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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

Holiday Almanac: Passover celebrates Jews’ deliverance

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"Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea"

“Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea,” 1891 oil painting by Ivan Konstantinovič Ajvazovskij. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, began at sundown April 9 this year. The eight-day Jewish festival dates back more than 30 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 supernatural plagues on the land. The last plague was death for 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 signaled God to “pass over” those homes.

In modern traditional households, the eight-day 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 9, 2017 at 5:30 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: Advent, looking toward Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Today starts 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 have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, 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

November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Halloween is gone, All Saints Day is here

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Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

How did Halloween get its name? From All Saints Day, which falls on today (Nov. 1). The original name was All Hallows Day, or Hallowmas, which means pretty much the same. It’s shortened from the official name, the Solemnity of All Saints.

The root of the observance came from martyrdom, especially in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Churches began honoring members who were killed for their faith, saying Eucharist at their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths; but the task became harder as more died. So by the fourth century, they established one day to honor them all.

The holiday took its present form in the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III declared Nov. 1 as the day to remember the apostles, saints and martyrs. The day was picked to supplant Samhain, a Celtic festival for the end of summer, when the dead returned to visit. Many pagans reacted by simply moving their observance to the previous night. Hence the name All Hallows Evening, or Halloween.

All Saints Day is observed not only in Roman Catholic circles but also Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Wesleyan churches. Whether they see deceased members as especially holy or not, believers emphasize a spiritual bond between Christians in this world and the next.

— James D. Davis

 

 

Written by Jim Davis

November 1, 2014 at 4:17 am

Holiday Almanac: Easter for Eastern Orthodox Christians

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The world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin celebrating tonight as Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, a week after their fellow believers in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

The founding events are the same: Three days after Jesus’ corpse was entombed, women came to embalm it, but found the tomb open and empty. Jesus then appeared to them, then to his disciples, then to crowds of hundreds, before ascending into heaven.

For most Orthodox, the climax starts late tonight with the Resurrection Service. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle in the darkened sanctuary to proclaim, “Come, receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night …”

The flame is passed on to his congregants’ candles. Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church and return for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Eastern churches — Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Coptic and other branches — usually celebrate Easter a week or two after their Protestant and Catholic brethren. They reckon the date after the Julian calendar under a formula no longer used by Western churches. This year, however, the eastern and western dates coincide.

Sunday worship features an Agape service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages. Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute red eggs at the end of the service to symbolize the resurrection.

 

— James D. Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

April 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

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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