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More than shamrocks: The story of the real St. Patrick

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Parades, concerts, shamrocks and the “wearing o’ the green” mark the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on today. But the real-life fifth century man is even more colorful.

St. Patrick statue at Nativity Catholic Church, Hollywood, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Ironically, Ireland’s patron saint wasn’t born Irish. Born either in England or Scotland to a church deacon, he was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He grew up a shepherd until he was able to flee and return to his family.

Yet Ireland or God, or both, still had a hold on 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 set up a base in northern Ireland, then gradually won over the fierce Celtic warlords who ruled parts of the island. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, eventually winning over King Laoghaire there. Over the next 40 years, Patrick built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, converting the sons of local kings.

St. Patrick window in St. Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Stories multiplied about him: that he used a three-leafed clover to show the threefold nature of God, that his walking stick grew into a tree, and that he drove all serpents off the island (although none are believed to have ever been there). It’s said also that he performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy of Celtic Christianity are beyond question. One of the most popular saints, he is honored not only in Ireland but also by the Church of England and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Patrick himself testified his devotion in writings like his chant-like poem “The Breastplate”:

Christ be within me
Christ behind me
Christ before me
Christ beside me
Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ inquired
Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

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

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2017 at 5:52 am

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

Ash Wednesday: Solemn preparation for Good Friday

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Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

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 April 14 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

March 1, 2017 at 8:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

December 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate Feast of Tabernacles tonight

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 Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Oct. 4, give way tonight to Sukkot, the colorful Feast of Tabernacles. One of the three “Pilgrim Festivals” — the others are Passover and Shavuot — Sukkot recalls the Israelites’ travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The eight-day festival takes its name from the sukkah , a hut made by many Jewish families and synagogues. Loosely thatched and crudely built, the sukkah reminds Jews of their wandering ancestors’ meager shelters.

Fruits and flowers are hung from the sukkah rafters, recalling the festival’s other significance: gratitude to God for the fall harvest in the Holy Land, for which Israelis still celebrate it. Each morning of Sukkot, traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four kinds of Israeli plants: a lulav or palm frond, an etrog or citron, and branches of myrtle and willow.

Sukkot has been called the Jewish Thanksgiving and may even have been its model. The American Pilgrims were avid students of the Hebrew Scriptures, even comparing their crossing of the Atlantic to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. The Pilgrims may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World as well.

The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, the congregation takes the lulav and etrog in a procession of seven circuits, singing prayers for salvation. Some Jews call this day the “little Yom Kippur,” one more chance to gain God’s favor.

The last day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly. It is a time to pray for rain in the Holy Land to assure good crops. It is also one of four times during the year for Yizkor memorial prayers honoring the dead.

Yet another event is sometimes celebrated on the same day in many synagogues: Simhat Torah, the jubilant Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last lines are read from the giant pulpit Torah scroll in each synagogue. Then the scroll is rewound for another annual cycle of readings — and the rabbi carries it in procession around the synagogue, amid singing and dancing.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 8, 2014 at 6:30 am

Posted in religion

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Holiday Almanac: Muslims observe Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice

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Calligraphic inscription for Bismillah, Arabic for "In the name of God." Photo by Salman Rana via sxc.hu.

Calligraphic inscription for Bismillah, Arabic for “In the name of God.” Photo by Salman Rana via sxc.hu.

A billion and a half Muslims today celebrate the Eid al-Adha or Festival of Sacrifice, one of the two most important days on the Islamic calendar.

The festival commemorates a story in the Quran, the Islamic holy book, in which Abraham offers his son as a sacrifice on God’s command. At the last moment God stops him and provides a sheep instead. The Hadith, the collection of sayings by the prophet Muhammad, says the boy was Ishmael, considered to be the ancestor of all Arabs.

Observances include a two-hour service starting with salat or prayer, followed by a sermon. Muslim families traditionally have been expected to sacrifice animals for the holy day. However, they may instead donate money to charitable Islamic groups overseas that slaughter livestock, then give the meat to the poor.

Eid al-Adha also marks the culmination of the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Making the Hajj at least once during a lifetime, if possible, is one of the five ‘‘pillars” or basic requirements of Islam.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 4, 2014 at 5:35 am

Posted in islam, religion

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Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

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. Because of this, 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 in 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. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with 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 16, 2014 at 4:08 am

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