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

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

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe: A peasant, an apparition and a tilma miracle

Front of cathedral with pillars and painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The interior of the Colima Cathedral, in Mexico. Note: The Colima Cathedral was the first Catholic church in Latin America to be consecrated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, though it does not house the tilma of Juan Diego and is not the famed Catholic pilgrimage site. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12: Catholic accounts state that on the morning of Dec. 9, 1531, the peasant Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City: today, the series of miracles that followed are recalled on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

On Dec. 12, 1531—three days after the first apparition sighting—Juan Diego opened his cloak before a local bishop, and an image of Our Lady that is still vivid today was imprinted inside. The apparitions seen by Juan Diego bridged a gap between the natives’ belief systems and the Catholic religion, and in centuries since, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been cherished across Mexico and in parts of Latin America.

THE APPARITION & THE TILMA

According to Catholic tradition: On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to Mass. While walking, Juan Diego spotted a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac; the girl spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, and asked that a church be built at the site, in her honor. Based on her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary.

Did you know? Peasant Juan Diego was canonized in 2002.

People in white on their knees in middle of cemented area with picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their shirts

Pilgrims at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City. Each year on or before December 12, pilgrims arrive—some even crawl on their knees for miles as they approach the basilica. Photo by Geraint Rowland, courtesy of Flickr

When Juan Diego approached Spanish Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumarraga, the archbishop asked for proof of the apparition’s identity. The apparition then instructed Juan Diego to gather out-of-season Castilian roses from a hilltop, and to revisit the archbishop. Juan Diego opened his cloak before the archbishop, letting the roses fall to the floor—and there, on the inside of the tilma (cloak), was an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

According to Catholic sources, several miracles have been associated with Juan Diego’s tilma through the centuries, including the tilma itself: with its construction of coarse cactus fiber, the tilma should have degraded hundreds of years ago. The colors forming the image of Our Lady are as yet unidentified, and in 1951, photographers discovered reflections in the Virgin’s eyes that identify the individuals present at Juan Diego’s unveiling. Studies have revealed that the stars in Mary’s mantle match what would have been seen in the Mexican sky in December of 1531.

MILLIONS FLOCK TO PILGRIMAGE SITE

The Virgin Mary has been deemed the “Queen of Mexico,” and in 1945, Pope Pius XII declared her the the Empress of all the Americas. Currently, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (grounds shown, at right) competes for the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world.

A MEXICAN MENU, GUADALUPE HYMNS AND MORE

Catholics everywhere can honor Our Lady of Guadalupe with a novena, or with a Mexican dinner in honor of Juan Diego and the basilica. (Find easy recipes and decoration ideas at Catholic Cuisine, and a recipe for Mexican lentil soup at The Catholic Foodie. For novenas and more, visit CatholicCulture.org.) Beef broth, flan, Mexican bread pudding and mole poblano—finished with café con leche—could all contribute to a dinner feast for the occasion.

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Categories: ChristianInternational Observances

St. Nicholas Day: Children around the world welcome the legendary saint of Myra

White horse carrying man in red robes with white beard, two people guide horse in front

St. Nicholas arrives on horseback, flanked by Black Peter. Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6: The white-bearded man in the red suit may travel by reindeer in the West, but today, Sinterklaas, or San Nicola, arrives across Europe on horseback—for St. Nicholas Day. For European children, St. Nicholas Day brings hope of sweets, small toys and surprises, as the fourth-century saint makes his rounds with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). For Christian families, the excitement and gifts of St. Nicholas Day can better prepare children for focus on the Nativity on Christmas Day.

Advent season: For more than a billion Western Christians, Advent begins before St. Nicholas day. (The first Advent Sunday is December 2 in 2018.)

Nativity Fast: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the 40-day fasting period known as Nativity Fast lasts through December 24.

NICHOLAS: A BISHOP BECOMES A LEGEND

The historical St. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. When orphaned at a young age, Nicholas followed the words of Jesus and sold his inheritance, giving the profits to the poor. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.) The generous young man devoted his life to God and was soon made bishop of Myra, where his reputation for compassion continued. Despite imprisonment and persecution during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas unwaveringly continued his servitude toward others .

Stories of his works and deeds spread throughout the land, and some of those stories are still told on St. Nicholas Day today. In 343 CE, St. Nicholas died in Myra. A relic, known as manna, formed on his grave, and the substance was believed to have healing properties.

NIKOLAOS THE WONDERWORKER & EUROPEAN TRADITIONS

In the many countries that observe St. Nicholas Day—the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and more—the day is met with special baked goods, processions and reenactments of wonderful stories from the life of St. Nicholas. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in France, the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) fills kitchens and bakeries. St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint in Serbia. Throughout Europe, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5, to be filled with either treats or coal by the passing St. Nicholas and his sidekick companion, Zwarte Piet.

RESOURCES: ST. NICHOLAS CENTER OFFERS ACTIVITIES, RECIPES & MORE

This year, the nonprofit St. Nicholas Center has expanded its free printables, stories, handmade gifts and more with 49 new features: a video to introduce St. Nicholas, intended for St. Nicholas events and a handout on The Real Santa (with an Eastern image, too) are just a few of the features. Visitors to the site can find printable candy bar wrappers, paper bag puppets, cookies and even a religious devotional for churches—all with the intention of spreading the story of the life of the famed bishop of Myra.

Learn about the life of St. Nicholas, here. For children, check out this page.

Bake Speculaas cookies, gluten-free Speculoos and Ukrainian Christmas Honey Cookies, with recipes here.

Get creative with craft ideas and directions, here.

Access St. Nicholas Day blessings and other faith-based resources, here.

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Categories: Christian

Advent: Christians enter season of anticipation, hope

Purple candle lit, sitting in evergreen wreath with other candles

An Advent wreath with one candle lit, representing the first Sunday of Advent. Photo by Stephen Little, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2: The season of Advent begins today for over a billion Western Christians, as the church enters a new liturgical year and begins the season whose lighted wreaths and prayers anticipate the birth of Jesus.

On each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas, Christians light a new candle on the Advent wreath: three purple, and one rose-colored one. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and in some churches, a white pillar candle in the middle of the wreath is lit in Christmas Eve. (Note: In Protestant churches, Advent candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, they are typically blue.) Many congregations are draped in purple or blue, symbolizing hope and repentance. During Advent, Christians look to both Christ’s ancient birth and the Second Coming.

Note: Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—a strict, 40-day fast leading to the Nativity—on November 15.

Advent calendars have rapidly been gaining popularity in recent years, even amongst secular Christmas celebrants: Star Wars, candy-filled and even LEGO Advent calendars are filling store shelves in 2015. Still, traditionally faithful families may fashion their own Advent wreaths of evergreens and candles. Jesse Trees, used in many churches to provide necessary items for the needy during the season, have also been steadily gaining popularity.

Interested in making a DIY Advent wreath? Find information on making a base, candle-holders, greens and more at Catholic Culture.

Blessings for the Advent wreath can be found at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Categories: Christian

Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: It’s Halloween!

Lit-up lanterns with designs, pumpkin, Halloween themes

Photo courtesy of GoodFreePhotos

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31-FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids. So grab your best ghoulish mask and get the (Halloween) party started!

HALLOWEEN: A CHRISTIAN ORIGIN; A CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Girl in dress at door of woman in mask, pumpkins, Halloween

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture. Recent estimates are that the very diverse American business of “haunted attractions” brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the commercial elements of Halloween have spread from North America to Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and parts of East Asia.

SAMHAIN: GUISING FOR A TRICK

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

Woman looking at camera with face paint, man at side, Dia de los Muertos skeleton

Dressed for a Dia de los Muertos festival, Los Angeles. Photo by Rob Sheridan, courtesy of Flickr

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: DAY OF THE DEAD

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

ALL THINGS HALLOWEEN:
DIY COSTUMES, DÉCOR, PARTIES & MORE

What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

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Categories: International Observances