Clean Monday: Orthodox Christians kick off Lent with kites, seafood and lagana

Round flatbread with seeds on top, torn in half with brown sauce on side in cup

Greek lagana bread, baked only for Clean Monday. Photo by Sofia Gk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 11: The flavors of shellfish and soft lagana bread are associated with the start of the Lenten season in Greece. Outside, colorful kites fly above the fields as Orthodox Christians mark Clean Monday.

Western Christian Lent began last week with Ash Wednesday.

The centuries-old tradition of observing Lent as a season of reflection and self-denial is intended to prepare Christians for the greatest festival in their religious calendar: Easter. However, the ever-changing date of Easter—and the method of counting 40 days in Lent—is one of the centuries-old differences among Christians East and West.

“Western Christians count Lent’s 40 days as starting with Ash Wednesday but excluding Sundays. Eastern Christians, those generally called Orthodox, start their 40 days on a Monday, counting Sundays, but excluding the week leading up to Easter.” That’s one of the intriguing details in the book, Our Lent: Things We Carry, by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. “Some Christians fast; some don’t. Millions of Western Christians retain a custom of limited fasting; millions of Eastern Christians prayerfully make significant sacrifices during this season.”

Eight days ago, Eastern Christians observed Meatfare Sunday, the last time observant Christians will eat meat until Pascha (Easter). One day ago was Cheesefare Sunday, when Eastern Christians consume dairy products for the last time. Today, Orthodox families begin the fast of Great Lent with “clean” foods and a cleansed state of mind.

CLEAN MONDAY IN GREECE

Rather than begin Lent in a solemn manner, Clean Monday is celebrated as a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus: outdoor activities, zany local traditions, kite flying and plenty of Lenten-friendly food is par for the course. As shellfish is permitted in these cultures throughout Lent, a spread of extravagant dishes—based on the bounty of the sea—is common on Clean Monday in Greece.

Customs and traditions vary by locality in Greece on the first day the Lenten season, with colored flour being thrown into crowds in Glaxidi, on the northern coast of the Corinth Gulf; on the Greek island of Chios, a man dresses up as “Aga,” or “Ayas” (the tax collector), then he and his followers grab local villagers to put them into a mock trial. The “criminals” found guilty must suffer punishment or pay a fine that funds the village’s cultural association.

KITES AND CULINARY DELIGHTS

The flying of kites across Greece welcomes spring in a colorful and festive manner, and many traditional kite makers pride themselves on decades of experience. When out and about, picnic baskets are often filled with lagana, an unleavened bread baked only for Clean Monday, and taramosalata, a dip made of salted and cured roe mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and bread crumbs. (Wikipedia has details.) Feasts of bean soup, shellfish dishes, octopus platters, shrimp dishes and more are carefully prepared for a Clean Monday extravaganza.

Interested in baking lagana? Find a recipe at the blog Lemon & Olives, or at The Greek Vegan.

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Categories: Christian

Ash Wednesday: Christians fast, repent and begin Lenten season 2019

Girl holding sign, 'Ashes here,' on busy city street

Congregations across the nation are taking to the streets, offering ashes on-the-go to busy Christians. Photo by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6: The pancakes, paczkis, blintzes all have been eaten—and today, the solemn Lenten season begins for Western Christians. It’s Ash Wednesday.

Starting today, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter. Western Christians (Roman Catholics, Protestants and others in the “Western” branches of the church) are called to repent and reflect. Many “give up something” for Lent. But the Western tradition is not nearly as extreme as the dietary rules followed by Eastern Christians, who begin their Fast of Great Lent on Monday March 11 this year—an observance known as Clean Monday.

Did you know? The Catholic Church permits ashes on the forehead for anyone who wishes to receive them—not just baptized Catholics. Many Protestant and Anglican churches also include this rite at the start of Lent and more congregations add the service each year.

In fact, Lent is more popular than ever nationwide in the U.S.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In his book Our Lent: The Things We Carry, ReadTheSpirit magazine Editor David Crumm writes: “Observance of Lent is booming across the U.S., including nontraditional groups and evangelical churches. Even Catholic parishes nationwide are seeing a rise in season-long observances. This makes sense in an era of turbulent change in our world. A return to spiritual practices—from praying daily to following the centuries-old traditions of Lent—is a journey that reconnects us with the timeless wisdom of our faith.”

Where do we see signs of the vitality of the Lenten season in 2019? First, we see it in ongoing survey research about the religious practices of ordinary Americans. Then, we already are seeing it in news headlines.

One example: The evangelical social-action movement Sojourners is urging followers to take Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season seriously this year. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis has published an open letter about this effort on the group’s website.

And—from the spiritual to the strictly commercial realm—Ad Age magazine just reported that the Gorton’s seafood company is preparing a clever new version of its TV ad campaign featuring male mermaids—Mer-Bros. Ad Age reports, “The updated ads come as Gorton’s and other seafood brands gear up for Lent, a busy time for the brand because people often eat more seafood while abstaining from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays.”

This is a very serious matter in America’s multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry, as well. Readers Digest magazine recently published a lengthy story about the history of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, which was created many years ago to meet the preferences of Catholic customers. And today? The magazine reports that about a quarter of the annual Filet-O-Fish sales are during the 40 days of Lent.

A 40-Day Companion for Lent

Many of our readers, over the years, have told us they enjoy reading Crumm’s book during Lent—a book that combines both inspirational reflections on Bible readings as well as a sometimes light-hearted look at contemporary life, today. The book is widely available via online bookstores. Here is the Amazon link for paperback and Kindle.

What’s the book about?

Our Lent is a 40-day, 40-chapter invitation to enjoy that combination of faith and self-guided reflection. Each daily chapter explores something Jesus showed us, including: coins, basins, bowls, bread, cups, swords and tables. In each chapter, the author shares a biblical story from Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and explains the significance of the tangible things Jesus lifted up for his followers. Then, each chapter connects the Bible lesson with our own daily lives as well as the lives of men and women who are celebrated in our culture, including the spiritual writer Thomas Merton, the actress and singer Judy Garland, the country musician Merle Haggard and even the beloved Cat in the Hat. After 40 days of connecting scripture with modern life, readers will find themselves freshly aware of the many blessings we have received and the challenges we face in helping to heal the world around us.

 

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Categories: Christian

Valentine’s Day: Show your affection on an international holiday of love

Holding red and pink flat hearts in pink gloved hands, from above

Photo by jill111, courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14: Hearts, expressions of love and sweet confections are flowing around the world today, marking the arrival of Valentine’s Day.

In ancient Rome, the fertility festival Lupercalia was observed February 13-15, although historians cannot document specific historical links between Lupercalia and the modern Valentine’s Day. For that matter, history doesn’t document any romantic association with Valentine’s Day until the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer.

The embers of courtly love began glowing in the High Middle Ages, and by the end of the 18th century, Valentine cards were being produced and exchanged. Through the decades, Valentines evolved from lace-and-ribbon trinkets to paper stationery to a holiday involving more expensive gifts, chocolates and, more recently, jewelry. The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately 190 million valentines are sent in the United States each year (not including the inexpensive Valentine cards exchanged among schoolchildren).

What are the characteristics of true love? The Huffington Post weighs in, with this article.

For couples: In early 2014, Pope Francis released an appeal entitled “The Joy of ‘Yes’ Forever.” Intended for engaged couples but suitable for anyone who is married, this is a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! Read it here.

2019 stats: The National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics reports that this year, fewer people are planning to shop for gifts for Valentine’s Day—but those who do spend will be spending a record amount (read more from the NRF). The average shopper is expected to spend approximately $160 (a 13 percent increase from last year) for Valentine’s Day this year, totaling a record $20.7 billion.

THE ‘REAL’ ST. VALENTINE(S): A HISTORY AND A DOZEN

Man in painting with soldiers, others near building

A depiction of Saint Valentine of Terni and disciples. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Through the centuries, Christians have honored nearly a dozen St. Valentines, so any research into the history of the “real” St. Valentine quickly veers toward confusion.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that St. Valentine is the “name of two legendary martyrs whose lives seem to be historically based. One was a Roman priest and physician who suffered martyrdom during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus and was buried on the Via Flaminia. Pope St. Julius I reportedly built a basilica over his grave. The other, bishop of Terni, Italy, was martyred, apparently also in Rome, and his relics were later taken to Terni. It is possible these are different versions of the same original account and refer to only one person.”

American Catholic magazine—one of today’s most popular sources of information for Catholic families—states: “Although the mid-February holiday celebrating love and lovers remains wildly popular, the confusion over its origins led the Catholic Church, in 1969, to drop St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts. Those highly sought-after days are reserved for saints with more clear historical record. After all, the saints are real individuals for us to imitate. Some parishes, however, observe the feast of St. Valentine.”

So,  if conversation today heads in the direction of  the history of the “real” St. Valentine, you’re on solid ground to state the simple truth: “Yes, but no one knows for sure.”

FEBRUARY 14 AROUND THE WORLD

Chocolate heart cookies with pink icing on plate

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Albeit a relatively new addition to Asian culture, Valentine’s Day claims its biggest spenders in this region: Customarily, women in South Korea and Japan give chocolates to all male co-workers, friends and lovers on February 14, with men returning the favor two- or threefold on “White Day,” which occurs on March 14. Residents of Singapore spend, on average, between $100 and $500 on Valentine’s Day gifts, according to a recent report.

French and Welsh households commemorate Christian saints of love, and in Finland and Latin American countries, “love” extends to friends and friendships. Western countries most often acknowledge Valentine’s Day with greeting cards, candies and romantic dinner dates. However, in Islamic countries, many officials have deemed Valentine’s Day as unsuitable for Islamic culture.

VALENTINE RECIPES AND LINKS

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Categories: ChristianInternational ObservancesNational Observances

Four Chaplains Sunday: Congregations nationwide honor interfaith activists

Illustration of stormy night and men in small rowboat at sea

Click on the image to watch a short video about the Four Immortal Chaplains

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 3: Millions of Americans may be gathering in front of their televisions to watch the Super Bowl tonight, but during earlier hours, many congregations and veterans groups nationwide recall four chaplains whose courageous example has inspired generations of interfaith activists. This is Four Chaplains Sunday.

Did you know? In 1951, President Truman dedicated a chapel to the four chaplains.

THE FOUR IMMORTAL CHAPLAINS

On Feb. 3, 1943, the converted luxury liner Dorchester was struck by a torpedo while crossing the North Atlantic; the ship sank within 20 minutes. Hundreds of U.S. troops and civilians were aboard the ship when it was struck, and as passengers were scurrying to lifeboats, four chaplains—the Rev. George Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander Good (Jewish), the Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Fr. John Washington (Roman Catholic)—spread out and began helping the wounded and panicked. Amid the chaos, the four chaplains were calmly offering prayers and encouraging words. When life jackets ran out, the chaplains already had given their own to others fleeing the ship. The four men joined arms and said prayers, singing hymns as they sank with the ship.

Ceremonies in honor of the courageous men emphasize “unity without uniformity,” a primary part of the mission of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. In 1988, an act of Congress officially declared February 3 as an annual Four Chaplains Day.

A WINDOW AT THE PENTAGON

The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1960, a Congressional Medal of Valor was created and presented to the chaplains’ next of kin. Stained glass windows of the men still exist in a number of chapels across the country—and at the Pentagon—and each year, American Legions posts nationwide continue to honor the Four Chaplains with memorial services. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation continues to honor those who exemplify the heroic traits of the Four Chaplains, promoting “unity without uniformity.”

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Categories: ChristianInterfaithJewish

Candlemas, Groundhog Day and Imbolc: Early February holidays anticipate spring

Groundhog standing on its hind legs on dirt with light and lights in background

Will the groundhog see his shadow? Photo by Cornelia Kopp, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2: No matter which holiday you’re celebrating—Candlemas, Groundhog Day or Imbolc—do so with the unifying themes for this time in February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, as the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring while Groundhog Day begins with hope for an early spring season. For Christians, Candlemas brings the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and an early recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.

NEWS 2019: The “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil, now has some furry competition: Buffalo Bert, a groundhog in Buffalo, New York, is now the center of that city’s celebrations, which take place on the last Saturday of January instead of on February 2. (Read a news report here.) Approximately 800 attendees came out for the 2019 party in Buffalo, whose star was the rescued groundhog called Buffalo Bert.

(His prediction this year? Six more weeks of winter.)

CANDLEMAS: A TEMPLE, COINS AND BELLS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

 

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

IMBOLC: SPRING AND WOODLAND ANIMALS (& BRIGHID)

Close-up of square-shaped woven item of thin, straw-type material

Close-up of the center of a St. Brighid’s cross. Photo by Amanda Slater, courtesy of Flickr

On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. (Get a step-by-step, DIY version of Brighid crosses here.) After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day.

Getting it straight: Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.

 

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Categories: ChristianNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Pursuing Justice Is 2019 Theme for Global Resources

A gathering of some of the leaders active in the World Council of Churches.

Beginning FRIDAY, JANUARY 18: The world’s more than 2 billion Christians are urged to participate in this eight-day observance that is more than a century old—the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The observance falls between the Feast of the Confession of Peter and the octave of Sts. Peter and Paul.

In 1908, this idea was launched by Father Paul Wattson—and now has circled the globe, co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican.

Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, where January is typically a time for vacations, churches may celebrate the Week of Prayer at a different time.

2019 Resources for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The World Council of Churches reports: “At least once a year, Christians are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that ‘they may be one so that the world may believe’ (see John 17.21). Hearts are touched and Christians come together to pray for their unity. Congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services. The event that touches off this special experience is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

Church leaders can download a free 40-page resource guide co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches via a link on this page within the Council’s website.

At the Vatican, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also provides detailed resources, ranging from Bible passages to liturgical readings.

 

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Categories: ChristianInternational ObservancesNational Observances

Christmas, Nativity: Christians across the globe rejoice in Christ’s birth

Altar of a church decorated for Christmas

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 25: Sing for joy and ring the bells—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians worldwide, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Pew Research tells us that, even with declines in religious affiliation in the U.S., half of all Americans say they attend church on Christmas Eve.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire, Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say that Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.

CHRISTMAS DIY: DECORATIONS, RECIPES & PARTY TIPS

Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. Don’t leave out the kids—their crafts and printables are at Kaboose. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services. Chocolate lovers can find more festive food ideas at Hersheys.com.

DID YOU KNOW? (PARTY ICEBREAKERS)

Now, for some extra fun: Are you looking to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or that family member you only see once a year? Try tossing out a few of these interesting tidbits during your next gathering:

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family-centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales

LOOKING AHEAD:
THE JULIAN EVENT AND 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

Gregorian and Julian calendars differ, causing Christmas and Epiphany to fall on January 7 and 19, respectively, by those Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian Calendar. Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day for anyone, though—at least not according to the church! On the contrary, Christmas Day begins the Twelve Days of Christmas, which continue through January 6. Most Christian denominations preach this worldwide tradition, even though many parishioners are quick to take down decorations and move into the new year. In some places, it is tradition to give gifts during each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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Categories: Christian