What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Inspired by King, Praying for Unity, and Celebrating Epiphany in Ethiopia


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(January 18 to 24, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, we begin by honoring a courageous peacemaker: Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Meanwhile, Christians launch a Week of Prayer
for Christian Unity on Monday, and on Tuesday, the Ethiopian Orthodox
Christian Church celebrates its most elaborate and important holiday of
the year: Epiphany. (Did you know that the Ethiopians claim to have the
real Ark of the Covenant? Read all about this great mystery below.
Also this week, Hindus lift up the value of learning on Vasant Panchami
and Catholics remember the young martyr St. Agnes. As the week comes to
a close, we reflect on the cultural influences of author George Orwell on the 60th anniversary of his death. Read all
about these events and observances below …

it’s the U.S. holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. Dr. King’s birthday actually is Jan. 15 (so, ReadTheSpirit also recognized
Dr. King’s birthday in last week’s column
), but
the national holiday was set on the third Monday of
January each year. Only three other historical figures are recognized
in the U.S. with their own federal holidays.
    Annual efforts to honor King sprang up around the country in the years after his assassination in 1968 and President Reagan authorized a holiday in the 1980s—but proposals for a full-scale federal holiday took years to build political support. (It should also be noted that this day wasn’t observed in
all 50 states until the year 2000
.) Initially, some argued that since
King had never held a public office, he wasn’t eligible for his own
holiday. However, a lot of cultural support translated eventually into votes. As examples: In 1980, Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday,” and later a collection of 6
million signatures was gathered in favor of Congress’ passage of the
holiday into law. Reports in 2006 called this effort the “largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.” (Wikipedia has more on the federal holiday.)
Today, all Americans are encouraged to work for social justice and peace—so
much so that this day has been coined the “Martin Luther King Jr. Day
of Service.” More information on volunteering can be found at MLKDay.gov and a learning guide for schools and organizations can also be found
here as well.
    Care to explore the larger connections with Dr. King’s teachings—stretching back to Gandhi, who influenced King, who influenced a peace activist in Burma? Check out these inspiring stories about each major link in that chain of peacemaking: Part 1 on Gandhi; Part 2 on King; and Part 3 on Aung San Suu Kyi.

Also on MONDAY,
many Christians mark a century of ecumenical efforts in this year’s Week of Prayer for
Christian Unity. One century ago, during the 1910 World Mission
Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, it’s generally regarded that the
beginnings of the modern Christian ecumenical movement were fostered. (Here is the official site, Edinburgh 2010.)
Although the official 100th anniversary of the Mission Conference won’t
be marked until June, the Week of Prayer focuses on the beginnings of
the ecumenical movement.
    Diversity has been present among
Christian devotees since the expansion of the ancient church into regions of the world that today are Europe, Africa and Asia. Although much of that 2,000-year-long history of geographic separation has been lost through the centuries, modern scholars like Philip Jenkins are helping to reclaim that “lost history.”
The theme for 2010 is “You Are Witnesses of These Things,” signifying that, despite the many separations in Christianity today, the branches of the faith all can be traced back to the resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the church. (The World Council of Churches has a good deal of information.
ALSO, the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute lists readings and more for 2010.)
The 2010 theme, decided upon by the Pontifical Council for Promoting
Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World
Council of Churches, emphasizes the idea that because of
Christians’ baptism in Christ, Christians are called to live in
    The Taize
Community (pictured above, at right), an ecumenical Christian monastic
order in France, encourages such belief among its young followers. Many young men from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions have
become a part of the Taize Community, and more than 100,000 young
people make a pilgrimage to Taize every year. (Here is Wikipedia’s explanation of Taize.)
Meetings that last multiple days are common in the Taize Community, and
the meetings often attract thousands of visitors under the age of 30. For those who cannot
visit personally, Podcasts are available on the Taize Web site.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate in rainbows of colors during Timkat, the most important day of
the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. As the Ethiopian festival of the
Epiphany, Timkat is observed by those native to the country as well as
Rastafarians. (This
page, from the Ethiopian Embassy, has more information about all
Ethiopian holidays with a large section devoted to Timkat.
) In this tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years, devotees honor the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
During the Timkat ceremonies, which last nearly three days, models of the
Ark of the Covenant are wrapped in cloth and placed atop the heads of
priests. (Frommer’s presents a guide to the Timkat festival here.)
This Ark model, known as the Tabot, is seen only by clergy and
is brought out for the public to see on Timkat—covered in cloth,
though, to protect it from the gaze of the “impious.”
    As the
priests march through town carrying the Tabot, children play games in the
street, women dress up and men sing slow, chanting melodies. The clergy
themselves are a sight to see in their brightly colored robes
and sequined, velvet umbrellas that starkly contrast the white dress of
the laypeople. In some cities, incense is released by priests and
bells are shaken.
    Crowds follow the priests to a small
body of water, where the priests pray throughout the night amid the
company of many laypeople who pray along, eat and drink by firelight. (Here is the page from Wikipedia.)
During the early morning hours, the Divine Liturgy is said and the
faithful are sprinkled with water from the blessed body of water (this
is seen as the most important part of the festival
). Some choose to
dive in and immerse themselves in the blessed waters, thus renewing
their baptismal vows. Following the baptismal rites, priests carry the
Tabot back to their churches. In Jan Meda, Ethiopia,
processional horses are dressed in red tassels, embroidered
saddlecloths and silver bridles. While marching, priests and laymen
beat staffs and prayer sticks to commemorate ancient rites of the Old
    What is Ethiopia’s strong connection with the Ark of the Covenant? The Ethiopian
Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion claims that it houses the actual, ancient Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopians believe that the Ark was brought to
Ethiopia by Minelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, around
the 9th century. (Get
an insider’s view by reading this article from the Smithsonian
Magazine, written by a pilgrim who journeyed to Ethiopia to explore this mystery.
) The authenticity of the Ark has been
impossible to determine, however, because only one person on Earth is
able to access the Ark at any given time. This sacred Ark guardian is
chosen for a lifelong term by the previous guardian.

Hindus dress in yellow and honor learning for Vasant Panchami, a
festival dedicated to the goddess Saraswati. Since many Hindus regard
Vasant Panchami as Saraswati’s birthday, it is common for families to emphasize early learning for infants—and for schools to hold special
events as an auspicious approach to the festival of the goddess of
learning, music and art. (Learn more at IndiaLife.)
Springtime is near, and Hindus celebrate in optimism while wearing
yellow clothing, exchanging yellow-tinted sweetmeats and draping
Saraswati figures in yellow, too. Alongside Saraswati, Kamadeva, the
god of love, is often worshipped, as are ancestors. Brahmins are
usually given gifts of food on Vasant Panchami as well. (BAPS.org, the site of a large Hindu socio-spiritual organization, offers lots of details.)
Many Hindus regard Saraswati as the consort of Lord Brahma, the
daughter of Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga and the mother of the Vedas.
An elegant air surrounds the beautiful image of Saraswati, who is
pictured as clad in a white sari, seated on a white lotus (or swan;
traditions vary) and holding sacred scriptures in one hand and a lotus
in another. (Find information on Wikipedia’s page for Vasant Panchami.)
The four hands of Saraswati represent the four aspects of human
personality in learning: mind, intellect, alertness and ego
(Saraswati’s other two hands play music of love and life on a veena).
Apart from educational aspects, many Hindu musicians like to perform
on Vasant Panchami. Some also believe that, with Saraswati’s grace,
ordinary people have been given the ability to compose poetry.
Since “Vasant” is translated to mean “spring,” and seasons traditionally are thought to have a
“gestation period” of 40 days, Hindus believe that spring begins 40
days after Vasant Panchami. Saraswati also has a presence in Buddhist

it’s the Feast of St. Agnes for Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians
and various other sects of Christian believers. Martyred at the young
age of 13, St. Agnes lived during the reign of Diocletian and was put
to death when she insisted that God was her only spouse. (A full biography is at Catholic.org.)
Accounts vary surrounding the life of St. Agnes, but many hold that she
was a beautiful Roman girl who made a promise to God to remain pure.
When young men asked for her hand in marriage, she would reply, “Jesus
Christ is my only spouse.” Finally, the governor’s son asked her, and
she refused him, too. In anger, the governor (or his son; accounts vary)
sent her to a Roman brothel, where tradition has it that any man who
attempted to touch her was blinded.
    Regarded by the Pagans as
a Christian witch, St. Agnes was put to death by sword and it is
believed that St. Agnes prayed to God and spoke at that time, once
again, of Christ as her spouse. Traditions vary surrounding the event of
Agnes’ death, and some accounts state that those who tried to burn her
at a stake caught fire themselves. (Years later, Poet John Keats was
inspired by this young martyr and composed a poem, “The Eve of St.
Agnes.” Read it here.)
Not surprisingly, St. Agnes is the patron saint of chastity and girls.
Today, Agnes’ bones are held at the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura
in Rome, above her tomb.

Also on THURSDAY, it’s
been 60 years since the death of Eric Arthur Blair (pen name: George
Orwell.) If you’re one of the millions who has read about Big Brother,
the Thought Police and doublethink in Blair’s famous “Nineteen
Eighty-Four,” or about Napoleon, Boxer and Moses in “Animal Farm,” take
some time today to consider this author’s cultural criticism and
widespread influence. (The BBC has an in-depth page devoted to this English author.)
Eric Blair, born in 1903, was an English author and journalist who
wrote often about social injustice and warned of the dangers of
totalitarianism. His masterpiece was his darkly prophetic novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which was written in 1948. Today, many of Orwell’s made-up words and
phrases have been entered into the English language. (Wikipedia offers more information.)
    Blair was a self-professed atheist for much of his life. Among his more acid comments about faith: “As with
the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its
adherents.” However, Blair had a complex relationship with faith and was married according to the rites of the
Church of England, asked that he be buried according to the rites of
the Church of England and baptized his adopted son, Richard. (Here
Peter Davison, a professor and researcher who has studied and written
about Blair for decades, writes an essay on his religion and
ethical values.
    Still, Blair seemed to have difficulty
believing that man could simultaneously succeed in this world and be a
conductor of God’s works. Moreover, Blair believed in the good of
mankind and that, as opposed to focusing on an afterlife, people should
focus on life today. (So,
you really want to get inside the head of this guy? Check out The
Orwell Diaries, a site that lists his daily diary entry for the current
) In his final work, “Reflections on Gandhi,” Blair wrote that
“our job is to make life worth living on this Earth, which is the only
Earth we have.”


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