What’s the Spiritual Season this week? The autumnal equinox, a solemn day for Jews & a religious freedom anniversary


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(September 14 to 20, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, people around the world mark changing seasons. Americans recall a milestone in religious freedom. Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians celebrate this week. And, Jews reach the most important day in their calendar. Read about these and other observances below …

TUESDAY, people around the world observe the autumnal equinox, a period of time when night and day are equal in length everywhere around the world. (Here’s a chart of the precise times for this decade. And here’s a NASA image of how the sun lights the earth on an equinox.)
    For many of our readers in the Northern Hemisphere, leaves are beginning to change color and autumn officially begins. But the effects are global and our readers in the Southern Hemisphere will soon be warming up again.
    For thousands of years, religious traditions have marked this special cosmic effect.
    Modern Pagans and Wiccans may celebrate Mabon in the North, which marks the time to begin preparations for winter. While the second harvest is being collected, Wiccans look to the coming darkness of winter and give thanks for the current lengths of sunlight. Many Pagans offer gifts of ciders, wines and herbs to gods or goddesses on the autumnal equinox, feast with family members and look forward to the quiet, relaxing season of winter.
    Buddhists of the Japanese, Korean and Tibetan sects see special meaning in this day as well. According to Buddhist tradition, the Higan festival is held during the week of the vernal equinox. Many participating Buddhists view Higan as a time of renewed hope, since it marks the time when a long season of heat or chill, depending on one’s place in the world, comes to an end and begins the opposite season. Buddhists can also reflect upon the temporary status of life during this time. “Higan” translates into “the other shore,” an indication that we are simply on a journey from the shores of this world, samsara, to nirvana. According to historical accounts, Higan services began in Japan approximately 1,200 years ago.

FRIDAY, it’s the 220th anniversary of Congress’ adoption of 12 amendments to the Constitution. In time, 10 of these amendments would become the Bill of Rights, and the first article would give freedom of religion to all U.S. citizens (a Freedom of Religion Bell is pictured at right).
    On September 25, 1789, the First Congress approved 12 amendments, although only 10 were approved by the states (amendments concerning the number of constituents for each Representative as well as compensation for Congressmen were not ratified). Since early patriots had just finished a long fight with Britain for their freedom, they insisted upon a bill of rights that would protect America’s citizens.
    Today, Americans continue to exercise the practice of their religion of choice. According to the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
    Besides the amendment concerning freedom of religion, the remainder of the Constitution makes very little reference to religion. Some early Americans opposed this, believing that the new government should allow faith to play a more significant role in the nation’s affairs. After much debate, however, Congress made the decision that would eventually prohibit Congress from creating any laws that showed a preference to a particular religion.

SUNDAY, Orthodox Christians of the Ethiopian and Eritrean traditions celebrate the finding of the true cross during the ancient festival of Meskel. This 1,600-year-old tradition honors the discovery of Jesus’ crucifixion cross by Saint Helena in the 4th century. Various other Christian traditions mark this day earlier in the month of September.
    Festival attendees typically place Meskel daisies atop enormous bonfires while priests, carrying silver Coptic crosses, dance around the fires. Meskel daisies, flowers of a cross-like shape, also are a sign of the people’s joy over the end of the rainy season. Bonfires are symbolic of the belief that Saint Helena, or Queen Eleni, was told in a dream that she should make a bonfire so that the smoke could show her where the true cross was buried. According to tradition, Saint Helena ordered Jerusalem’s people to gather wood and add frankincense to the burning logs. After the smoke from the bonfire circled into the sky, it is said to have returned to the ground, falling to the exact spot where Jesus’ cross had been buried.
    Following the lighting of bonfires, Meskel participants will sometimes use the ashes to mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads, similar to the tradition on Ash Wednesday. Some believe that this act negates sins. Traditions also suggest that, just as Saint Helena was led by sacred smoke, this act may also help point toward important new directions for people today.
    Why are these traditions so important in Ethiopia? It’s believed that a portion of the true cross was brought to Ethiopia and rests at Amba Geshen.

Also on SUNDAY, “Work with Heart” for your health!
    September 27 is this year’s World Heart Day, a time to focus on cardiovascular health and its impact on human life. This year’s theme, “Work with Heart,” encourages individuals and employers to think about the impact of the workplace on cardiovascular conditions.
    Each year, more than 17.2 million lives are claimed by cardiovascular diseases, yet 80 percent of these cases could have been avoided by improving diet, increasing physical activity and avoiding tobacco products. The World Heart Federation, World Health Organization and World Economic Forum are emphasizing the impact of healthier lives on not only individuals, but also on the business world and global economy as well. According to a 2003 study, workplace health programs can reduce medical and absentee costs by 25-30 percent.
    Throughout the year and in partnership with the WHO, the World Heart Federation hosts events in more than 100 countries. Events include health screenings, organized walks, runs and fitness sessions, stage shows, scientific forums, exhibitions, concerts, carnivals and sporting tournaments. World Heart Day is this organization’s most important day—a focal point for raising awareness.
    As you read this news item in the Spiritual Season column, give yourself a pat on the back for a positive affect on heart health! Links between spirituality and health are hotly debated and vigorously studied these days. Generally, studies indicate there are positive physical benefits from spiritual practices and involvement in religious communities. Here’s one summary online. Benefits may include stronger immune systems, cardiovascular health and general longevity. According to a recent study of more than 5,000 African Americans published in the Oxford Journal, faith-based programs are a positive way to reduce cardiovascular health risks.

SUNDAY at sundown, Jews begin Yom Kippur, the most important day of the Jewish year. While fasting and attending services at the synagogue, Jews solemnly reflect on their lives on this Day of Atonement.
    While the full experience of Yom Kippur is appreciated mainly by adults, many congregations also adapt lessons and activities for children. Here’s a Web site called Torah Tots, where little ones can find coloring pages, games, greeting cards and more.
    Grievances committed against other people must be amended prior to Yom Kippur, and then on Yom Kippur, individuals can ask for forgiveness from God. Traditions teach that God forgives an individual as he or she forgives others.
    Typically, individuals dress in white on Yom Kippur to visualize the journey to purity that occurs on this day. Yom Kippur services will begin on Sunday evening with Kol Nidre. Then, they will begin again on Monday morning and continue well into the afternoon. Following a short period of rest, many Jews return to the synagogue in the evening. After the evening services, a shofar (ram’s horn) rings out a trumpet-like sound.
    A crucial prayer during Yom Kippur is the Vidui, a confessional prayer that allows people to take responsibility for misdeeds that they committed during the past year—even those that cannot be recalled. The Vidui is repeated eight times during the course of Yom Kippur, and it’s believed that with each prayer, one is freed a bit more and is able to climb higher toward righteousness. Finally, the Neila prayer brings the individual’s spirit to its highest possible place, just as Yom Kippur comes to an end and the gates of Heaven begin to close.

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