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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Assumption of Mary, Dormition of Theotokos: Christians honor Virgin Mary

Painting Mary falling asleep

A depiction of the “falling asleep” of Mary. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and both Eastern and Western Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / 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, though—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

Did you know? In 588 CE, the Emperor Maurice officially adopted the commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin) into the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Empire.

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.

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.

THE ASSUMPTION: FROM THE 4TH CENTURY TO 1950 A.D.

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.

IN THE NEWS: A 2017 INTERFAITH (CONTEST) OPPORTUNITY

The Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has announced a contest, open to individuals of all faith traditions, for submission of a video, photo or thesis that best captures the Orthodox Church’s commitment to interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Three winners will each be awarded $500, in the categories of “Original video,” “Original photography” and “M.A. thesis.” Submissions must be turned in by September 21, 2017. (Find more details here.)

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Palm Sunday: Christians begin Holy Week with fronds and Jesus’ Jerusalem entry

Sunlight through palm fronds on tree

Palm fronds. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, APRIL 9: Christians around the world enter Holy Week in preparation for Easter on Palm Sunday, marked by the ancient story of Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem. Biblical accounts and artists through the centuries describe overjoyed people in the streets of Jerusalem celebrating Jesus’s entry by throwing down of cloaks and palm branches in his path, in imitation of a custom used only for those of highest honor. Described in all four Gospels, Jesus’ ride was a popular event. Yet how quickly events will turn within a week, Christians recall today, amid the waving fronds.

As Jesus rode slowly into Jerusalem, according to Christian tradition, the gathered crowd began singing from Psalms: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Today, Christians regard this entry as the fulfillment of a prediction in Zacharias; as such, many churches distribute their own fresh palm branches. In climates where palm branches aren’t available, other tree branches—yew, box and willow, for example—may be distributed instead. A church-wide procession often follows the blessing of the branches.

What happens to those branches after they’re distributed? In many congregations, members save them in their homes. Traditional Catholics tend to tuck them behind a crucifix. Some countries pride themselves on the historical tradition of tying elaborate shapes with the fresh palms. In Mexico and Italy, especially, many will weave the palms into elaborate patterns and shapes and hang them above holy pictures, behind a crucifix or on the wall.  In Elche, Spain—the site of the largest palm grove in Europe—palm leaves whitened and dried, after which skilled craftsmen braid them into extravagant shapes and figures.

Interested in braiding your own palm fronds? Learn how, with help from this YouTube video tutorial.

In many churches, the branches from today’s services are saved until the next year’s Ash Wednesday, when they are burned as a source of ashes.

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Posadas Navidenas: Mexican Catholics mark 9 colorful nights

Pile of tamales wrapped in strings

Tamales take center stage at many Las Posadas meals. Photo by Stefani, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16: The lively nights known as Las Posadas begin in Mexico, Guatemala and parts of the United States, bringing tasty dishes, cheerful carols and unified communities. A nine-night celebration originally from Spain, Posadas Navidenas begins December 16 and ends on December 24. Posada, Spanish for “lodging,” or “accommodation,” reenacts Mary and Joseph’s search for a safe, warm place to welcome the infant Jesus. Las Posadas has been a tradition throughout Mexico for 400 years.

Each night of Posadas Navidenas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood. The procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, but as is prearranged, the homeowners turn the visitors away. Finally, a host family for the evening (or, in some regions, a church) welcomes the visitors inside, and everyone kneels before a Nativity scene to pray. (Wikipedia has details.) After prayer, traditional tamales and ponche navideno are typically served with rompope, a drink similar to eggnog. Children may take turns hitting a five- or seven-pointed pinata, and the pinata is often filled with dried fruit, sugar sticks, nuts and candies.

A boy hits a Las Posadas pinata. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A boy hits a Las Posadas pinata. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THE LAS POSADAS PROCESSION

As processions slowly move down the streets each night of Las Posadas, additional members join the children. In most processions, select children dress as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels—or, the children carry images of these holy figures. Musicians sometimes follow the group, which sings at each doorstep while beckoning for a place to stay.

Las Posadas processions are gaining popularity in the Southwest United States, but the reenactments can be organized in any community.

Did you know? The popular rompope drink is believed to have been created by nuns in the convent of Santa Clara, in Puebla.

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Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 150 years later, Mary still infallibly pure

Painting of woman in yellow-hued clouds with angels and biblical creatures at her feet and surrounding her

The Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, DECEMBER 8: As the weeks of Advent continue, Catholic Christians pause to focus on the Virgin Mary in the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic dogma holds that the Virgin Mary was born via a sinless conception, and that she is without Original Sin. Around the world, this feast day is greeted with fireworks, processions and celebratory liturgies.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation by Pope Pius IX, as Roman Catholic dogma, that: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The statement is considered infallible.

A HISTORY OF THE FEAST:
EAST AND WEST

A feast for the conception of Mary was being observed in the Eastern Christian Church as early as the fifth century, though the original title of the feast referred to Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary. Popularity of the feast increased in the seventh century, and the conception of Mary was being described as “immaculate” from the 11th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Today, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Mary was free from original sin prior to birth, but rather that she is filled with grace. Following the Great Schism of 1054, some sects of Western Christianity embraced Mary’s sinless conception.

Did you know? Catholics hold that Mary is the Patroness of the United States.

A Holy Day of Obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception requires that all Catholics attend Mass for the occasion. (Learn more from Fish Eaters.) Mary is seen as a guide on the path to salvation; a beacon of hope in times of conflict and doubt.

MARY’S CANDLE AND MORAVIAN SPRITZ

A designated candle for Mary sits at the center of the table as the scent of freshly baked gingerbread Moravian Spritz wafts through the air: the Marian feast brings to mind the aromas of cinnamon and myrrh, as many believed that Mary emitted these sweet smells. Families or parishes honoring the feast may decorate in blue or with symbols of her purity, such as lilies or roses. For additional resources, prayers, recipes and children’s activity suggestions, visit Women for Faith and Family or Catholic Culture.

IN THE NEWS:
EXHIBIT EXPLORES MADONNA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. will feature through April 2015 an exhibit of portraits of the Virgin Mary, greatly varied and spanning through six centuries. (National Geographic has the story.) Entitled “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” the exhibit showcases 70 works of art—some lent from such esteemed establishments as the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.

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Transfiguration of Jesus: Christians unite for ‘greatest miracle;’ prayer for Iraq

Interior of Cathedral

Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Krakow, Poland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, 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. While Catholic and most Othodox churches mark the feast day on August 6, 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; or, for a more Western perspective, visit the Global Catholic Network.)

IN THE NEWS:
DAY OF PRAYER FOR IRAQ AUGUST 6

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Rafael Sako, along with Aid to the Church in Need, has called upon all Christians to unite in prayer for peace in Iraq on the Feast of the Transfiguration. For inspiration, read Patriarch Sako’s prayer, in this article from the National Catholic Register.

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Feast of St. Columba of Iona

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Pilgrims on the island of Iona off Scotland’s northwest coast. Photograph by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

MONDAY, JUNE 9: You don’t have to travel to Scotland to honor St. Columba, the brilliant 6th-century Irish monk who still is inspiring pilgrims around the world. In fact, wherever they live in the world, descendants of the Clans MacCallum, Malcom and MacKinnon all claim spiritual connection to Columba. Those first two families bear echoes of his name, which was spelled in many different forms. The latter family, the MacKinnons, were abbots of Iona through a number of generations.

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Iona Abbey. Photo by John Hile.

Of course, the epicenter of St. Columba spirituality today is the tiny isle of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island’s lore and legacy are spread worldwide by the Iona Community of men and women who try to follow the spiritual ideals inherited from St. Columba’s community. Iona has produced a remarkably influential circle of teachers and musicians. ReadTheSpirit magazine has featured interviews with the Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell, long associated with the Iona Community.

The Isle of Iona still attracts swarms of visitors during the summer months. Anyone can travel to the island and tour the sites administered now by Historic Scotland, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Parks Service. There is a pleasant hotel on the island, which is open to the public. But, visitors hoping to experience one of the traditional Iona retreats in the abbey need to register long in advance with the Iona Community, starting by checking out information on Iona’s website.

Care to see a bit of the island for yourself? ReadTheSpirit took a fascinating pilgrimage to Iona in 2007! Check out the series, including videos.

WHO WAS ST. COLUMBA?

The Irish-born Columba studied at Clonard Abbey as a youth, amid others who would become some of the most influential figures in Irish Christian history. Of the thousands who studied at Clonard during the 6th century, a mere 12 stood out in the crowd and became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland; Columba was one of these 12. (Wikipedia has details.) St. Columba went on to be ordained as a priest and founded several monasteries. However, he also was accused of committing a crime that led to many deaths—and, in his efforts to “right a wrong,” cemented his name in history.

According to tradition, St. Columba copied the Book of Psalms while studying at Clonard Abbey, intending to keep his copy. When his instructor demanded the copy be handed over, Columba refused—and battle broke out. Rather than be excommunicated, St. Columba suggested he become a missionary in Scotland, to spread Christianity there. With 12 men in tow, Columba traveled to Scotland and didn’t stop until he reached a place where he could no longer see his native country: the island of Iona. Great success ensued, and soon, the man who had once been on the brink of excommunication was converting hundreds, eventually winning the affections of the pagan King Bridei and playing a role in Scottish politics. (Historic UK has more.) The “Vita Columbae” documents Columba’s miracles (which include an encounter with a Loch Ness Monster); his prophesies (which include one of his own death); and his apparitions. Columba also left behind several monasteries and hundreds of books when, according to records, he left the earthly world with such a smile on his face that those around him knew of the angels he had seen.

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