Nativity of Mary, Theotokos: Eastern & Western Christians observe birthday

Mosaic of man and woman huddled over baby

A mosaic of Anna, Joachim and Mary, at Chora Church, in Istanbul. Photo by Nick Thompson, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Western and Eastern Christians celebrate Mary’s birth today, on the Nativity of Mary (or, as she is known in Orthodox Christianity, the Theotokos). Through many centuries, Christian churches have honored just three figures on both their birth and death anniversaries: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

Known in both Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity as the Virgin Mary, Madonna is the only woman in Christian history to be given the honor of a holy birth. Eastern and Western Christians diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth, however: for Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854; Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace. It is agreed that Mary was born to Sts. Anne and Joachim in Jerusalem.

Ironically, the modern canon of scripture gives no mention of exact details concerning Mary’s birth, as the earliest known account is contained in an apocryphal text from the second century (for this reason, Protestants do not observe the holiday). Christian tradition tells that Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

MARY’S NATIVITY FEAST: AROUND THE WORLD

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity: a feast for the Nativity of Mary began in the fifth century, and by the seventh century, it was recognized by Byzantine Christians to the East. In France, the grape harvest is at a peak, and winegrowers often refer to the Nativity of Mary as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” Prime grapes are customarily brought to a local church to be blessed, and in some regions, bunches of grapes are attached to the hands of statues of Mary.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” Seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe, and in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

IN THE NEWS: MARY SPARED DURING HARVEY

A multitude of news publications is reporting the story of a family whose homes burned down during Hurricane Harvey, only to find that a lone statue of the Virgin Mary stands amidst the rubble. (Read more, and watch a news clip, here.) The two homes, which housed extended family members, burned while the owners had evacuated; upon return, the Blessed Mother statue was found unburied amid the destruction. The family reports that the Virgin Mary is a figure of great importance in their faith and life.

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Categories: Christian

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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Categories: Christian

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans, more welcome harvest season

Loaves of bread, various sizes and shapes

Photo courtesy of Pexels

TUESDAY, AUGUST 1: As July breaks into August 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.

Did you know? The Anglo-Saxon version of Lammas, or “loaf-mass,” refers to the practice of bringing a loaf of freshly baked bread to one’s local church for blessing.

It is the joyful simplicity of 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.

Morris dancing on green grass

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

IN THE NEWS: 2017 EUROPEAN LAMMAS FESTS

Residents and visitors of Eastbourne, England marked Lammas this year with a two-day festival flanked with traditional Lammas Morris dancers, a parade, food and crafts, storytellers and a special-edition Lammas Ale. (Read more in the Eastbourne Herald.)

Watch a video of traditional Morris dancing, in Oxford, at this YouTube link.

In Keighley, baker and baking columnist Mike Armstrong will demonstrate breadmaking and talk about Lammas on August 1. Armstrong will give his bread-making demonstration in a local historic kitchen. (Learn more here.)

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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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Trinity Sunday: Western Christians revere Trinity, Orthodox mark Pentecost

Stained glass window of symbols of holy Trinity

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, JUNE 11: White banners are draped and vestments shine as a sign of purity as Western Christian churches worldwide celebrate Trinity Sunday. Note: In the Eastern Christian Church, Trinity Sunday is observed on the Sunday of Pentecost. A culmination of the Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, Trinity Sunday calls to mind the role that each member of the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—play in Christianity.

Many Christians are surprised to learn that the original writers of the New Testament did not use the term “Trinity” as it appears in mainline Christianity today. While the three elements of divinity, God and Christ and Holy Spirit, were a part of the faith from its early years, the famous theologian Tertullian (who lived and wrote in Africa) is widely credited as introducing the first full analysis of the Trinity in the early 3rd century. The doctrine wasn’t formalized among Christian leaders until the fourth century.

For centuries, church leaders argued that the Trinity was honored every Sunday. But, in the 12th century, Thomas Becket declared that the day of his consecration should be an annual festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. The observance spread through Western Christianity, and was placed in the general calendar in the 14th century.

There is, perhaps, nothing more central to the creed of the Christian faith—and yet, so elusive, in comprehension of it—than the Holy Trinity. Through the centuries, countless saints have attempted to teach about the Trinity. Among the most famous was a three-leaf clover that tradition says was used by St. Patrick.

CUSTOMS & THE ATHANASIAN CREED

On this one Sunday each year, many Christians around the world recite the Athanasian Creed (read it here). Some bake cloverleaf rolls to reflect the Trinity, or set the table with a centerpiece of triple-leaf flowers. For a Catholic perspective or to read Pope John Paul II’s writings on the Holy Trinity, go to CatholicCulture.com.

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Categories: Christian

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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Categories: Christian

Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: Christians prepare for, begin Lenten season

Mardi Gras mask sitting in pile of colorful paper ribbons

Photo by annca, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28 and WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1: Haul out the eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday! During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanian homes serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries—but all reflect the old Christian tradition of using up the rich foods in one’s home before starting the fasting season of Lent. Then, following Fat Tuesday, more than a billion Western Christians begin fasting for the start of the season of Lent. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday in solemnity.

Did you know? Originally, Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, in French) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning “to confess.” 

MARDI GRAS: CARNE LEVARE VS. CARNIVAL

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival, while a customary eating of salted meat takes a literal meaning to the day in Iceland.

Pile of rounded donuts covered in powdered sugar

A variety of sweet breads, ranging from paczkis to pancakes to pastries, is traditionally baked for Fat Tuesday. Photo by freestocks.org, courtesy of Flickr

PANCAKES & RACES: Gorging on paczkis (pronounced pounch-keys) may be customary in the United States, but the custom of eating pancakes in the United Kingdom takes place on such a massive scale that the tradition has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” The most famous pancake race has been held annually since 1445 in Olney at Buckinghamshire. Legend has it that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of the time until she heard the church bells ringing for service, and she raced out of the house while still carrying her pan with pancakes. Today in Olney, contestants of the pancake race must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course; all participants are required to wear an apron and scarf. A church service always follows the races.

MARDI GRAS and CARNIVAL 2017: Parades and festivities start gearing up days before Fat Tuesday, and Mardi Gras New Orleans offers an in-depth look at the rich history behind this American party (along with parade routes, photos, a countdown and much more). Carnival in Venice—a more formal, period-era celebration than the parties in Rio and New Orleans—is thought to have been started in 1162, and today draws approximately 3 million visitors to Venice annually. (View a slideshow of Venetian festivities, here.) Staying home on Mardi Gras? Check out recipes for everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to king cake at Taste of Home and Southern Living.

ASH WEDNESDAY (& CLEAN MONDAY)

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although many churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan. Lent similarly marks 40 days—not counting Sundays.

CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent the same week as Western Christians, this year, and in 2017, February 27 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals. (Find a recipe for Lagana Bread, a traditional Greek Clean Monday favorite, here.)

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Categories: Christian

Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Feasts, festivals anticipate spring

Men in black cloaks, suits and hats, one holding a groundhog, gathering to look at a small paper scroll

Punxsutawney Phil and other Groundhog Day participants at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, though, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring. (And, this year, you can even raise a glass to Groundhog Day! That’s right—Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, now has his own namesake “Philsner”—er, pilsner.)

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, 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.

Ice cream and chocolate drizzle on top of a crepe

Crepes are common fare across Europe for Candlemas, and the dairy products that often top them are symbolic foods for Imbolc. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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, WOODLAND ANIMALS AND BRIGHID

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. In 2017, Phil will even be the namesake of a beer bottled in his honor: Punxsutawney Philsner, which is, according to handlers, already proving wildly successful. (Read more here.)

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