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Tongues of fire: Today is Pentecost Sunday for Christians

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Dove in a sunburst at St. Jude’s Church, Boca Raton, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. On this day, according to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of “tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.

Taking its name from its timing, just short of 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the church.” It’s the Christian equivalent of Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of weeks, which fell this year on Tuesday, May 30. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate Pentecost with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

June 4, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Laying down the law: Jews celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks

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Torah scroll at Beth Yaacov Synagogue, Geneva. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown yesterday (May 30). Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is the third 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 follows Passover by seven weeks — a “week of weeks.”

Shavuot is actually considered a triple holiday. Besides the Sinai event, Shavuot also marks the harvesting of wheat in Israel and the ripening of the first fruit in the Holy Land. Traditional Jews decorate their homes and synagogues with plants and flowers.

Synagogues observe Shavuot also with the reading of the Ten Commandments. In addition to the regular holiday service, congregations read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. Some scholars believe David was born and died on Shavuot.

In recent years, Reform and Conservative synagogues have increasingly held confirmation ceremonies on Shavuot, as their young men and women take their place in the Jewish community.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

May 30, 2017 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Easter this year unites Eastern and Western Christians

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Resurrection window at Nativity Church, Hollywood, Fla.

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

Written by Jim Davis

April 16, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Holiday Almanac: Maundy Thursday, birth of Holy Communion

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The Last Supper, in a fresco behind the altar at St. Justin Martyr Church on Key Largo, Florida.(Photo by 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

 

Written by Jim Davis

April 13, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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: Palm Sunday starts Holy Week

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"Triumphal entry into Jerusalem."

“Triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” 19th century oil painting by Nikolay Koshelev (1840-1919). Public domain via Wikimedia.

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

Written by Jim Davis

April 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

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