What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Mysteries of Pompeii, Jains’ Samvatsari, baseball, John the Baptist—and more


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(August 24 to 30, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, Jains ask forgiveness of all whom they have harmed on the holiest day in their calendar, while Parsi
Zoroastrians celebrate the birthday of Zarathustra. Later in the week,
millions honor the man who baptized Jesus and Egyptians toast a new
year. Monday is the anniversary of an ancient volcanic eruption
that many believe contained some of the earliest evidence of practicing
Christians, and baseball fans debate whether “Faith Nights” should
blend religion and baseball. Read all about these observances and
happenings …

MONDAY, it’s the anniversary of the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD,
a volcanic natural disaster that engulfed the cities of Pompeii and
Herculaneum in ash and lava. To date, Pompeii remains one of the most
popular attractions in Italy because of this event. A hot debate
surrounds these two ancient cities, as historians, archaeologists,
scientists and religious figures debate some of the possible earliest
evidence of practicing Christians.
    The morning of August 24
started out like any other in Pompeii. Around noon, a catastrophic
billow of smoke erupted miles into the air above Mount Vesuvius,
followed by a shooting rainfall of earth, ash and debris. Lava that
reached somewhere between 400 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit began spewing
down the sides of the mountain, leading citizens to believe the end of
the world had come.
    How many people died as a result of this
eruption? That’s unknown, but approximately 1,150 bodies or body casts
have been found in and around Pompeii. Approximately 350 were found at
nearby Herculaneum, although scientists believe the actual number of
fatalities was much higher. (In 1855, a writer for the New York Times climbed Mount Vesuvius. Read his firsthand account here in a PDF you can download.)
Herculaneum was buried under 75 feet of deposits, and the perfect
preservation of bodies, wall inscriptions, tableware, tools, altars and
more have helped archaeologists to uncover truths about this ancient
culture, frozen in time.
    The official state religion of Pompeii
was one that honored Olympic gods, and multiple deities were often
praised. Cults shrouded in mystery also gained popularity, and
historians wonder if Christianity, in its earliest form, was one of
these “cults.” Lyn Goldfarb, executive director and producer of PBS
documentary “The Roman Empire: In the First Century,” argues that
studying the history of Christianity and Judaism necessitates an
in-depth study of the early Roman Empire. Read the full interview here.
    The first piece of Christian mystery was found in Pompeii. Scratched into a wall is a square of five mirrored words,
taken through the centuries to represent the five wounds of Christ and
the five nails of the cross. This mysterious square is known as the Rotas-Sator Square (the
photo above contains a replica of the square). Here’s one
interpretation: When taken apart, the letters of this square spell out
the words “Our Father”
in Latin, forming the sign of the cross and beginning with an “A” for
Alpha, and an “O” for Omega. Is this a coincidence, something else
entirely, or an ancient cryptogram? What do you think?
    The second mysterious possible link to early Christendom was a wooden cross hung on a wall in Herculaneum.
This find is particularly significant because the cross did not become
a popular Christian symbol until the era of Constantine. A piece of
furniture stands below the cross, and while some argue that it was an
altar, others believe it to be nothing other than a common piece of
household furniture.

    We may never solve all of he puzzles of Pompeii, but a wise response appeared in a recent article on Pompeii in USA Today: “It would be a sad day if all the questions were answered, wouldn’t it?”

Also on MONDAY, Jains devote the day to fasting and prayer for Samvatsari,
the holiest day of their year. As Samvatsari is the last day of
Paryushana, the eight-day festival of self-reflection and forgiveness,
many Jains partake of a brief retreat. This Samvatsari retreat is the
epitome of forgiveness; the faithful use these hours to contact friends
and relatives whom they have treated negatively—knowingly or not—over
the past year. 
    According to Jain tradition, no harsh feelings or arguments may exist after Samvatsari.
    Although Paryushana
ends today for most Jains, the atmosphere of the festival does not:
Jains believe that self-reflection and forgiveness continue throughout
the year.
    Paryushana is celebrated each year in August or September
because this is the time when business in India falls off seasonally
and, as a result, workers can take time off. In addition, late
summer/early fall brings monsoon season in India, and monks and nuns
take a long retreat.

a prophet’s birthday for Zoroastrians who follow the Shenshai calendar
(there are three calendars observed by Zoroastrians). This year, August
24 is recognized as Khordad Sal, or the birthday of Zarathustra.
According to Zoroastrian tradition, Zarathustra’s mother was five
months pregnant when she dreamt about the end of the world. Following
the nightmare, an angel informed her that her unborn son would save the
world from its doom. At the time of Zarathustra’s birth, it is said
that his face was shining.

    Zarathustra’s mother so named him because the title translated into
“golden light.” To this day, light and fire are central to the
Zoroastrian faith (the image above is a Zoroastrian fire altar).

    Parsis (those who follow the Shenshai calendar) use Khordad Sal as a time to gather with friends and family.

WEDNESDAY, grab a hot dog, some peanuts and the television remote! August 26 marks the 70th anniversary of the first televised Major League Baseball game.
Broadcast on W2XBS (which would become WNBC-TV), this “all-American”
sport televised its first MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the
Brookly Dodgers. See some clips from the game at this History Channel Web page.
    Legendary broadcaster Red Barber
gave the play-by-play for this game in 1939, having provided the voice
for his first game just five years earlier. Barber retired in 1966, but
was long remembered for his entertaining antics. Red Barber was
inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.
    In 1939, television was
still in its infancy; regular programming had not been created yet, and
most Americans did not own a television set. When the television became
a hit at the 1939 World Fair, organizers thought it opportune to boast
America’s modern edge by airing the game. Today, organized sports is a
multi-billion dollar industry, and in January of 2009, Major League
Baseball launched the MLB Network.
    While this “all-American”
game has been a part of the country’s history, the Constitutional
separation of church and state—or, rather, church and the baseball
stadium—is being questioned.
    In 1999, Third Coast Sports Foundation
began hosting “Faith Nights,” pre- or post-game Christian events
including concerts, Bible giveaways and more. Since 1999, Third Coast
Sports has partnered with 10 Major League Baseball Teams and 38 Minor
League Baseball teams. In 2009, Third Coast is partnering with the
Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Atlanta Braves
and Arizona Diamondbacks. With an additional cost of about $10 per
person,tickets that include Faith Night participation are bringing in
thousands of extra dollars per game. Is this concept a fun,
family-friendly idea? Or is this simply a scheme to make a few bucks
from religion? Read or listen to this debate from NPR, or discuss the subject with friends. What do you think?

SATURDAY, millions of Christians around the world mark the day that John the Baptist
was beheaded. This ancient figure is important to Christians, Muslims,
Baha’is and others. John the Baptist is believed by many to have been a
“forerunner” of Jesus and comparable to Elijah. The vision of John the
Baptist’s head on a platter is common in Christian art.
faith traditions include details of John’s childhood, while others
focus on his adult life. According to beliefs of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, John was ordained by an angel when he was
8 years old. By this angel it is said that John received instructions
to prepare a people for the Lord. Islamic tradition, on the other hand,
records that Allah called upon John as a child and declared, “O John! Hold fast to the Scripture (The Torah).”
Muslims believe that John (Prophet Yahya) was given wisdom as a child.
While Jews don’t recognize John as a prophet, the setting of his
baptisms is a crucial location in Hebrew scriptures. The early
Israelites crossed the Jordan to pass into the Promised Land. (Here’s a look at John the Baptist from the Jewish Virtual Library.)
As a traveling preacher, John the Baptist gained popularity for his
baptisms that were intended to wash away sin. According to Christian
tradition, John recognzied Jesus as the Son of God upon first sight, and remarked that Jesus should be the one baptizing him.
After hearing of an unethical marriage proposal for King Herod Antipas,
John the Baptist voiced his opposition. Word of John’s opposition
spread quickly, and Herod’s wife-to-be requested John’s execution—his
head on a platter. Herod agreed to this woman’s request, and John the Baptist was beheaded.
The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-Day Saints teaches that John the
Baptist had a more recent appearance; Joseph Smith, Jr. and
Oliver Cowdery are said to have seen his resurrected being in 1829.
According to doctrine, John the Baptist ordained the two into the
Aaronic priesthood, an event that was foretold by two prophets in the
Book of Mormon.

Also on SATURDAY, raise a toast at midnight to King Tut—August 29 is a New Year for millions of Egyptians.
    Although the ancient Egyptian calendar
was designed to follow agricultural seasons, Ptolemaic rulers ordered
in 238 BCE that the calendar should contain an extra day every four
years (i.e. leap year). While New Year’s Day used to “roam” from year
to year, a reformed calendar eventually emerged, marking New Year’s Day as August 29 each year (or August 30, in leap years).
    Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria—the
largest Christian church in Egypt—uses this calendar associated with
ancient tradition. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria says that
it was founded by St. Mark. The Catechetical School of Alexandria is
the oldest catechetical school in the world.

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