Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians today, as the faithful enter a 40-day abstinence period known as the Nativity Fast.

Observed annually from November 15 until December 24, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to regard this fast as a joyous time. By placing emphasis on the spiritual, adherents are encouraged to release worldly desires and dependence on material possessions.  The most successful fasting includes prayer and almsgiving, and is performed by those who are physically able. Observant families give up meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil—all in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. (Occasional permissions are granted for wine, oil and fish throughout the fasting period.

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20, with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4.

NEWS: RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH SPLITS FROM CONSTANTINOPLE, IN RESPONSE TO PATRIARCHATE’S DECISION

Headlines around the world have been reporting what is commonly being called “quite possibly the greatest divide in Eastern Orthodoxy in recent history”: Russian Orthodox Church leaders have announced that the church is cutting ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the historical seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. (ABC News has the story.) In response to the Constantinople Patriarchate’s decision to allow Ukraine to establish an independent church with self-governance and without the need for authority from the Patriarchate, Russian Orthodox representatives are relaying the opinion that, by overturning a centuries-old agreement and allowing Ukrain’s church, the Constantinople Patriarche destroyed its authority and its role as the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (The Economist reports on the split and the 17th-century agreement.) Various voices are speaking out, as countries with populations of Orthodox Christian followers are affected by the rift.

 

 

 

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Meskel: Ethiopian festival for the true Cross a ‘cultural heritage experience’

Big crowds, white clothing, dark-skinned people

Meskel celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by peteropaliu, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27: Across Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox communities, bonfires on the eve of Meskel remind families of an ancient story: the vivid dreams and forthcoming discovery of the true Cross by Queen Helena, in the fourth century. On Meskel, the faithful attend religious services, gather with family and feast together.

The traditional story tells that St. Helena instructed the people of Jerusalem to bring wood for a bonfire. After adding incense, smoke rose high into the sky then returned to the ground to touch the precise spot where the true Cross was located. Then, a part of the true Cross was brought to Ethiopia where it lies at the mountain of Amba Geshen.

MESKEL: AN ANCIENT (AND UNIQUE) CELEBRATION

The Meskel festival traces its roots back 1,600 years. Although it hasn’t been celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm in every century, Ethiopians certainly enjoy the festival today. Colorful processions begin in the early evening of Meskel eve; firewood is gathered by community members, and the bonfire site is sprinkled with fresh yellow daisies. Bonfires burn the night through, and when the flames at last begin to smolder, leftover ash is used to mark the foreheads of the faithful, in an act similar to that of Ash Wednesday.

Did you know? Ethiopia is the only country in the world that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level. Ethiopia recently petitioned—and succeeded, in December of 2013—in requesting UNESCO to register the Meskel events in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience, for its “ancient nature … color and significance … and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists as well as the immense participation of the society.”

Ethiopian honey wine, exotic spices and spicy hot peppers complement plates mounded with food, as family-honored recipes fill the table. In community settings, dozens of women gather to prepare food for hungry churchgoers, humming and singing traditional songs while they work. Homemade cheese, tomatoes and lentils are served with injera flatbread. (Make injera with this recipe, from Genius Kitchen.) Following food, the time-honored Ethiopian coffee ceremony commences.

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Assumption of Mary, Dormition of Theotokos: Christians celebrate Jesus’s mother

Statue in front of pillars and below stained glass dome in church

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo by Joe deSousa, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast (begun Aug. 1) has ended, and Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily. (Learn more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

In the West: Catholics are divided in thought as to whether or not Mary died, bodily, as this theory has not been dogmatically defined either way. (Global Catholic Network has more.)

A HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details suggest the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

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Feast of the Transfiguration: Western, Eastern Christians recall ‘greatest miracle’

Painting of men in white light, others looking on while shielding eyes

A painted rendering of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 6: An event shrouded in mystery and revered by St. Thomas Aquinas as “the greatest miracle” is recalled by both Eastern and Western Christians today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. (Note: Catholic and most Orthodox churches mark this feast on August 6, though many American Protestant congregations, among them United Methodist and some Lutheran churches, celebrated Jesus’s transfiguration much earlier this year as part of their Epiphany season.)

Three Gospels tell of Jesus taking three disciples—Peter, James and John—along with him on an ascent of a mountain. Once at their destination, the prophets Elijah and Moses appear. A voice in the clouds says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The disciples fall to their knees in wonder.

While heading back down the mountain, the Bible describes Jesus as telling his disciples not to speak of what they had seen until he has risen from the dead. The disciples—confused by the words, “risen from the dead”—discuss the meaning of this puzzling experience.

Theologians have argued for centuries about the metaphysics of the transfiguration—whether his garments became white and his face shone like the sun, or perhaps the apostles’ senses were transfigured so that they could perceive the true glory of God. Nonetheless, Christian churches agree that the transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor. The mountain represents the meeting point of human and God; of earth and heaven.

For an Orthodox perspective on the holiday, learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

For a Western perspective, visit the Global Catholic Network.

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You say Lammas, I say Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans embrace harvest

Three rolls with wheat strands on wood board on wood table

Photo courtesy of pxhere

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1: As August begins and grains turn golden in the fields, Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark the feast of Lammas. An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and in some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day”; historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing.

It is gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s occasion. Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

In the Neopagan and Wiccan faiths, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and is the first of three harvest festivals. Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnasadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnasadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries.

Interested in making a Lammas loaf? Try this recipe, from Recipes for a Pagan Soul:

4 cups all purpose/bread flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Stir flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and raisins together. Separately, fork-blend eggs and buttermilk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until sticky batter is formed. Scrape batter onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly. Shape batter into a ball, then place in a round, non-stick casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1-1/4 hours.

Wait 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove bread from casserole, then cool on wire rack. If desired, cut loaf into quarters and then slice thinly.

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Midsummer, solstice and Litha: Welcome, summer!

Dancing outdoors

Midsummer dancing. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, JUNE 21: Bonfires, picnics on the beach, wreaths of wildflowers and Midsummer parties—Scandinavian-style—abound today, at the summer solstice. Across the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the “longest day of the year,” meaning that for astrological reasons, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight than on any other day of the year.

For people around the world, Midsummer has been equated with sun gods, greenery, fertility rituals and medicinal herbs for millennia. In Scandinavian countries, the longest day is one of the most beloved holidays of the year. A Scandinavian Midsummer is complete with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old: extravagant smorgasbord lunches, outdoor games for the entire community, dancing and more.

Flower crowns are all the rage, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. For a tutorial on how to create a chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries often take center stage in cakes, shortcakes or eaten straight out of the bowl. Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes, visit Bon Appetit or ScandinaviaFood.com.

MIDSUMMER AROUND THE WORLD

In Finland, the summer holiday unofficially starts with Midsummer, and so many flock to countryside cottages that city streets can seem eerily empty. Saunas, bonfires, barbecues and fishing are enjoyed by hundreds.

Two northeastern towns in Brazil have been in lengthy competition for the title of “Biggest Saint John Festival in the World,” and throughout the South American country, dishes made with corn and sweet potatoes are favored.

In Austria, a spectacular procession of ships makes its way down the Danube River, while fireworks light up the night sky above castle ruins. In Latvia, homes, livestock and even cars are decorated with leaves, tree branches, flowers and other greenery.

The largest American celebrations of Midsummer take place in New York City, Seattle, Tucson and San Francisco. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, members of the large Finnish population celebrate Juhannus with beachfront bonfires and other outdoor activities.

LITHA: A WICCAN AND PAGAN SOLSTICE CELEBRATION

Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life. At Litha, adherents note the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. In centuries past, torchlight processions were common; at Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.

Interested in a modern-day take on gathering and drying healing herbs? Check out this story by Antioch College student Aubrey Hodapp, whose studies under an herbalist have helped her to deliver local, organic tea to her fellow students and much more (featured this week at FeedTheSpirit).

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Categories: ChristianInterfaithInternational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Corpus Christi: Christians venerate Eucharist, honor saints

Group of people dressed in traditional clothing walking down street

A Corpus Christi procession. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

SUNDAY, JUNE 3: Pentecost has passed for both Eastern and Western Christians, and today, the faithful observe the Sunday of All Saints and the Feast of Corpus Christi (respectively). While Western Christians observe All Saints’ Day in November, Eastern Orthodox Christians honor this feast on the Sunday following Pentecost. On this first Sunday of June, Eastern Christians honor all saints—known and unknown—and Western Christians set aside a day for sole veneration of the Eucharist, in the Feast of Corpus Christi. Note: The Feast of Corpus Christi is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday—this year, May 31—but is moved to a Sunday in places where it is not a holy day of obligation.

EASTERN: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox Christians mark the Sunday of All Saints. What began as the Sunday of All Martyrs now includes all saints whose works honor God—the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, shepherds, teachers and holy monastics, both known and unknown. Eastern Christians honor them for their examples of virtue, and as intercessors for the behalf of the living with God.

WESTERN: THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI

Known also as The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and his real presence in the Eucharist. While the Eucharist is recognized and honored on Holy Thursday, its celebration can be overshadowed by the approaching Paschal (Easter) Triduum. Thus a day was designated with the sole purpose of recognizing the Eucharist. At the end of Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Catholic churches may hold a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

ORIGINS: A DAY FOR THE EUCHARIST & JULIANA OF LIEGE

The institution of a day for the Eucharist in the church calendar began with the decades-long work of Juliana of Liege, a 13th-century woman of Belgium who was orphaned and raised by Augustinian nuns. With a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, Juliana reported having a dream of the church under a full moon, with one dark spot: the absence of a solemnity for the Eucharist. For 20 years, Juliana had visions of Christ, and she relayed these to her confessor. Word passed, and Pope Urban IV instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost for the entire Latin Rite. Pope John XXII promulgated a collection of laws in 1317 that made the feast universal.

 

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