What’s the Spiritual Season this week? The Hajj, Thanksgiving, two Baha’i observances and the start of Advent


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(November 23 to 29, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, 2-to-3 million Muslims will travel to Mecca to complete Hajj (see photo above)! We wish all of our Muslim friends safe and fulfilling journeys. Also this week, Baha’is recognize Abdu’l-Baha during two holy days and many Americans will be stuffing themselves in the company of family and friends on Thanksgiving. Muslims honor Abraham on Eid al-Adha; Western Christians begin a new liturgical year with the season of Advent on Sunday; and Jains reflect on five holy beings with their tradition. And if pre-dawn shopping is your method for burning off turkey day calories, Black Friday is almost here!

WEDNESDAY, millions of Muslims from around the world partake in the Fifth Pillar of Islam, also known as Hajj. (Read one pilgrim’s personal account of the Hajj here, published by ReadTheSpirit last year.) Although the date on the Gregorian calendar changes from year to year, Hajj always occurs between the 8th and 12th days of the last month in the Islamic calendar, Dhu al-Hijah (translates literally into “the month of the Hajj”). The Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha also occurs during Hajj. (See the more detailed entry below on Eid al-Adha.)
    The pilgrimage to Mecca has been an important Islamic practice for 14 centuries. According to the Quran, Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka’bah, sometimes spelled Kaaba (“House of God”), the building that stands at the heart of Mecca and is regarded as the most sacred site in Islam. Today, an enormous mosque has been built around this structure. The second notable attribute of this structure is the Black Stone, a 12-inch stone surrounded by a silver frame and believed to date back to Adam and Eve. Just as the Prophet Muhammad kissed the Black Stone when showing his followers how to perform Hajj rituals, so do all Muslims either kiss or point to the Black Stone while circling Kaaba during Hajj.
    Hajj is a pillar of the faith for Muslims, meaning that adults must try to make the journey at least once in their lives—as long as they are in good health and have the resources to make such a trip. (IslamiCity calls Hajj “The Journey of a Lifetime.”) Prior to departure, Muslims are obligated to correct wrongdoings, pay debts and achieve a peaceful state of mind. After arrival, pilgrims travel to a variety of places for different rituals: to Mina, where they meditate and pray; to the plain of ‘Arafat, where they honor the place where the Prophet Muhammad gave his Farewell Sermon and have their sins forgiven; to Muzdalifah, where they collect stones; and to Mina, where they cast the stones at pillars to symbolize the casting away of evil. (Islam.com dives into the details of these rituals.) Also in Mina, stops include ritual remembrances of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, plus a stop at the well of Zamzam and, finally, additional stones thrown at the pillars and a farewell to the holy city. (If you’re interested in watching Hajj 2009 on television, IslamiCity has some ideas on how to tune in.)
    Muslims today have a much easier time completing the journey to Mecca, as airplanes, ships and other modern modes of transportation have replaced on-foot travels that used to take many months. In some cases, poor travelers would run out of funds and be required to work before journeying onward, sometimes resulting in a pilgrimage that lasted more than a decade. In addition, Muslims today pass through tight airport security while Muslims before them were often required to travel on roads laden with thieves, disease, wild animals and natural disasters.
    This year, however, the H1N1 flu virus is in its peak season and many are worried about the mass spread of swine flu. According to CBS News, Saudi Arabia’s health minister is urging countries to have their pilgrims vaccinated, and in the country, airport and seaport workers have been given instructions on how to prevent, spot and contain a flu outbreak. Pilgrims will be given masks, hand sanitizer and informational brochures this year, to aid in the prevention of outbreaks, and thermal sensors at airports in Saudi Arabia will identify travelers with high fevers. For the first time, field medics will be given Web-linked devices that will alert all other medics when a sick pilgrim is found. Although many worry about the spread of H1N1 to the many countries where pilgrims hail from, officials assure that Mecca, during the Hajj, has been a hotspot for disease for years. Saudis say their experiences in dealing with past outbreaks during Hajj has given them the capability to handle a variety of situations with ease.

WEDNESDAY at sundown, Baha’is begin rejoicing in their unity as they honor the Covenant of Baha’u’llah, which describes precisely how to organize communities of believers. Baha’u’llah provided these instructions to ensure that the faith would forever be unified. His efforts paid off: Baha’ism is the first major world religion known to have survived its first century with unity still intact.
    The Covenant of Baha’u’llah could not be recognized in full without also realizing the importance of Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha. (“Abdu’l-Baha” translates into “The Servant of Baha”.) Upon his death, Baha’u’llah instructed followers to look to his son for guidance. Baha’is believe that throughout his life Abdu’l-Baha provided the perfect example of how to live as a Baha’i. Abdu’l-Baha is, therefore, celebrated as the Center of Baha’u’llah’s Covenant. (The official Web site of the Baha’is of the United States published an interesting article on this event last year).
    Abdu’l-Baha was born on May 23, 1844, but according to Wikipedia, he wouldn’t allow Baha’i followers to honor his birthday in light of the fact that May 23 was the day the Bab declared his mission to Mulla Husayn. As a compromise, Abdu’l-Baha told his followers they could honor his birthday on the Day of the Covenant. Although Baha’is were given permission to recognize a day for the Covenant, they were also told to continue work on this day. Today is one of two Baha’i holy days when work is not suspended.
    The Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha is recognized later this week. Planet Baha’i offers some great insight into both of these holidays.

THURSDAY, come prepared to gather ’round the table for good conversation and lots of delicious food—it’s Thanksgiving! (All Recipes serves up plenty of delicious ideas to fill your table.)

    On this day, millions of people will heap their plates in honor of the
renowned meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans in
1621, according to History.com. It was more than two centuries later when Abraham Lincoln
finally declared the last Thursday in November as the Thanksgiving
holiday in America. (Check out the History News Network for “The Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving.”)

The original “Thanksgiving” holiday was not actually a “thanksgiving”
at all. The English colonists celebrated multiple days of thanksgiving
throughout the year as part of their religious tradition. During these
days of thanksgiving, Pilgrims would spend time praying in a serene
feasting joyously with friends. Check out the Pilgrim Hall Museum online for an intriguing article on Religious Controversies in Plymouth Colony. ALSO, Pilgrim Hall gives a great description of the Pilgrims’ feast.

    Despite some Pilgrims’ desires to flee England because of religious
persecution, the colonists did hold to some English customs, one of
which was a celebration in honor of a successful harvest.  Following the Pilgrims’ first
successful harvest in the “new land,” the colonists and nearby Native
Americans celebrated with an enormous feast. (Scholastic gives a kid-friendly description. AND, if you’re looking for Thanksgiving craft ideas, stories, games and more, check out Kaboose.)

So where does turkey come into all of this? In the 19th century, Sarah
Josepha Hale (who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) composed a novel,
entitled “Northwood; a Tale of New England.” In her book, Hale
described an abundant Thanksgiving meal, complete with a turkey,
stuffing, pumpkin pie and the like. Americans have been gobbling up
turkey on this day ever since.

THURSDAY at sundown, it’s calculated that many Muslims will begin to celebrate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son on Eid al-Adha. (This date is an estimate. Some Muslims look to the official Saudi Arabian moon sighting to signal the start of the “Greater Eid,” while others look for a moon sighting in their own country.) Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of the Islamic month Dhu al-Hijah, always during Hajj, and usually lasts for three days.
    According to Islamic tradition, this “Festival of Sacrifice” derived from an event that occurred approximately 4,000 years ago. (A Web site called IslamiCity provides lots of valuable information about Eid al-Adha.) Around 2,000 B.C., Abraham (or Ibrahim, according to Islamic tradition) was instructed by God to take his wife, Hajar, and his son, Ishmael, to Arabia. Hajar refused to accompany Abraham to Arabia, and was punished with thirst and hunger until she begged God for mercy. According to Islamic tradition, a well sprang up at Ishmael’s feet. This well is now celebrated as the Zamzam Well. (If you’re looking for a brief, simplified description of this holiday, the University of Kansas Medical Center does a nice job of it.)
    In Arabia, Abraham built a shrine adjacent to Hajar’s well, and Ishmael helped Abraham construct the Ka’bah (a gathering place for devotees of God) in Mecca. In 628, according to Wikipedia, the Prophet Muhammad traveled to Mecca with more than 1,000 followers.
    When Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, he willingly prepared to do so—until a voice from Heaven told him that he could sacrifice a ram, instead. On Eid al-Adha, Muslims honor Abraham’s willingness.
    Many Muslims don their finest clothing on Eid al-Adha, and pray in the morning hours. After a short sermon, it is customary to visit friends and family, enjoy feasts and give gifts to children.

FRIDAY, it’s Black Friday for many American retailers. Door-busting deals, significant sales, early-morning openings and giveaways are often characteristics of this day that unofficially kicks off the Christmas shopping season. (Some Web sites, such as blackfriday.info, even offer contests, early ad sightings and news.)
    According to Wikipedia, the day after Thanksgiving earned its present theme in 1924, related to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. More recently, Black Friday was given its name, many believe, because it is the day when stores go from being in the red (not making a profit) to being in the black (making a profit). Yet although Black Friday is usually the most chaotic shopping day of the year, studies reveal that it is rarely the most profitable.
    Sometimes the competitive atmosphere turns tragic. Last year, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by customers in New York and two people in California were killed during an argument at Toys R Us. This year, Wal-Mart reports that it will be open 24 hours on Thanksgiving to ease Black Friday crowds, according to Newsday. Consumers also have the option of shopping online for deals, as Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving) has come to be a day of significant online sales.
    Has the explosion of commercialism ruined the concept of Christmas? Christian author Ace Collins doesn’t think so. In fact, Collins argues that Christians should welcome the commercialization of Christmas! Read his provocative interview with ReadTheSpirit here.

FRIDAY at sundown, Baha’is mark the passing and ascension of Abdu’l-Baha, son of Baha’u’llah. (Baha’i.org has a great article on this.) Although Baha’is alone place Abdu’l-Baha in a place of great significance, persons of many world religions mourned his death on November 28, 1921. According to historical accounts, the Holy Land was also filled with mourning Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druzes on the day of Abdu’l-Baha’s funeral. Some 10,000 people are said to have attended Abdu’l-Baha’s funeral.
   At the age of 77, Abdu’l-Baha’s journey on Earth ended. Despite having endured a long period in prison, Abdu’l-Baha never faltered in his mission. Abdu’l-Baha led the Baha’i community, spread Baha’u’llah’s teachings and was even honored by Queen Victoria for his humanitarian services in Palestine. Today, Baha’is reflect on Abdu’l-Baha’s living example and rededicate themselves to following it. Abdu’l-Baha is often referred to as “the master,” a Persian-derived title sometimes used to describe respectable religious teachers. It is said that Baha’u’llah himself called his son “Master.”
    Today is the second holy day of Baha’ism during which work is not suspended.

SATURDAY, Jains spend time in quiet prayer and reflection. Maunajiyaras is a day of fasting, silence and meditation on the five holy beings. Today, Jains will meditate on the thoughts of monks, teachers, religious leaders, Arihants (enlightened masters) and Siddhas (liberated souls). While honoring holy beings and leaders, Jains also mark the anniversary of the birth of many Tirthankaras (spellings vary, but Wikipedia offers a list of the Tirthankaras) or Pathfinders.

SUNDAY, many Western Christians begin a new liturgical year on this, the first Sunday of Advent. As a description of the four weeks spent anticipating and preparing for Christ’s birth, Advent is derived from the Latin term “adventus,” which translates into “coming,” or “arrival.” According to Wikipedia, Advent is marked on the Sunday closest to Nov. 30—the Feast of St. Andrew—each year for Western Christians. (Eastern Christians begin their liturgical year in September.)
    The roots of Advent began in the 6th century, and early Christians often used this time to repent their sins and wrongdoings. (The Global Catholic Network has a detailed description of Advent.) Today, Advent is typically viewed as a joyful time of preparation for Christmas, and in looking forward to Christ’s second coming.
    Many Western Christian followers light candles on a flat wreath made of evergreens during Advent, and traditionally, one purple candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent. (The Global Catholic Network also describes the Advent wreath.) As the weeks pass, additional candles are lit on the circular wreath that symbolizes eternal life. As is custom, the first two candles lit are purple; the third candle is pink, in honor of the Sunday that early Christians broke fast in anticipation of Christmas; the fourth candle is also purple; and the fifth candle, a brilliant white, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and represents the birth of Jesus.
    If you’re looking for activities to honor Advent with this season, or are simply looking for a deeper meaning in Advent, Advent.org offers plenty of suggestions.

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