What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Holocaust remembrance, St. Thomas Aquinas, a Buddhist New Year and trees


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(January 25 to 31, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, Christians begin by recalling the dramatic Conversion of St. Paul,
and the world pauses to remember the victims of The Holocaust (and
determines what can be done to keep this type of genocide from
happening again). Later in the week, Christians and philosophers alike
consider the theories of St. Thomas Aquinas, while Buddhists of the
Mahayana tradition look forward to a new year. Jews celebrate their own
New Year for Trees on Tu B’shvat (hence the photo of the blossoming tree, above),
and on Sunday, we look at a significant anniversary for an
international food phenomenon: McDonald’s! Read all about these events
and observances below …

MONDAY, millions of Eastern and Western Christians observe the Conversion of St. Paul, or Saul of Tarsus. (Read more at AmericanCatholic.org.)
According to Christian tradition, St. Paul’s conversion was dramatic,
because he had been a violent opponent of Christianity until that
moment when a blinding light stopped him in his tracks. Afterward,
traditional accounts say, Paul became a hugely influential Christian

    However, Paul’s life is the subject of heated debate today among scholars. For
a dramatically different interpretation of Paul’s life, read our
interview with Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
Or, for yet another interpretation, read our interview with Bible scholar Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum. Both theories of his life are outlined in important new books—one by the Crossan-Borg team and one by Eisenbaum.
Interestingly, the year was 36 CE when Paul experienced his revelation
of Jesus—long after Jesus’ death. Paul was convinced his overwhelming
experience along the road was a real visitation by Jesus and, after
that experience, Paul called himself an apostle. Even though
Crossan-Borg are skeptical about the literal truth of many biblical
claims, they do believe Paul was, indeed, convinced he had witnessed
Jesus’ presence.
    Many works of art depict St. Paul with perhaps
the best known produced by Caravaggio, who originally painted a few
pieces depicting St. Paul for Pope Clement VIII. You may not know,
though, that Clement’s Treasurer-General, Tiberio Cerasi, rejected
these works. (Find out more on Wikipedia’s page.)

WEDNESDAY, it’s the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

    This may be confusing if you’re more familiar with Yom HaShoah,
which falls in April with solemn programs hosted by Jewish
communities nationwide. Inaugurated in 1951 in Israel, the U.S.
Congress also marks this April observance with “Days of Remembrance.”

    In 2005, to promote remembrance globally, January 27 was set as by
the United Nations as “International Holocaust Remembrance Day.” The
date was selected to recall the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau
death camp in 1945 by Soviet troops.

    This year, approximately 200 members of the European Parliament
will take part in the ceremonies at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The 65th
anniversary of this death camp’s liberation calls to mind the more than
1 million Jews who were murdered there. (Read more about this camp, as well as about commemorative events this year, in this article from the European Jewish Press.)
In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared that Jan. 27 is “a
day on which we must reassert our commitment to human rights. … We
must go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know
this history.”

    Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan even pointed out that the UN
was built largely “on the ashes of the Holocaust,” and that “events
coordinated in remembrance of The Holocaust, against modern genocide
and in favor of human rights are not in vain.” 
    On this day,
Israeli President Shimon Peres will address the German Parliament, and
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel will appear before the Italian Chamber of
Deputies in Rome; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit
the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. (The full article is courtesy of JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People.)

    As historian Simon Dubnow reportedly shouted to remaining Jews as
he was being taken to be killed on Dec. 8, 1941: “Jews, write it down!”
(Read more at Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.)
And they did, as did others. As expressed by Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory
University historian who has written largely on the Holocaust: “One
hopes that there is attention in a deeper way: to examine how this
emerged and happened, while the world stood silently by.”

Christians honor the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian
well-known throughout the Western world and a “Doctor of the Church.” St.
Thomas Aquinas is the Patron Saint of universities and students. James Joyce called him “second only to Aristotle among
Western philosophers.” He is seen as an ideal role model for those
entering the priesthood. (Read all about St. Thomas on the Global Catholic Network.)
St. Thomas Aquinas faced opposition when he
proclaimed his devotion to his life’s path—in this case, to the
Dominican Order. (Here is Wikipedia’s page on St. Thomas.)
When he was 5, his parents sent him to a monastery, where he
impressed his teachers with quick learning. However, when young Thomas
told his family of his desired vocation, they desperately tried for two years
to change his mind by locking him in a castle, sending temptations to
him and more. Nevertheless, St. Thomas kept focus.
becoming a priest, St. Thomas taught at universities across
Europe, penned more than 40 books—and wrote hymns as well.
Many philosophers still debate his
theories on ethics, politics and natural law.
    Yet even this influential
philosopher was blown away by the very thing he wrote about for so
long: Near the end of his life, St. Thomas had a vision of Heaven and
halted his writings. According to St. Thomas, his writing was “like
straw” when compared to the glory of God.

it’s the first full moon day in January—so Buddhists of the
Mahayana tradition celebrate a New Year. As
during most Buddhist festivals, devotees like to visit temples, offer
food to monks and the poor, meditate and partake in a feast. (Here is a passage from Buddhanet on Buddhist festivals.)
In the countries where Mahayana Buddhism is most prevalent—such as
China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Tibet—the faithful often reflect
upon the past year (taking karma into account) and cleanse themselves
for the new year. Zen monks can often be found reading volumes of
Mahayana sutras in public places, and by doing so, “sending out
cleansing sound waves” for the benefit of all.
    Mahayana Buddhists differ from Theravadins, another major branch of Buddhism, in that they emphasize the ancient writings known as the Mahayana sutras. (Wikipedia gives a thorough explanation of the Mahayana tradition.)

plant a tree for Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. In Israel,
the wild almond tree flowers during Tu B’shvat each year (as do the
other early-fruit-bearing trees), and it is customary for Jews to
eat dried fruits and nuts. (Here is more from Torah.org.)
Particularly, Jews snack on figs, carobs, raisins, dates, pomegranates
and almonds on Tu B’shvat, and some feast on a fruit-filled dinner. (Judaism 101 offers a general, easy-to-understand explanation. Or, here are some fantastic recipes for your own fruit-filled meal.)
Today, on Tu
B’shvat, many Jewish organizations promote environmental awareness.
    It’s customary on Tu B’shvat to calculate the age of trees. (If you’re looking for a way to explain this holiday to children, visit TorahForTots.)
According to the Torah, Israel’s fruit trees may not be eaten during
the first four years following planting; the first three years are
forbidden, and the fourth year is for G-d. (Chabad.org has more on the theories behind this day, customs, etc.)  No matter when a tree was planted during the year, Jews consider it to have aged one year on Tu B’shvat.

it’s been 20 years since McDonald’s opened its busiest location in
the world—in Moscow, Russia. After 14 years of debating with Soviet
bureaucrats over material usage, teaching Soviet farmers how to harvest
fitting produce and training Soviet cattle farmers in raising leaner
beef, McDonald’s opened up with seats for 700 diners (the most of any
in its chain) and the ability to serve up to 15,000 customers per day.
For the first time, Soviets had a chance to experience American-style fast food.
Just before McDonald’s opened its location in Pushkin Square, 27,000
Soviets applied for the 605 available positions at the Golden
Arches. While most Americans won’t get rich “flipping burgers,” the
Soviet Union had a very different situation; according to an article in Time Magazine,
a dairy manager reported earning almost twice the income per month at
McDonald’s than he had earned while working at a scientific institute. (Read
more about how McDonald’s has impacted the economy in Russia, and how it
compares to other big international chains in this article from the New
York Times.
    Although the McDonald’s menu in Russia varies
little from that of the U.S., the international sprawl has led the
fast-food giant into various cultural and religious conflicts over the years. (Just for fun, compare the price of a hamburger in different countries in this article from Business Management Magazine.)
    Do you have any McDonald’s experiences—good or bad—to share?


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