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Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter, the greatest holiday of the Christian year, ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.
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.”
Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations, especially at the public beaches of South Florida. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.
This year, Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter on the same day as the world’s 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. The two celebrations are sometimes separated by more than a month, but they coincide roughly every four years.
At most Orthodox churches, the observances start with the Resurrection Service the previous night. 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, often leading the congregants in a procession. When they return, the church furnishings have been changed into white, for the resurrection.
The priest proclaims, “Christ is risen!”, in Greek, Russian, Arabic or other languages. The congregation then re-enters the church for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.
Sunday worship features an Agapé service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages. At the end of the service, Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute eggs colored red, to symbolize the resurrection.
— 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
Today (April 12, 2017) is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the anniversary of the Last Supper, which Jesus ate with his disciples before he was seized by his enemies.
At the supper, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion, ordering his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.” The day takes its name from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “command.”
Churches typically hold Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, as it’s called in Catholic churches. Some even re-enact the Last Supper in full costume, with dialogue straight from the Bible.
Catholic priests also use Holy Thursday to wash the feet of 12 selected parishioners, repeating a practice Jesus did with his disciples at the Last Supper. The pope, too, does so with people in Rome.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
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
Christians celebrate today as Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week on the church calendar. Palm Sunday takes its name from an informal welcome given Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the last week before his crucifixion.
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with people paving the street before him with coats and palm fronds. That week he preached in the Temple and celebrated Passover with his disciples. Their observance of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover, has become known in churches as the Last Supper.
Churches commonly celebrate Palm Sunday with special musical programs and Easter pageants. They often pass out palm leaves, sometimes tied into the shape of a cross. In Catholic and some Episcopal churches, extra palm leaves are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday the following year.
Holy Week also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorating the institution of the Holy Communion ritual; Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death; and Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
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.
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.
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 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
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