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Holiday Almanac: What Christmas means

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Nativity window at St. Gregory Church in Plantation, Florida. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Believers worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the unique 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 begin Christmas with Midnight Mass. Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with special cantatas and carols.

The comparatively mild South Florida climate offers opportunities for outdoor observances. 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. Exuberant Three Kings celebrations reign each year on Calle Ocho in Miami, usually on the previous Sunday.

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Written by Jim Davis

December 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

Holiday Almanac: Advent lights the way

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes in South Florida have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse Tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which in South Florida is often mahogany or black olive, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

 

Written by Jim Davis

December 2, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Passover celebrates freedom to worship

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Stack of matzoh used in Passover; photo by Alex Ringer via Freeimages.com.

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

As the story is told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of 10 supernatural plagues on the land. The Nile River turned to blood, disease struck humans and livestock, vermin multiplied, the sky rained hail mixed with fire, and darkness struck the land for three days.

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, Passover starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. They include a lamb shank, for the sacrificial animal; 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.

— Jim Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

March 30, 2018 at 7:00 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

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Jewish Festival of Lots, starts tonight

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Purim05Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

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. 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 by 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. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have 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

February 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Festival of Esther, starts tonight

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“Esther Before King Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712). Public domain image via Wikimedia.org.

Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 25 centuries ago.

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. 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 by 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. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have 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 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

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

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