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Holiday Almanac: Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death

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Mary weeps for the dead Christ in this window at Corpus Christi Church, Miami. (Photo by James D. Davis)

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 the 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 traditional events between Jesus’ condemnation in a Roman court and his burial. The Stations typically 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 show respect before a cross, often with a bow and a kiss.

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

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Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

More than shamrocks: The story of the real St. Patrick

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Parades, concerts, shamrocks and the “wearing o’ the green” mark the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on today. But the real-life fifth century man is even more colorful.

St. Patrick statue at Nativity Catholic Church, Hollywood, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Ironically, Ireland’s patron saint wasn’t born Irish. Born either in England or Scotland to a church deacon, he was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He grew up a shepherd until he was able to flee and return to his family.

Yet Ireland or God, or both, still had a hold on him: He had a vision in which the Irish were begging him to “come and walk among us again.” He went to France, studied with the Church and was ordained a bishop.

He set up a base in northern Ireland, then gradually won over the fierce Celtic warlords who ruled parts of the island. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, eventually winning over King Laoghaire there. Over the next 40 years, Patrick built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, converting the sons of local kings.

St. Patrick window in St. Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Stories multiplied about him: that he used a three-leafed clover to show the threefold nature of God, that his walking stick grew into a tree, and that he drove all serpents off the island (although none are believed to have ever been there). It’s said also that he performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy of Celtic Christianity are beyond question. One of the most popular saints, he is honored not only in Ireland but also by the Church of England and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Patrick himself testified his devotion in writings like his chant-like poem “The Breastplate”:

Christ be within me
Christ behind me
Christ before me
Christ beside me
Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ inquired
Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

Patrick died on March 17, 461, at Saul, the site of his first church. He is believed to be buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2017 at 5:52 am

Ash Wednesday: Solemn preparation for Good Friday

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Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

Boisterous Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday celebrations give way today to 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 fall on April 14 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.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 1, 2017 at 8:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Christmas dawns, celebrating Jesus’ birth

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Nativity scene in stained glass at Our Lady Queen of the Apostles Church, Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

Nativity scene in stained glass at Our Lady Queen of the Apostles Church, Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

Christians worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.

As told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.

In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.
Roman Catholic churches began Christmas with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with carols and special cantatas.

Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.

Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Latin Americans, who will celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

— James Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 25, 2014 at 9:00 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

Colorful interfaith book for children

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Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.

As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?

Book cover 02002, onlineOne answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.

With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.

There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.

A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.

More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.

Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.

And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.

History 005, onlineEven departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.

The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.

Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”

One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.

More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?

And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.

But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Story of a controversial saint

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DVD Review: There Be Dragons. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 122 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence).

Fire melts and purifies gold, as the Bible tells us. So it was with Father Josemaria Escriva, the quiet but earnest priest who grew up during its brutal Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. But this film about him is less than pure.

Escriva, who was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, founded the controversial organization Opus Dei. You may recall that a branch of Opus Dei was Dan Brown’s chosen villain in his book and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” Well, there really is an Opus Dei, and “There Be Dragons” shows its founder as a slender, gentle, almost impossibly good man who is yet troubled by feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy for God’s work.

The film actually takes the viewpoint not of Escriva himself, but of a journalist, Robert Torres, who is researching his life. That’s just as well. Not many of us can identify with a saint.

Robert has hit a dilemma: For some crucial details, he must travel to a hospital in Spain and visit Manolo, his dying father — with whom he hasn’t been on speaking terms in decades. Once there, Robert finds his father has a tape on his life waiting for his son.

We flash back to a Spanish village, with wooden wagons and horseless carriages signaling that this is the early 20th century. Manolo reveals that he and Josemaria grew up in the same town — Josemaria in a poor family, Manolo in a rich one. Manolo follows his harsh, callous father into a business career, while Josemaria hears the call of the priesthood.

The two grow into their vocations: Manolo turns selfish and materialistic, but Josemaria walks around in holey shoes in order to buy a hat for an old lady. “I choose to live in the real world,” Manolo snarks at his boyhood friend. Josemaria, undaunted, forms his lay group, whose name is Latin for “The Work of God.”

Indeed, the Church isn’t the safest employer in Spain at the time, when mobs of revolutionaries are killing priests on the streets. The Spanish Civil War is approaching, a clash of Fascists and Communists that historians see as a dress rehearsal for World War II.

Josemaria’s Opus Dei followers shift him from hideout to hideout, then plan to smuggle him out of Spain altogether. In an asylum, he is shaken when a girl asks why God would allow her to be raped. He is also troubled at the thought of deserting people in Madrid who depended on him.

For his part, Manolo poses as a Communist guerrilla while spying for the Fascists. He struggles with his own doubts — and jealousy — as he sees the idealism of a commander and his lover, a beautiful female fighter.

Yes, the childhood friends meet again in a strange way, just as Josemaria is about to escape over the Pyrenees Mountains. And in a verbal epilog, the dying Manolo drops a bomb on his won: revealing Robert’s own part in the story.

Vivid production values make There Be Dragons consuming in its realism. You can almost feel the roughness of the stone buildings and smell the sharpness of gunpowder. The battle scenes — clanking tanks, dive-bombing planes, guerrillas firing from behind sandbags — capture the panic and chaos of a war that killed as many as 600,000 people.

Scenes in Manolo’s office and an insane asylum are shot in stark, contrasty light and shadow, perhaps to show the battle of spiritual light and darkness. Director-writer Robert Joffe — who also made The Mission and The Killing Fields — made good use of his $36 million budget.

The script is a little more problematic. There’s an obvious subplot of a failed father who wants forgiveness and reconciliation, a frequent theme in recent movies. But telling a story about a man learning a story from his father — puts us twice removed from Escriva, the purported subject.

More important, There Be Dragons says nothing of recent criticisms of Opus Dei: its alleged secret ways, rightist politics and dictatorial control over members. Defenders and journalists have answered these, but they should have been mentioned in this film. If you can flash back, you can also flash forward.

After all, the battle is not just light against darkness. As Paul says in the New Testament, it’s also about avoiding “the appearance of evil.” It’s been a long time since Father Escriva had to be hidden. His modern followers — and filmmakers like Joffe — would do well not to hide anything else about the organization the saint founded.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 15, 2012 at 4:51 am

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