people paving the street before him with coats and palm fronds. That week he preached in the Temple and celebrated Passover with his disciples. Their observance of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover, has become known in churches as the Last Supper.

Churches commonly celebrate Palm Sunday with special musical programs and Easter pageants. They often pass out palm leaves, sometimes tied into the shape of a cross. In Catholic and some Episcopal churches, extra palm leaves are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday the following year.

Holy Week ends with Maundy Thursday, commemorating the birth of the Holy Communion ritual; Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death; and Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.

– James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 13, 2014 at 5:25 am

Mormons holding open house for new South Florida temple

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The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

For months, drivers on I-75 in South Florida have looked curiously at the building with a spire topped by a golden angel holding a trumpet. Now they have a chance to look inside — at least until mid-April, when the doors close to the public.

The building is the newest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. The temple will be the setting for “sacramental worship” for the 25,000 Mormons in South Florida. And the church is offering free tours of the temple before it’s dedicated in May.

Mormon temples are different from the church’s 20,000 “chapels” around the world. Chapels resemble regular Protestant churches, with singing, preaching and Communion service. They’re open to the public.

The 142 temples — the Fort Lauderdale building is number 143 — are reserved for special ceremonies like baptism and marital “Sealings,” which are believed to affect a person’s eternal destiny. After dedication, temples are only for Mormons in good standing.

“Temples are a central part of LDS life and culture,” said Elder William Walker, who runs all the group’s temples around the world, during a recent press tour of the 30,500-square-foot structure. “We believe that the promises and covenants we make in a temple have implications for eternity.”

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

What can you see at the temple? One thing will be the distinctive steepled Mormon design, which will still blend with local buildings. The structure is covered with precast, sand-colored concrete panels, with leafy patterns in the windows inspired by South Florida foliage.

The angel atop the spire is Moroni, known to believers as the celestial being who guided their prophet Joseph Smith. Covered in 22-carat gold leaf, the statue rises just two inches short of the legal 100-foot limit.

The 16.82 acres feature palms, ponds and fountains, set far back from the access road. Walker demurred on the total price tag, but he agreed with early forecasts that it would cost somewhere north of $10 million.

The tropical look is repeated inside, in carpets and murals. But many of the walls and the columns are white, often gilt-edged at the capitals and the junctures of the walls and ceilings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jim Davis

April 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Because of this, Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for ‘‘lots,” for the method in which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 16, 2014 at 4:08 am

Holiday Almanac: Ash Wednesday begins Lenten season of prayer

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Praying hands by Jesper Noer, via sxc.hu

Praying hands by Jesper Noer, via sxc.hu

Christians in several traditions will observe today, March 5, as Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will be on April 18 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, ‘‘Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, who still use the ancient Julian calendar, actually began Lent on Monday this week. However, they will join Protestants and Roman Catholics in celebrating Easter on April 18. The overlap occurs roughly every four years.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 5, 2014 at 5:29 am

Documentary film traces a teacher’s triumph and sacrifice

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aBoaz films dancers

Boaz Dvir films students using the rhythmic learning methods pioneered by the late Gloria Merriex. (Courtesy photo)

Yes, one person can make a difference — if she or he pays the price. And that price may be steep.

For Gloria Jean Merriex, the difference was in the math scores of her elementary school students. And the price, says the producer of a documentary on her, was her life.

“We’re often told that everybody can make a big difference, but that’s not quite right,” says Boaz Dvir, currently booking screenings of his film Discovering Gloria. “They don’t show how. The person has to transform. And it comes at great sacrifice.”

Discovering Gloria, scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 in Miami, tells the story of teacher Gloria Jean Merriex, who was alarmed in 2002 to learn that her school, Duval Elementary in Gainesville, Fla., failed a statewide achievement test. She studied her students to see what approach would work best.

Filmmaker Boaz Dvir.

Filmmaker Boaz Dvir.

She finally hit on a blend of rap, hip-hop dance, funky music and chanting in the call-and-response style of gospel choirs. She also began teaching several lessons at once, even starting with the hardest lessons instead of the easy ones. And she wielded old-fashioned toughness, taking no excuses for work undone.

Merriex began teaching her methods to other teachers as well, and the following year, the whole school scored an A in the same test — and it won as well for the next five years. Her achievements won recognition from educators at the University of Florida, where Dvir works, and a curriculum grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Tragically, she died of a diabetic stroke the day after getting the grant — apparently from neglecting her health while she worked day and night for her children.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that Gloria worked herself to death,” Dvir says. “She sacrificed her life.”

But those children have gone on to higher levels such as acting and college — one student, Charlie Brown, is a pre-med student at UF. Many of them regard her as their godmother, Dvir says; one even says on camera that Merriex is still with her spiritually.

Raquel Diaz

Raquel Diaz

Stylistically, Discovering Gloria (see the trailer here) is spare and realistic, yet with a joyous infusion of music and rhythm. The 39-minute film uses some subtitles but no narrator, instead telling Merriex’s story through friends, family and colleagues. Dvir also uses some footage in her class.

Dvir, 46, learned about Merriex through the Lastinger Center for Learning at UF, where he was working. At first, he was just planning a film on a top-scoring school in Florida. “But it became clearer what a force she was, not just in schools but in education.”

Without Merriex herself to interview, he took dozens of interviews and shot 140 hours of film.

Did it wear him out? He says no. “I feel energized. And privileged to tell the story.”

Two coordinators of the Lastinger Center in Miami are eager to show the film there. They’re inviting both principals and teachers, especially math teachers, hoping to fill the 900-seat auditorium at Miami Jackson Senior High School.

Timing of this screening is crucial: just before the next round of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the test that spurred Merriex herself.

“Many teachers are demoralized; they’re in a testing crunch, almost like a Code Red,” says Raquel Diaz, who helps coordinate Lastinger’s Teacher Leadership for School Improvement. “My goal is for teachers to feel empowered.”

bMagdi Castaneda

Magdalena Castaneda

Magdalena Castaneda, the main coordinator for the Miami screening, agreed. She said Gloria Merriex’s work inspired the Florida Master Teacher Initiative, which includes the teacher leadership program.

“We want to inspire teachers to know they can be powerful and effective for students and for other teachers, as Gloria Merriex did,” Castaneda says. “I tell teachers that if they want to be remembered, let them be remembered for positive things.”

Beyond the educational lessons, Discovering Gloria is a typical Boaz Dvir project: a story of an ordinary person who made a difference. It was the theme of his documentary Jesse’s Dad, about the father of a murdered child in Homosassa, Fla., who became an advocate for child protection.

And it’s the heart of his next release, A Wing and a Prayer, about Americans who volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence despite their nation’s prohibition.

In Dvir’s films, the theme has an added dimension: the need to change inside — even transform totally — in order to make changes around oneself.

From his interviews, he concluded that Gloria Merriex was at first an ordinary teacher, as well as an average mother, and didn’t attend church. Then, as some of her associates noted, she even began walking, talking and dressing differently.

“When she transformed, she became a more caring mother, daughter and sister, and a more involved community member — and she went back to church,” Dvir says. “It all happened at the same time. She had an almost theological sense of purpose.”

If you go

  • Event: Discovering Gloria
  • Featured: Documentary on how a teacher turned around poor grades in an elementary school class
  • When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22
  • Where: Miami Jackson Senior High School, 1751 NW 36th St., Miami
  • Cost: Free

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 21, 2014 at 2:34 am


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