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Holiday Almanac: Easter celebrates triumph over death

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Stained-glass window

Resurrection window at Ascension Church, Boca Raton, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest holiday of the Christian year, Easter confirms for believers the hope of life after death.

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 promise: “Because I live, you too shall live.”

For traditional churches, the change in liturgical colors is striking. During the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday (March 6 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 to be a king.

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. Choirs also sing joyous hymns of the hope for eternal life.

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 28 this year.

— Jim Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

April 21, 2019 at 3:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Good Friday recalls death of Jesus

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Crucifix window at St Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Crucifix window at St Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo by Jim 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 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.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 19, 2019 at 3:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Palm Sunday, a day for a King

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Цвети (улазак Христа у Јерусалим)

Triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Nativity of the Theotokos Church, Macedonia. (Photo by Petar Milošević, via Wikimedia)

Palm Sunday today starts Holy Week, the most solemn yet joyous time on the church calendar. Palm Sunday 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 entered 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.

Although Palm Sunday marks what is called the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the story turned tragic later that week. Maundy Thursday recalls his last Seder; and Good Friday mourns his death. But it’s followed by Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2019 at 7:00 am

The St. Patrick you didn’t know: Meet the man behind the legends

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Today is St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), but much of what you’ve heard about him is inaccurate. He’s usually shown in green but more likely wore blue. He didn’t drive snakes out of Ireland. And he wasn’t Irish or even named Patrick. At least, not at first.

He was born in Roman Britain in the fifth century as Maewyn Succat, the son of a church deacon. He was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland.

1Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick at the Catholic church named for him on Miami Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Maewyn lived as a shepherd for six years, until he was able to flee and return to his family. But his lonely years of shepherding were not wasted: He often lost himself in prayer and grew closer to God. As he said in his Confession:

“More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same.”

Even after he escaped Ireland, the land called to 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 took the name Patricius or Patrick, which means “father figure.”

He returned to Ireland in 432, then set up a base in the north. He was preceded in Ireland by St. Palladius, who came three years earlier. Palladius founded three churches, but made little impact and left to serve in Scotland.

Patrick, however, was more effective, blending diplomacy with preaching, knowledge of Celtic culture, and occasional confrontations. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, competing with a bonfire for a Druidic deity.

King Laeghairé determined at first to kill Patrick; but to the king’s shock, Patrick marched into his camp and some of his own family were converted. The king, obviously impressed, permitted Patrick to preach wherever he wished.

For four decades, Patrick and his followers built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, often converting the sons and daughters of nobles and Druids. They also sometimes brokered peace among fierce Celtic chieftains.

2Patrick

St. Patrick icon at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Jim Davis)

So great was Patrick’s appeal that it survived a literal gaffe while baptizing a local prince. He accidentally stuck the pointed tip of his crosier into the man’s foot — causing it to gush blood — yet the prince didn’t flinch. When Patrick apologized for the injury, the prince said he thought it was part of the ceremony.

Other stories multiplied about him as well:

  • He drove all snakes out of Ireland, although none are believed to have ever been there.
  • He fought off a horde of demons who tried to disturb his prayer retreat on an island.
  • He performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.
  • He used a shamrock, a three-leaf clover, to illustrate the godly Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy are beyond question. His life and work inspired the sixth-century St. Finian, whose monasteries turned out the so-called Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Gradually, they won the island to Christianity.

Oh, and that color? Well, historians say the saint wore a light shade called St. Patrick’s Blue. The change to green began around 1798, with the Irish Rebellion against England.

Patrick died on March 17, 461 or 462, at Saull, the site of his first church. He is believed to be buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.

One of the most popular saints, Patrick is honored not only in Ireland but also by Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians. And Hallmark reports that Americans exchange 12 million cards on St. Patrick’s Day each year.

— JIM DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2019 at 4:25 am

Dust to dust: Christians observe Ash Wednesday today

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Ash Wed forehead (2)

Ashes on a Christian for Ash Wednesday. Public domain photo by Jennifer Balaska, via Wikimedia Commons.

Christians in several traditions observe today (March 6) 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 fall on April 19 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, will begin Lent on April 11 this year. They’ll also celebrate Easter on a different date this year: April 28. For Catholic and Protestant Christians, Easter will fall on April 21.

— James D. Davis

Movie review: ‘Replicas’ ignores the questions it raises

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Keanu Reeves explores a hologram of a brain in the new movie ‘Replicas.’

Are you a soul? Or just a collection of chemicals? Or maybe a mere matrix of memories?

What great questions for a science fiction movie. And Replicas uses software, robotics and cloning to explore them.

Unfortunately, it soon deserts them for mindless gunfire and car chases.

Will Foster works for a shadowy biotech company trying to transfer people’s minds into metal androids. Their ghoulish method involves grabbing dead accident victims and downloading their thought patterns, then uploading them into an android’s brain. (The process is kept vague, since it’s currently impossible.) Each effort ends in disaster, with the human/android freaking and tearing itself apart.

Will’s wife, Mona, raises the Big Questions surprisingly early in the film. He insists that despite the failures, it’s theoretically possible to bring someone back from the dead; it’s just a matter of memory and neurochemicals. She asks if he’s accounted for the possibility of the soul.

“That’s all I am — just pathways, electrical signals and chemistry?” she asks. “You have kids that love you and a wife that adores you — and we have a scientist.”

And the question doesn’t remain academic, not after Mona and the three children die in a car crash. Will somehow keeps his head enough to “record” the family’s minds just after their deaths. Then he prevails on a fellow lab worker to set up a biotech lab in his garage, using computers and chemical vats stolen from the company. (Never mind that until then, the focus was mechanical bodies.)

They manage to grow new bodies for the wife and kids, then transfer their thoughts and personalities into them. Are they the real family, or just clever copies? Well, the kids seem rather normal, but Mona acts rather distant, spooky, with slowed speech and distant stares. Reminds me of Scarlett Johansson in the 2014 film Lucy.

But no matter: Will’s CEO finds him out, musters some black-suited, gun-toting thugs and demands to know how he’s accomplished the feat that has been eluding the firm. From there, the story mutates into the cinematic cliché of the Big Evil Corporation That Will Stop at Nothing.

The movie at least has the virtue of having Will go to these insane lengths out of love for his family. That sets Replicas apart from stories like Frankenstein, where the mad scientist simply wants to play God. But it suffers from the casting of the main character: Keanu Reeves, whose emotional range is better suited to his cold-blooded John Wick character.

The main flaw, though, is how the film ignores the big questions it presents.

Ethics of cloning have long been discussed. If you copy yourself, is the clone another “you,” or does it have its own identity? Does it have the same rights as a naturally born human, or is it the property of the lab that produced it?

In Replicas, the question is leveled up: If you clone your mate and your children, are they really the same people you loved and lost? Or are they counterfeits?

And what if it’s possible to overlay some mechanical brain with your memories, thought patterns, vocabulary, etc.? Will your “self,” your consciousness, migrate there? Will it become you?

In online discussions, I’ve argued for a “No.” A clone may seem like the real thing to everyone else, even his or her loved ones. But one person will know the difference: you. If your alleged essence is uploaded to another body, everyone will act toward that replica as if it were you, even though the real you will have passed. That would become a kind of second death, I believe: to have died without anyone noticing.

The world’s religions have long dealt with matters of identity. The answer from Judaism and Christianity is that we are made in the image of God — B’tselem Elohim in Hebrew, Imago Dei in Latin. Islam tells a different story, of a pre-existent Adam in heaven, but still points to the deity as the origin of the self. All three religions therefore state that humans have souls independent of chemicals and “neural pathways.”

Is it empirical science? No. But c’mon, neither are the ideas in Replicas — notions of minds as software and the migration of consciousness. The movie could have at least given a bit more time to these beliefs of most people on Earth. They might have stayed with us longer than the violence that the filmmakers thought was so important.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 15, 2019 at 5:28 am

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

 

Written by Jim Davis

January 6, 2019 at 1:00 pm

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