What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’is have holidays including humor of Purim

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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(February 22 to 28, 2010)
By Stephanie Fenton

Our Lent Things We Carry David Crumm THIS WEEK, Christians and Jews engage in ancient observances. There’s also a 10-year anniversary this week of an interfaith milestone at Mt. Sinai. (Remember what that was back in 2000?) Among this week’s holidays and seasons are: Lent, Purim and the Fast of Esther. Also this week, Baha’is begin to mark intercalary days in Ayyam-i-Ha, and on
Thursday at sundown, many Muslims commemorate the birth of Muhammad.
Read all about these events and observances below …

ALL WEEK, Lent continues for 2 billion Christians around the world. We’re publishing a FREE daily Lenten series, called “Our Lent: Things We Carry,” for the 40 days leading to Easter.
    ALSO, we’re expanding our Lenten Resources Page—with suggestions readers are Emailing us at [email protected]

Scroll THURSDAY, Jews
observe the Fast of Esther—a memorial fast first declared by a woman
who hid her identity in a royal court some 2,500 years ago. (The photo at left is of the Scroll of Esther, from a Jewish museum in Hungary.) This is a minor fast, which means that Jews can work, for example. But, the observance recalls a major figure in Jewish history. (Find out more at the Jewish Virtual Library.)
    From dawn until dusk today, Jews remember Queen Esther, a monarch of
ancient Persia who played a key role in saving the Jews within that kingdom.
(A general description is at Wikipedia.)
   
In the 5th century BCE, King Ahasuerus of Persia was approached by his
royal vizier, Haman, and asked that a Final Solution be permitted to
rid Persia of its Jews. Queen Esther had kept her own Jewish identity a secret
thus far—but when she heard of this mortal threat to the Jewish people, she dared to approach
the king and revealed her religious identity. (My Jewish Learning has an in-depth description.)
    This act of bravery could have resulted in her death, had
the king not favored her daring move. But, Queen Esther’s actions resulted in the preservation and mobilization of Jews of Persia. Jewish vitories are observed later this week in Purim. Today, Jews focus on what Queen Esther did before she
approached the king: She asked people to fast with her. (Learn more about the Fast from Chabad.org.)
    Down through history, Esther has been an inspirational figure to oppressed Jewish communities in many eras and lands. For example, she was recalled especially by Spanish Jews, when they were facing lethal persecution. (Read an in-depth article about Spain’s “Hidden Jews” on Aish.com, the world’s largest Jewish-content Web site).

Muhammad THURSDAY at SUNDOWN, some Sunni Muslims
recognize Mawlid an-Nabi, the birth of Prophet Muhammad. (Shi’a Muslims
honor Mawlid an-Nabi next week, on March 3). Since Muhammad asked that
his followers not celebrate his birthday as elaborately as Christians
celebrate Christmas, many observant Muslims don’t
recognize this day at all. However, a growing number of
Muslims—including those of the Sufi, or mystical, movement with
Islam—joyously observe this day. (Click Here to download a PDF on Mawlid an-Nabi by Dr. Sulayman Nyang, chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University.)
   
Mawlid an-Nabi was first observed in the 8th
century at Mecca, when Muhammad’s house was reconstructed into a place
of prayer. In its earliest days, Mawlid an-Nabi was a time for Shi’a
processions by firelight, feasts and public sermons.
Sunnis, on the other hand, didn’t recognize Mawlid until the 12th
century, when it began to entail month-long festivals. (Find more at Wikipedia.)
Today, Mawlid is a public holiday in most Muslim countries and, while
the parties have become less elaborate, places like India and Pakistan
are still known for their jubilant Mawlid celebrations.
    During
his life, Muhammad made a noteworthy transformation: When he was born,
his father was already dead, and when he was 6, his mother died. (PBS has a wonderful, multimedia site dedicated to Muhammad.)
When Muhammad was taken in by an uncle, he began learning business
practices to assist with the household income. It is said that Muhammad
was nicknamed “El-Amin” by other merchants he encountered during trips
with his uncle, meaning “The one you can trust.”
    It wasn’t until
the age of 40 that Muhammad experienced his first Divine vision. From
age 40 until the day of his death, Muhammad experienced holy visions and established a
religion that, today, has 1.2 billion followers.

Present Also on THURSDAY at SUNDOWN, Baha’is
joyously celebrate Ayyam-i-Ha, a holiday similar to Christmas or even
Hanukkah: A time of gift-giving, lighting candles, being with family
and friends and feasting. (This humorous article, from Bahai.us, illustrates Baha’is’ difficulty explaining this “late Christmas” to family and friends.)
    Ayyam-i-Ha, or “Days of Ha,” runs through March 1 and is a period of
intercalary “extra” days in the Baha’i calendar that allow Baha’is to
synchronize their calendar with the Gregorian solar calendar. (“Ha” is
an Arabic letter that has been used to symbolize the “essence of God”
in Baha’i holy writings. Because these days are not officially on the
calendar, they are thought of as outside of time—days that symbolize
eternity and the mystery that is the essence of God.)
    The Baha’i
calendar was placed by two central figures in the Baha’i faith,
Baha’u’llah and the Bab. This calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days
each. Ayyam-i-Ha is also a time of preparation for the annual Baha’i
Fast, which precedes the Baha’i New Year and the first day of spring. (More is at Wikipedia’s page.)
    Many Baha’is spend these days celebrating
God’s oneness—a core belief of the Baha’i faith—by expressing their love and
giving gifts to others, donating to charities and attending social gatherings.
(Here are some Baha’i prayers for Intercalary Days.)
   
It is recorded that Baha’u’llah said of Ayyam-i-Ha: “It behoveth the
people of Baha, throughout these days, to provide good cheer for
themselves, their kindred and, beyond them, the poor and needy, and
with joy and exaltation to hail and glorify their Lord, to sing His
praise and magnify His name.”

Mt. Sinai FRIDAY, it’s
the 10th anniversary of an interfaith peace effort by Pope John Paul
II—a visit to Israel and, more specifically on this day, to Mt. Sinai.
(If you’re interested in the interfaith dimensions of this historic trip, here’s a downloadable PDF by Rabbi Leon Klenicki provided by the Anti-Defamation League aout this “Pilgrimage of Prayer, Hope and Reconciliation.”)
    In 2000, Pope John Paul II traveled to the Middle East on a pilgrimage
that marked for Christians the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus and the start of the “Third Millennium.” (This was the
first papal journey to Egypt in history.) On this trip, Pope John Paul
II again called for strengthening Jewish-Christian dialogue and
remarked on the universal Abrahamic history of Judaism, Christianity
and Islam. (CNN ran an article on the Pope’s journey.)
   
John Paul II spoke throughout his life about the close relationship between Judaism and Christianity. He grew up in a Polish town where he witnessed Jewish children and their families vanish into the Holocaust—and he bore a life-long sense of responsibility for the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. In Jerusalem in 2000, the pontiff placed a message in the Western Wall, following Jewish traditions of prayer. In his message, he
expressed remorse for Jewish suffering caused by Christians. (He also
apologized for Christian acts toward Muslims during the Crusades on
this peacemaking trip. More is in an article published by the New York Times.)

Purim mask SATURDAY at SUNDOWN, Jews
begin the festive celebration of Purim, a day that commemorates
the Jewish victory in ancient Persia when a plot had been devised for their destruction according to the biblical Book of Esther. (Learn Purim customs, history, celebratory ideas and more at Chabad.org.)
    According to tradition, Haman—an advisor to King Ahasuerus—formulated a
plot to rid the Persian Empire of its Jews, but the plot was eliminated
when Queen Esther spoke up on behalf of her people. (Read more at Judaism 101.)
   
Historical accounts state that Jewish exiles from the Kingdom of Judah
had been living under Babylonian captivity, until Babylonia was
conquered by the Persian Empire. Vizier Haman hated Jewish people,
primarily because Mordecai, a Jewish royal official, refused to bow to
King Ahasuerus and would only bow to G-d. When Haman’s plan became
known, Queen Esther—a Jew herself and a relative of Mordecai—risked her life by asking her powerful husband not to go through with the plan of destruction. (In-depth details are at Jewish Virtual Library.)
King Ahasuerus agreed with Esther, placed Mordecai in Haman’s advisory
position and hung Haman on the gallows meant for Mordecai. In addition,
King Ahasuerus granted Jews the right to defend themselves against
enemies, in effect granting the Jews their lives.
    On this joyous
celebration of victory, Jews often wear masks and
costumes and feast. In its high spirits and revelry, some have compared the spirit of Purim festivities to those of Mardi Gras or Halloween. Observant Jews also may donate to charities on this occasion—and listen to lively recitations of the Book of Esther. 
It’s customary for listeners to boo, hiss, stamp their feet and shake
noisemakers when the name “Haman” is mentioned during the reading of
the story. And in merriment, the Talmud requires devotees to drink
until they cannot tell the difference between “cursed by Haman” and
“blessed be Mordecai!” (Wikipedia has an overview on its site of Purim.)
   
Colorful carnivals, performances of plays and parodies and general
happiness can always be found during Purim. Try out a traditional
recipe known as Hamantashen (“Haman’s pockets”) to join in the fun!

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