What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Imbolc, Candlemas and Groundhogs, plus 4 Heroic Chaplains and Meatfare


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(February 1 to 7, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, Christians around the world wrap up their celebration of the Nativity of Jesus—even as Orthodox Christians begin serious preparation for their fast of Great Lent, focusing on the other end of Jesus’ life. That’s why we’ve got that juicy cheeseburger at the top of our column today—read more about “Meatfare Sunday” below. Plus, this week, we’ve got details about Imbolc, Groundhog Day and the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains.

MONDAY and TUESDAY, we wish our Gaelic and Pagan readers Happy Imbolc—or Happy Lughnasadh if you’re living now in the Southern Hemisphere! And we know from two years of marking spiritual seasons that we’ve got Gaelic and Pagan readers in Northern and Southern Hemispheres among our diverse and growing readership!
    Two years ago, a reader recommended what may be the only major feature film marking these holidays: “Dancing in Lughnasadh,” starring Meryl Streep. The drama features some outstanding acting and evokes village life in a powerful way, even if it has a very bleak ending. We mention it, this week, because Meryl Streep is so popular again—and was even recommended for sainthood last week by author Barbara Brown Taylor.
    Why do we say Monday OR Tuesday? The official date is February 1, according to most sources, but news reports indicate that groups mark these observances “around” February 1 and some will fall on Tuesday.
    So, how’s that for a round-about tribute to changing seasons, dancing cultures and ongoing spiritual wisdom?   

TUESDAY, more than 1 billion Christians around the world mark Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. This is one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions with some Candlemas sermons handed down to us from more than 1,600 years ago. Fourth-century sources say it was observed in Jerusalem in Constantine’s basilica.
    The older name, a popularized version of “Candle Mass,” literally refers to the practice of blessing candles that would be used throughout the coming year. The holiday falls 40 days after Christmas and often is regarded as the end of one annual cycle of feasts—with the annual rebirth of Easter looming on the horizon.
    Vatican II renamed the feast day to more properly describe the gospel story at the end of Luke’s second chapter, the event celebrated on this day. That event is one of the most poignant—and overlooked—in the Bible, according to Iona hymn writer John Bell. We featured an earlier interview with Bell, discussing his new book, “10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus”—and this is one of them, Bell argues. We tend to think of the Nativity stories as “Christmas stories for children,” when in fact they are powerful inspirational stories about old age, Bell argues. During the Presentation feast, Christians recall how two elderly people—Simeon and Anna—had their lives fulfilled by glimpsing the infant Jesus and recognizing his spiritual power. (The image at right is a detail from a Russian icon of the Presentation.)

ALSO TUESDAY, Americans will learn what furry forecasters predict on this year’s Groundhog Day! (Netflicks and Blockbuster experience an annual run on the Bill Murray comedy.) The traditional claim here is that, on February 2, a groundhog may be scared by its own shadow and retreat into its burrow—signaling 6 more weeks of winter. Or, if the furry fellow doesn’t see that scary shadow, then winter might be ending soon!
    Seriously, though, there’s a link between Candlemas and Groundhog Day, historians argue. Wikipedia details some of those historical connections.
    Here’s a link to the world-famous Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. However, lots of local communities now boast competitors. Wildlife centers in many parts of the U.S. now open up a new season with a groundhog event of some kind. Down in Louisiana, there’s now Pierre C. Shadeaux (Get it? C. Shadeaux? Right.). The Daily Iberian, which serves that neck of the woods in Louisiana, calls him the Cajun Groundhog.
    Scared of this growing shadow yet? We hope not!

WEDNESDAY is the anniversary of the sacrifice—and heroic interfaith example—of the Four Chaplains who gave up their lives during World War II aboard a torpedoed ship. We know that ReadTheSpirit readers are interested in this story, because we’ve received February Emails in recent years about this inspiring story.
    The four were clergy serving the U.S. Army aboard the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, when it was torpedoed with 900 men on board. Two were Protestant; one was Catholic; one was Jewish. The four managed to reach the deck quickly and worked to calm the frenzied soldiers as they passed out life vests. However, the ship sank quickly, the stock of life vests ran out—and the four chaplains handed over their own vests to save lives. They were last seen on the deck, praying in their individual traditions.
    Here’s an important tip this year: Check with local veterans’ groups in your part of the country. Various veterans’ groups—and churches with veterans among their members—do hold annual memorial servies. In fact, interfaith calendars list a Four Chaplains Sunday as February 7 this year. However, news reports indicate that some groups and parishes already remembered the four on Sunday, January 31. Others will gather on February 3, the actual anniversary of the 1943 event. So, check with local groups if you care to observe the date. This Wikipedia page tells the whole story and lists some of the key memorial sites across the country.
    If this story moves you—and it certainly stirs most of us—then you might make a special effort this week to think of the thousands of chaplains currently serving Americans. Where can you find out more? This portal for the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplains Board provides links to other resources, including the key Department of Defense directive about “accommodation of religious practices” and the Web sites of other chaplaincy organizations. There are individual pages for groups like the Army Chaplaincy Corps. Here’s a link to ChaplainCare, an official U.S. Navy Web site related to Naval Chaplains.

SUNDAY is “Meatfare Sunday” in Orthodox Christian communities. Most American Christians are Roman Catholic and Protestant, so we’re not as familiar with the observance—but this is one of those fascinating worldwide cultural connections that unites millions of Eastern Christians wherever they live today.
    This week, for example, ReadTheSpirit will publish a special report from Georgia (in the former Soviet Union) where English-language newspapers already are reminding Georgian Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, that the Great Lent fast is coming soon. So, there’s one last day (Sunday) to enjoy meat for these Christians! (Of course, remember that Orthodox calendars do vary around the world.)
    We don’t mean to make these customs seem too exotic. In fact, they’re the beloved taste of home for lots of Americans! Here’s an example: In Scranton, Pennsylvania, St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is hosting it’s annual “Pork and Kapusta-Sauerkraut Dinner” on Sunday! (Kapusta is a form of sauerkraut, often mixed with onions or mushrooms.) What a way to start a fast!
    Of course, the whole point of these customs is focusing Christians on Lent, the preparatory season that leads them to Easter. Orthodox call this Great Lent and here’s the Wikipedia overview, which is jammed with facts and links. If you’d care to jump right to the Greek Orthodox hub for Great Lent, you can follow along with the religious milestones as they unfold this year.


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