What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Two Billion Christians Start Lent, plus two heroic saints from distant lands!


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(February 15 to 21, 2010)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, it’s Lent for 2 billion men, women and children worldwide! Special days related to Lent have such colorful names as Clean Monday, Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras) and Ash Wednesday. This week, Americans also honor George Washington; Buddhists recall Buddha’s death—and a growing number of people around the world recall the Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler as well as the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna. Read all about these events and observances
below …

MONDAY, it’s George Washington’s birthday—or, as it’s otherwise called, Presidents Day. (View a slide show of the Presidents, courtesy of the White House.) Today is a federal holiday in the United States, started in 1880. (Read about Presidents Day on Wikipedia.) Washington’s Birthday was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen. (Hey, kids—learn more about Washington’s birthday and exercise your creativity with some help from Kaboose.)
The first President of the United States had only the equivalent of an
elementary-school education, yet his legacy remains strong into the
21st century. According to accounts, even his physical presence garnered respect: He was a 6-foot, 2-inch leader at a
time when the average man measured a full eight inches shorter. (This site from PBS is dedicated to Washington.)
As a successful politician, this Episcopalian never referred to Jesus
Christ in any of his writings. Washington accepted workmen from Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Atheist traditions, and attended
various religious services. While some biographers peg him as neither
against or indifferent to religion, it is noted that he favored a
separation between church and state. (Check out this article from VirginiaPlaces.org.)
In his Farewell Address of 1796, Washington stated that religion—as the
source of morality—is “a necessary spring of popular government.”

Also on MONDAY, Mahayana Buddhists mark the death anniversary of Buddha, on Nirvana Day. (The photo at right is of a golden statue in the Wat Pho temple in Thailand, depicting Buddha passing into Nirvana.)
Buddhists believe that, following his death at the age of 80, Buddha
reached Nirvana, or the state of being free from suffering. In his
footsteps, every Buddhist meditates on the Four Noble Truths that
Buddha experienced while sitting beneath the Bodhi tree; this
meditation is believed to aid in the path to Nirvana. (Read more from the BBC.)
According to Buddhist tradition, life contains suffering because humans
have desires, cravings and longings. When someone is able to free
himself from these states of mind, he can be at peace and live with
compassion, thus ending the cycle of death and rebirth.
many Mahayana Buddhists spend Nirvana Day—or Parinirvana—meditating,
traveling to Buddhist temples, feasting and bringing money or goods to
monks and nuns. Many also read from the Paranibbana Sutta, a text that
describes the last days of Buddha.
    The Paranibbana Sutta states
that, on his deathbed, Buddha assured his followers that he had
revealed all of his spiritual knowledge to them, with nothing held
back. (Wikipedia offers information on Nirvana, too.)
In his last words, Buddha urged them to continue to strive for
liberation. As everything else is impermanent, only spiritual freedom
is of worth.

is Clean Monday, the first day of the Eastern Orthodox Great Lent. (Officially, the Orthodox Lenten season began last night,
during the Forgiveness Vespers service.) The Eastern Orthodox season—which lasts for seven weeks—forbids devotees from eating meat,
most seafood or dairy products. (Here is Wikipedia’s page on Clean Monday.)
In addition to physical fasting, Orthodox Christians try to abandon
sinful attitudes on Clean Monday and throughout Lent. The week
following Clean Monday is known as “Clean Week,” during which many
observers go to Confession and clean their houses.
    In Cyprus and
Greece, Clean Monday is a public holiday: Citizens across the country
fly kites as a way to welcome spring. Feasting, picnicking, dancing and
singing are also popular activities on this joyous day. (In the photo at left, above, a Greek man dances to traditional Greek music on Clean Monday.)
Termed Katheri Deftera in Greece, observers eat a specific kind of
azyme bread called “lagana,” which is only eaten on this one day of
year. (Frommers has a neat guide to Greek activities on Katheri Deftera.)
Shellfish, one of the few exceptions to the “no seafood” rule of Lent
in the Greek tradition, is central to many of the day’s dishes. (From About.com, try a few Greek recipes.)

marks the 100th birth anniversary of a remarkable Holocaust heroine:
Irena Sendler, a young Roman Catholic woman who smuggled 2,500 children
out of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII.
    Despite her amazing feat, Irena’s story only became widely known after four students in a rural Kansas classroom
“discovered” her story a few years ago, while completing a class
project! Now, her story is captured in a movie—and her actions inspire many around the world.
Born on Feb. 15, 1910, Irena was born to a father who was a doctor with many Jewish patients. When Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Sendler was a
Senior Administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, an
organization that operated canteens in every district of Warsaw.
Sendler began aiding Jews from the start.
    With each passing day, Sendler took greater risks—and eventually she was arrested and tortured by the Nazis. Nevertheless, she bravely refused to name her co-workers or the names of Jewish families she had helped.
    Why not honor Irena—by reading more about her life? An entire chapter of Interfaith Heroes, Volume 2, is devoted to her life. This Heroes page contains her story—and links to other great Web resources, including the movie about her life.

TUESDAY, many Hindus celebrate Sri Ramakrishna Jayanti—in honor of Sri Ramakrishna, a famous Indian mystic who was born in
1836. Many of his followers believe Ramakrishna was an incarnation of
Ramakrishna was born into a poor family in Bengal, but went on to
become a priest who was respected by all classes. Tradition has it that
Ramakrisna, who was trained in various types of meditation, educated
himself on other religions, too, such as Christianity and Islam. In the
end, this mystic concluded that all religions lead to the same God.
Hindus believe that Ramakrishna reached an understanding of God that is
unbound by time or place, and he revealed the mystery of God to the
common man. Unlike many of the legends of Hinduism, which are based in ancient
times, Ramakrishna was a modern figure who we can see in photographs, like the one at right, and whose story remains largely
untainted by time.
    His work also is celebrated in a chapter of Interfaith Heroes, Volume 2. This page also has more of the rare photos showing Sri Ramakrisna. Think about honoring his noble life by learning more—and sharing his positive example.

Also on TUESDAY, sink your teeth into paczkis and pancakes! (Here are pancake recipes from Epicurious.)
For Western Christians, today is the last day before the start of Lent,
and Christians—as well as non-Christians—indulge in fats and sweets on
Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” (Read more at BBC.) Sprinkled through the Western Christian calendar, several Carnival
celebrations begin on or after Epiphany and continue through today.
Tomorrow, Western Christians will begin the fasting schedule that will continue
until Easter. (A full description is at CatholicCulture.org.)
Historically, Western Christians rid their homes of fat, eggs and sugar
on this, also known as Shrove Tuesday. In preparation for Lent, many
Christians would cook batch after batch of pancakes, so as not to waste
the fat and sugar they were giving up. (AmericanCatholic.org has more.)
Rituals also included masked and costumed parties, parades and more. In
Buckinghamshire, England, there are even pancake races that challenge
participants to toss pancakes while wearing an apron and scarf! A
church service always follows the races.
    The city of Nice,
France, records that in 1294, the Compte de Provence Charles II began
taking his holidays in Nice to take part in Carnival activities, which
included bonfires, masquerades and more. Today, a large-scale, two-week
event is still held in Nice during Carnival and Mardi Gras. (Wikipedia has a page on Mardi Gras.)
Partying aside, Christians also have long used this time in penance for their sins, in an act known as “shriving.” More than
1,000 years ago, a monk recorded the goings-on of Shrove Tuesday that
included penitence to a priest. Following penitence, devotees feel free
from sin and, therefore, able to fully participate in the Lenten

Western Christians begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. The Western Christian
Lenten season lasts 46 days (the 40-day count does not include
Sundays), and millions of observant Christians will receive ashes on their foreheads.
    While anointing with ashes traditionally was regarded as a Roman Catholic rite in the U.S, the annual practice has been adopted by an ever-growing number of mainline Protestants as well. (Here’s an example: a Missouri Synod Lutheran Web site pointing out that the use of ashes is on the rise.) This year, there’s also more buzz about Protestant services on U.S. military bases including ashes. (Here’s a tip if you’re one of the many journalists who read this column: Think of writing about Ash Wednesday among men and women in military service, this year.)
As a symbol of both repentance and the impermanence of life on Earth, church leaders bless ashes gathered from the burning of the previous
year’s Palm Sunday alms. (Details are at Catholic Culture.) After ashes are gathered, they are mixed with sacred oils or holy water and used to anoint the faithful. (Wikipedia has a general description of the day.)
As a person receives the sign of the cross on his or her forehead, the
minister will often recite a Bible verse: “Remember that you are dust,
and unto dust you shall return.”

SUNDAY, it’s the first Sunday within Lent. That’s a special observance for Eastern Orthodox Christians who call this the Sunday of Orthodoxy. (More information is at the Greek Orthodox site.)
Since 843 CE, Orthodox Christians have recognized the theme of this
Sunday: The victory of icons, which were a subject of long-running controversy in Christianity. Services on the Sunday of Orthodoxy often feature clergymen
or laypeople processing around the church while carrying icons of
patron or parish saints. (Read more on the page from OrthodoxWiki.)


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