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Holiday Almanac: Epiphany is today

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Three Kings painting in the office of Epiphany School, Miami.

Student-made paint of the magi in the office of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school, Miami. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Today is Epiphany Sunday, also known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Epiphany recalls when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed. However, different churches use different symbols.

The day is also known as Three Kings Day, when the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. Hispanic Catholics in South Florida bring out floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

Many Eastern Orthodox parishes, taking advantage of South Florida’s warm weather, gather in West Palm Beach for a colorful “Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eastern Orthodox churches also use incense during their liturgy as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts.

— Jim Davis

 

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Written by Jim Davis

January 6, 2019 at 1:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: The real St. Nicholas

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Today is St. Nicholas Day, honoring the wise, generous saint who inspired the Santa Claus of western Christmas celebrations. His day is often merged with Christmas, but he was a church leader in his own right.

Nicholas was the bishop of fourth-century Myra, Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. He is recognized by historians for debating an opponent named Arius at the pivotal Council of Nicaea in 325, helping establish church beliefs about the nature of Christ.

It’s the legends about Nicholas, however, that fix him in Christian culture.

  • He was known for giving food and money to the poor. One man received three bags of gold, providing dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas’ generosity made him the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and even inspired the symbol of three golden balls of modern pawnshops.
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St. Nicholas icon at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Pompano Beach, Fla. (Photo by James Davis)

  • Nicholas is said to have appeared miraculously to sailors who were trying to sail through a storm in the Mediterranean, guiding them to shore. Greek boasts even today carry icons of Nicholas, which they see as their patron saint.
  • He called on King Constantine to acquit three officers who were condemned to death, and once even stopped an executioner from slaying a man he believed to be unjustly sentenced.  The action made him the patron saint of inmates.
  • In one gruesome tale, Nicholas learned of an innkeeper who murdered three boys. He confronted the man, who broke down and confessed. Then the good bishop resurrected the boys, becoming the patron saint of children.

Next to the Virgin Mary herself, in fact, Nicholas is the most venerated saint — not only among Catholics but Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well.

The saint’s name changed in the West largely because of Dutch immigrants to New York. “St. Nicholas” is “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, gradually morphing into “Santa Claus.” Among his other names are Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Papai Noel in Brazil, Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) in China, Julenissen (Christmas Gnome) in Norway, and Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany.

In America, the Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s 19th century poem A Visit from St. Nicholas turned him into a sleigh-driving elf. Later that century, newspaper artist Thomas Nast pictured Nicholas as a bulbous, red-suited North Pole resident, keeping lists of naughty and nice children.

Nowadays, his Santa-fied persona is everywhere — on cards, in songs, on storefronts, in ads and commercials, even in Christmas pageants that deal with the birth of Jesus.

The Rev. Michael McNally, a Catholic historian, finds the cultural appropriation of Nicholas ironic.

“Over the centuries, the church has tried to baptize secular customs,” McNally told the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. “Here is a religious saint who has been secularized.”

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 6, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Back from the dead: Easter dawns today for Christians

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Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest holiday of the Christian year, Easter ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.

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Jesus catches soldiers literally off guard in the Easter window at St. Ann Church, West Palm Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the commission to “make disciples of all nations.”

The significance of Easter is not only the resurrection of Jesus, but the hope that he can grant eternal life to those who trust and follow him. “Because I live, you shall live also,” he said.

For traditional churches, the change in liturgical colors is striking. During the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18 this year), altars and vestments took on purple, the color of royalty. The color hearkens to the story of Jesus’ suffering, in which Roman soldiers draped him in a purple robe to mock his claim of kingship.

On Easter, however, the cloths are all changed to white — symbolizing joy, glory and triumph — as believers rejoice over Christ’s resurrection. The color predominates even in church floral decorations, with white, trumpet-like Easter lilies.

Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.

But Easter still lies ahead for the world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. Easter for the Orthodox will fall on April 8 this year.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2018 at 11:43 am

When God died: Today is Good Friday

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Crucifix at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Coral Springs, Fla.

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

Another type of service 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.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 30, 2018 at 12:55 pm

St. Patrick’s Day: What you should know about the real-life saint

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St. Patrick is featured in a stained-glass window at St. Gabriel Church, Pompano Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

In a historic paradox, the flash and festivities of St. Patrick’s Day — the parades, the mugs of Guinness, the shamrock pins, the “w’arin’ o’ th’ green” — stand in stark contrast with the saint they honor.

The real-life Patrick is indeed renowned — one of the most famous and most loved saints, in fact — but known best for his humility, his passion for God and his commitment to peace. In the Dark Ages, when power and authority were measured by sword and arrow, he somehow won pagan Ireland for Christ without firing a shot.

Oddly, the national saint of Ireland may not have been a native Irishman. Some accounts say he was born into a noble family in fourth century England, then was kidnapped at 16 by pirates and sold into slavery.

In the Emerald Isle, he tended sheep and fell into the habit of praying — sometimes a hundred times a day — until he escaped six years later. Back in England, however, he had a vivid vision of a man begging him to return: “Come to us, O holy youth, and walk among us.”

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St. Patrick presides over the church named for him in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Patrick studied for years in France, then was appointed by Pope Celestine I as bishop of Ireland. One problem: He had to win over his new diocese from Druidic paganism.

As the story goes, the confrontation came on Easter eve of 433 at Tara, the realm of the Celtic high king Leoghaire. The king decreed that no fire be kindled before the lighting of a bonfire for the festival of Ostara. In defiance, Patrick lit the Paschal fire on a nearby hill.

Seeing the fire, the high king sent soldiers to put it out and arrest whomever made it. But Patrick and his followers, chanting a prayer, passed among the guards unharmed. They marched to Tara and converted many of Leoghaire’s court to Christianity. The king didn’t follow suit, but he was impressed enough to grant permission for Patrick to preach throughout the island.

Other legends followed, some of them during Patrick’s lifetime. Like the one about him driving all the snakes from Ireland. Or the time he struck a stone pillar dedicated to a Celtic god, crumbling it to dust. Or how he used a three-leaf clover to show God’s triune nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or when he scattered a flock of demons who tried to interrupt his prayer retreat.

Whatever the truth of the tales, Patrick never let fame go to his head. He reportedly wore a rough hair-shirt and slept on a stone slab. And whenever wealthy families offered him expensive gifts, he turned them down.

More than once, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he defused the anger of local chieftains and brought them and their people to the faith. He recruited many men to the ministry, including 350 whom he ordained as bishops.

Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland; Palladius preceded him, and other Christians lived there. But Patrick’s approach was different, according to the website Ancient History: Palladius came as a representative of the Church, but Patrick came as a “friend of the people … through a deep respect and love for them and a culture he had come to embrace.”

Even those who never met Patrick benefited from his work. The monasteries he and his disciples founded became centers not only of religion but learning and literacy — even safe spaces for commoners to develop skills in weaving, blacksmithing and other trades.

Monastic monks copied and preserved many classic books that might otherwise have been lost in the fall of Rome. They also created gorgeous religious books with extravagant Celtic imagery, like the Book of Kells. And some launched missionary enterprises to the European mainland, evangelizing the barbarian tribes who had overrun the former Roman empire.

Patrick’s life and teaching infused faith with kindness, an engagement with culture, and a simple, single-minded love of God. The blend was good for church and society alike.

He died in 481 at Armagh, in northeastern Ireland. The Irish have celebrated his feast day since 900 A.D.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm

Ash Wednesday starts the Lenten season today

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Ash Wednesday service

Lt. Donelson Thevenin, a Navy chaplain, distributes ashes on the forehead of a Marine on Ash Wednesday 2014 in the library of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

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 March 30 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

February 14, 2018 at 1:00 pm

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

Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

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