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Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate holy law today

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Torah page, photographed by Renaude Hatsedakis, via freeimages.com.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown for the estimated half-million Jews in South Florida. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is one of the three Jewish ‘‘pilgrim festivals,” along with Passover and Sukkot, meant to recall the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai desert. Shavuot takes its name from Passover, which it follows by seven weeks — a ‘‘week of weeks.”

Synagogues observe Shavuot with the reading of the Ten Commandments. Some also read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. The story is seen as a historical parable of commitment to God and the holy law.

In recent years, many synagogues have increasingly held confirmation on Shavuot, as their young men and women take on the promise to obey the holy law.

 — James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

May 20, 2018 at 4:17 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

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

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

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

Billy Graham also made his mark in media and technology

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Many people think of the Rev. Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, more as a preacher than a master of media technology. But his work in TV, film, radio, publishing and the Internet form part of his legacy as much as large-scale evangelism.

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Billy Graham in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

He and his staff even occasionally set the pace for innovation. Their satellite-assisted telecrusades in 1995 and 1996 reached hundreds of millions of listeners in more than 200 countries, with live translation into 50 languages.

World Wide Pictures, founded by Graham, has turned out more than 125 feature films — sports, comedy, adventure, even a Latin America soap — all with an evangelistic purpose. Among the most notable was The Hiding Place in 1975, a moody, gritty look at the Dutch effort to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Graham’s two dozen books sold millions of copies in 38 languages. His 1975 book Angels: God’s Secret Agents sold a million copies within 90 days, according to his organization. The Jesus Generation sold 200,000 copies in two weeks of 1971. And the autobiography Just As I Am in 1997 appeared on three best-seller lists in one week — a “triple crown,” his group called it.

The Hour of Decision radio program has aired Sundays for more than 50 years. He also helped launch two magazines: Decision, for evangelism and inspiration; and Christianity Today, examining social and theological issues.

 — Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

For Billy Graham, Florida was a home away from home

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The Rev. Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21, bore twin imprints: both an urbane, globetrotting evangelist and a son of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But my home state of Florida was a frequent stop for Graham — from his first sermons to alligators, to visits with close relatives.

Over the years, Graham preached in 15 Florida cities from Miami to Jacksonville to Tallahassee to St. Petersburg. He also comforted victims of Hurricane Andrew, praying publicly along with a rabbi, an archbishop and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

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Billy Graham in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

As he often did, he urged his listeners to look beyond immediate circumstances.

“If you lost your house here, you have another house,” Graham preached in Homestead in September 1992. “And it is a far more beautiful house that God is building.”

He returned to Homestead that November, helping son Franklin and others hand out 750 Thanksgiving dinners and Bibles.

He often picked Fort Lauderdale for board meetings of his evangelistic association, piggybacking visits with his daughter, inspirational writer Gigi Graham Tchividjian, in Coral Springs, and her seven children.

“We always knew we had a famous grandfather; we’d see Daddy Bill on TV,” said the Rev. Stephan Tchividjian Jr., president of the board for the National Christian Foundation of South Florida. “He was never the usual kind of grandfather that you’d go fishing with. But we could call him any time, and he often took us to his crusades.”

While attending Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, Graham said he preached as often as seven times on a Sunday on a street corner and saloons. In 1937, he practiced preaching to birds and alligators on an island in the Hillsborough River.

“If they would not listen, there was always a congregation of cypress stumps that could neither slither nor fly away,” he wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am.

The young minister gave his first church sermons in 1937 in Bostwick, near St. Augustine — so nervously that he rushed through four sermons in eight minutes.

He was more seasoned by the time he gave dedication speeches at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in 1974, and Boca Raton Community Church in 1981. At the latter speech, he adeptly worked in a reference to the space shuttle Columbia, making its maiden flight at Cape Canaveral the same day.

It was a Florida senator, George Smathers, who introduced Graham to John F. Kennedy just after the 1960 presidential election. The evangelist gleefully accepted, according to his autobiography – but only after checking with another friend, Richard Nixon, who lost the election.

South Florida Christians saw firsthand Graham’s ability to bring people together. At Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, he held an eight-day crusade in 1985, with support from 420 churches and total audience of 166,500 people.

“We wondered if [the crusade] would be 15 minutes of excitement, then vanish,” said Lutheran Pastor Darrell Stuehrenberg, who chaired the church committee for the crusade. “But it got us out of our own little worlds. It was well worth the energy and effort.”

While visiting South Florida, Graham often wore a baseball hat to hide his leonine mane — but not always. “Sometimes he didn’t want to be noticed; other times he liked it,” Tchividjian Jr. said, adding with a smile: “… just like the rest of us.”

 

— James D. Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 3:52 pm

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