What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Yom Kippur, festive celebrations in Inda, Sukkot is coming and much more

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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(September 28 to October 4, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK BEGINS with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and a day when millions of Jews—even those who sometimes don’t keep the weekly Sabbath—undertake the arduous 25-hour fast that accompanies soul searching and communal worship. In most communities today, the scenes in temples and synagogues don’t look quite like the 19th-Century painting at right that so famously depicts Yom Kippur. Men, women and young people today, for the most part, wear contemporary clothes. But many follow long-standing traditions by avoiding leather garments, even belts and shoes, on this sacred day—and many favor white garb.
    For a classic folk tale about Yom Kippur, visit ReadTheSpirit’s “top story,” called “Yom Kippur in Hebron and Hard Times.” You’ll see this painting with that story, because it captures the solemnity of the day in the people’s faces.
    For a good outline of the holiday’s significance and customs, here’s the Wikipedia overview of Yom Kippur. But, for a more contemporary look at the holiday—especially in Israel—take a look at Michael Weiss’ article in Slate. Michael writes, in part: “Jews in the Diaspora spend most of Yom Kippur at home or in synagogue, where the absence of electricity hardly affects the greater gentile grids. But in Israel, which effectively shuts down for Yom Kippur, the contradiction between ancient religious tradition and modernity is brought into stark relief once a year, creating either a brief trance of neo-Luddite serenity or a sliver of Dark Age privation.

MONDAY is a day of festivities across India and Nepal. The name of the festival varies—often called Dussehra or Dasara, although it’s also called Vijayadashami as well. In traditional Indian accounts of the gods, this day marks Rama’s great victory over the demon Ravana and his powerful companions—and “Vijay” means “victory” in that form of the festival’s name.
    Throughout Hindu communities, a host of localized traditions arose through the centuries—and various emphases on themes within the larger story. The Wikpedia overview does a pretty good job of describing some of the regional differences.
    Probably the most common imagery you’ll find associated with the holiday, though, are giant festive figures of Ravana and his companions, which are rigged to explode with fireworks and burn to celebrate the great victory. It’s a happy day for families and often people attend fairs and dances.

TUESDAY is Michaelmas—a fixed date on the calendar honoring the archangel St. Michael. Traditionally, St. Michael was seen as a defender of Israel and the leader of God’s forces in defeating Lucifer.
    His appeal is widespread and longstanding. While saints often are associated with the Catholic church in popular culture, Lutherans also have a high regard for Michael. He’s also mentioned in the Quran and Muslims regard Michael as an important angel poised close to God.
    Despite all of this powerful, warlike imagery, Michael is strongly associated with healing—and ancient miracles of providing healing waters and security for the sick. It’s this kind of strong, protective imagery that’s associated with Michael in a vision of Daniel, who describes the angel as a “great prince” and “the protector of your people.”
    Down through the years, Michael has become a patron saint of paramedics, police officers and paratroopers.
    There are lots of references to Michael on the Web, most of them posted by Catholic groups. But, for a different approach to Michael’s ancient story, check out this in-depth article on Michael in the Jewish Encyclopedia online.

FRIDAY is Gandhi Jayanti—the birthday of the “Father of the Nation” on October 2, 1869, or 140 years ago. Mohandas Gandhi, later known as “Mahatma” as a sign of great respect, was born in what is now Gujarat, India. He was influenced, from an early age, by Hindu and Jain traditions. And, if you’re reading this news item, you probably know the rest of the story. His birthday is a holiday in India—and the United Nations General Assembly hoped to encourage Gandhi’s followers by declaring October 2 the “International Day of Non-Violence.” Reporting on the UN declaration in 2007, the UPI wire service wrote: The U.N. General Assembly “desiring to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence,” Friday invited states, U.N. bodies, regional and non-governmental organizations and individuals to commemorate non-violence on Oct. 2 date through education and public awareness.

FRIDAY night through sundown on Sunday are the first two full days of one of Judaism’s most hospitable festivals—Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Ingathering! (The festival runs for a week but the first two days are the most important.)
    If you don’t live near a Jewish community, you may have never noticed the little “booths” or “huts” or “temporary shelters” that blossom in back yards (and sometimes near the main entrances to Jewish schools and other institutions). If you’re not Jewish, you also may not realize how deeply rooted this festival is in Judaism. It’s commanded in the Torah. (Christians will find it in Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16.)
    Jews sometimes explain this festival to their neighbors as one of the world’s oldest Thanksgiving customs—and that’s true. It’s an ancient harvest festival.
    But there are many layers in the stories and symbols within Sukkot. Plus, Jewish families often welcome friends, co-workers and neighbors for a meal inside their temporary shelters. While the structures sometimes look a little rickety—that’s part of the intentional charm and symbolism, right down to the greenery spread across the “roof” so that the stars are visible through the thatching on clear nights.
    Among the symbols you might want to ask your Jewish friends to explain are the Etrog, which is the world’s most valuable fruit because of the great care lavished on growing and caring for these rare yellow fruits, and also the Lulav, a combination of traditional branches. (The photo above shows a “sukkah,” a “booth,” in Tel Aviv; the next photo shows a market stall selling Lulav and Etrog for the holiday.)

SUNDAY is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, who died in early October 1226.
    St. Francis is one of the world’s most beloved saints in the third Millennium. Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote a popular children’s book about Francis’ love of animals, but Francis’ bravery in crossing religious and cultural barriers also has won over strong supporters, today.
    So, here are some additional resources on Francis you might enjoy exploring. First, he was featured in 2008 as one of the first “Interfaith Heroes” honored by ReadTheSpirit. The original “Heroes” story about St. Francis is still online. In our online magazine, we’ve also found many contemporary writers mentioning St. Francis as an inspiration to “creation care” today. Here’s an interview with best-selling evangelical author Tony Campolo that mentions St. Francis’ message—among others—on care of animals.
     The Humane Society of the United States now includes a section of “Francis Files” on the group’s Web site, encouraging pet owners to send in stories about spiritual connections with animals. To encourage those efforts by pet owners, the Humane Society actually publishes one of the best, inspiring overviews of Francis’ life online.

SUNDAY also is World Communion Sunday, an effort started before World War II that caught on later through the American ecumenical movement and has spread around the world—encouraging all Christian churches to celebrate communion on the first Sunday of October. The idea is not that churches will join for community-wide services, but that everyone in every church—or as many churches as possible—will celebrate communion on the same day. Of course, the world’s biggest denomination, the Catholic church, celebrates the sacrament every Sunday—so the idea is to have Christians forming a virtual unity in worship, even if their denominations remain separate in organization.
    Here’s a little history of World Communion Sunday as well as some popular resources from the National Council of Churches USA.
    Of course, there’s a whole lot more than that online—and here’s a sampling of other things that might interest you:
    First, here’s a bilingual English/Spanish “Great Thanksgiving” prayer created for World Communion Sunday using English and Spanish worship resources from the United Methodist Church.
    The Reformed Church in America offers a whole page of materials and links from a Reformed perspective in approaching World Communion.
    From the United Church of Christ, here’s a PDF download of “Come, the Meal is Ready,” a liturgy for this special day. (Clicking the link should start the PDF downloading for you.)
    And from the Mennonite Church of Canada, here’s a page that includes a PDF download link (the link on the page is orange) that offers a model for a whole service on this theme, including prayers.
    In other words—a lot of creative people in many different branches of Christendom plan for this special day each year. If you’re doing something special in your congregation that’s really inspiring you this year, please Email and tell us about it.


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