What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Recalling a fire that fueled a movement, plus John the Baptist, Rathyatra and …

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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(June 22 to 28, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

 On Sunday, millions of Americans fired up their grills for Father’s Day. This week, we recall a famous river that also fired up 40 years ago—and fueled the environmental movement. We’ve also got news on some United Nations-related observances, Rathyatra and a remembrance of St. John the Baptist, too!

MONDAY: It’s been 40 years since the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, ignited and horrific images like the one above circled the globe. Of course, in addition to the billows of black smoke, the fire fueled the environmental movement. The past four decades have brought a vast improvement in the river’s quality. Nationally, efforts to improve the environment were helped by passage of key measures like the Clean Water Act and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.  
    Parts of the river now look like the photo at right. An exhibit room in the Cuyahoga Online Exhibition, with photos courtesy of the Cleveland State University Library, displays some of the details of the 1969 fire.
    The river actually caught fire 13 times since 1868—but it wasn’t until 1969 that it became national news, when Time magazine published a piece on it and Associated Press circulated photographs. The article in Time accurately described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows.” Time also wrote: “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. … He decays.” (Click here to read more.)
    At one time, this 100-mile river was affectionately known as the “crooked river,” deemed so by the Iroquois. When settlers came to the area, it became part of the Greenville Treaty Line and the western border of the United States.
    The river has become a part of American culture, snagging a spot in popular songs such as Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” R.E.M’s “Cuyahoga” and, most recently, a Simpsons episode entitled “Lemon of Troy.” In the Simpsons episode, a fire on a lake in Springfield alludes to the Cuyahoga River fire. Check out a clip of this episode.
    To learn just how much impact this fire has had on environmental movements, read this recent article from the New York Times.

TUESDAY: Volunteer in your community in honor of Public Service Day. In 2002, the UN General Assembly designated June 23 as a day to draw attention to the “value and virtue of service to the community.” The General Assembly noted that successful and peaceful governments could not exist without the aid and civil service of its citizens.
    Since 2003, the United Nations has been granting its Public Service Awards, the most prestigious international recognition of excellence in this field. While considering submissions from around the world, judges look for creativity, achievement and contributions to public service institutions.
    In 2008, winning countries ranged from Brazil to Sweden. You can download a list of the 12 winning countries of 2008, as well as the details of their awards.

WEDNESDAY: Western Christians mark a feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Christians dedicate this day to the birth of Jesus’ second cousin, whose own birth—much like Jesus’—is recorded as extraordinary. Although John’s father and his wife were both beyond child-bearing age, the old man received news of his son’s conception from the archangel Gabriel. Six months into her pregnancy, John’s mother, Elizabeth, heard of Mary’s own conception. When Mary visited Elizabeth, it’s recorded that John “leapt” upon the presence of Mary.
    The Nativity of St. John the Baptist has been a Christian observance since 506. In Christianity, John the Baptist is known for having baptized Jesus—as well as others—in the Jordan River. During his lifetime, John the Baptist was also a preacher.
    Despite his honorable spot in Christian history and worship, recognition of John the Baptist isn’t limited to Christians: Muslims, Baha’is and Mandaeans view John as a prophet, too.

ALSO WEDNESDAY: Millions of Hindus will travel to Puri, in the state of Orissa, India, for the start of the 11-day festival of Rathyatra. This festival commemorates an ancient, sacred journey of Lord Jagannath (or Lord Krishna), Lord Balabhadra and his sister, Subhadra. This journey was made approximately 5,000 years ago, and has been reenacted for 132 years around the Gundicha Temple in Puri. (Here’s another online overview of the festival. And, here’s a third interesting source on Rathyatra.)
    Throughout the rest of the year, these deities are worshiped in the temple; during Rathyatra, the idols are removed from the temple and taken through the streets (only on this day can non-Hindus and foreigners view the idols). Three elaborate and colorful chariots contain these idols each year, and thousands of festival-goers pull the chariots before the crowds. It is, for many, considered an honor even touch one of the chariot ropes.
    Enormous processions follow the chariots, and trucks, elephants, musicians and more fill the streets. This year, Indian Railways announced it would run 66 special trains from surrounding cities for the festival.
    Hindus around the world—and anyone else who is interested—can watch the Rathyatra festival online this year.

FRIDAY: Celebrate peace and recall the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. In San Francisco, at the end of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, 50 countries signed this charter. The UN became active on October 24 of the same year.
    In 1942, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union organized the original UN Declaration, forming a union against Germany, Italy, Japan and the Axis Powers. Following WWII, however, many countries of the world saw a need for an international alliance that would work in peace instead of war. As a result, the UN nearly doubled in size. (Here’s a History Channel summary of the charter signing.)
    For a view of the entire text of the charter, visit this site courtesy of Yale University.

SUNDAY: The Catholic Church in England and Wales recalls the first disciple of Jesus on St. Peter’s Day. A leader of the early Christian church, St. Peter was also the first Pope of Rome, the author of two canonical epistles, a leader among the disciples and, finally, a martyr. In international artwork, St. Peter is often portrayed as holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

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