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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

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Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2018 at 11:43 am

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

Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

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: 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

Mormons holding open house for new South Florida temple

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The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

For months, drivers on I-75 in South Florida have looked curiously at the building with a spire topped by a golden angel holding a trumpet. Now they have a chance to look inside — at least until mid-April, when the doors close to the public.

The building is the newest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. The temple will be the setting for “sacramental worship” for the 25,000 Mormons in South Florida. And the church is offering free tours of the temple before it’s dedicated in May.

Mormon temples are different from the church’s 20,000 “chapels” around the world. Chapels resemble regular Protestant churches, with singing, preaching and Communion service. They’re open to the public.

The 142 temples — the Fort Lauderdale building is number 143 — are reserved for special ceremonies like baptism and marital “Sealings,” which are believed to affect a person’s eternal destiny. After dedication, temples are only for Mormons in good standing.

“Temples are a central part of LDS life and culture,” said Elder William Walker, who runs all the group’s temples around the world, during a recent press tour of the 30,500-square-foot structure. “We believe that the promises and covenants we make in a temple have implications for eternity.”

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

What can you see at the temple? One thing will be the distinctive steepled Mormon design, which will still blend with local buildings. The structure is covered with precast, sand-colored concrete panels, with leafy patterns in the windows inspired by South Florida foliage.

The angel atop the spire is Moroni, known to believers as the celestial being who guided their prophet Joseph Smith. Covered in 22-carat gold leaf, the statue rises just two inches short of the legal 100-foot limit.

The 16.82 acres feature palms, ponds and fountains, set far back from the access road. Walker demurred on the total price tag, but he agreed with early forecasts that it would cost somewhere north of $10 million.

The tropical look is repeated inside, in carpets and murals. But many of the walls and the columns are white, often gilt-edged at the capitals and the junctures of the walls and ceilings.

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Written by Jim Davis

April 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

Jewish-Muslim relations to be examined in FIU series

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Religion scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University helped organize the upcoming series on Jewish-Muslim relations. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Jews and Muslims have been at each others’ throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.

“How Islam Saved the Jews,” in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.

“This is so crucial right now,” says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. “If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step.”

Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.

“There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons,” says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. “But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians.”

The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.

Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU’s Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).

Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: “The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes.” Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.

Afridi will touch on what she has called the “struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community,” including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.

Third of the three-part series, “Sufi Music and Poetry,” will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.

The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department’s chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.

“We have a shared history that is more friendly than not,” Katz says. “I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle.”

Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. “We’re all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other.”

They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.

JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.

Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.

“If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years,” Shakir says. “This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.

“We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward.”

Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.

The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges,” he says. “But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are.”

The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.

FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.

Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.

“The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity,” Parfitt says.

If you go

All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

First Event: “How Islam Saved the Jews”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10

Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts

Second Event: “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21

Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College

Third Event: “Sufi Music and Poetry”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3

Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz

Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via info@jewishmuseum.com or calling 786-972-3175.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

Colorful interfaith book for children

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Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.

As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?

Book cover 02002, onlineOne answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.

With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.

There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.

A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.

More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.

Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.

And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.

History 005, onlineEven departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.

The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.

Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”

One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.

More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?

And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.

But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

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