Eastern Orthodox Christians begin 2016 fast of Great Lent

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Lenten season begins for hundreds of millions of Eastern Christians, also known as Orthodox Christians, through a series of traditional steps to prepare for this Great Fast …

  • Clean Monday kites flying photo from Wikimedia CommonsSUNDAY, MARCH 6: Meatfare Sunday or Sunday of the Last Judgment. Preparing for the “Great Fast” of Lent, this is the last day that meat can be eaten until Pascha (Orthodox Easter, this year, on May 1)—but dairy products still are allowed for another week. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides this in-depth overview of Eastern fasting practices and the various religious milestones during this season.
  • SUNDAY, MARCH 13: Cheesefare Sunday or Forgiveness Sunday. This is the last day that dairy products can be consumed until Pascha. The spiritual focus of this Sunday liturgy is on “forgiveness,” an appropriate theme to remember as these Christians enter this long period of prayer and reflection.
  • MONDAY, MARCH 14: Clean Monday is the beginning of the “Great Fast” of Lent. Let the kites fly! And—read further to learn about Lagana, a seasonal bread known throughout Greece as the taste of Clean Monday. Wikipedia has a detailed overview of Clean Monday customs.
  • EAST & WEST and the unity of Easter: Western Christians begin their Lenten season this year with Ash Wednesday on March 10 with Easter on March 27. The differences in dates are due to centuries-old customs for calculating the date of Easter, which vary from East to West. The Christian world won’t have a unified Easter again until 2017—and then there will be years of differences until Easter 2025 and 2028.

Prayerful Attention to Tradition: To many Americans, this Great Fast may sound extreme. Another way to think about it, though, is as a healthy season of Mediterranean eating. Whole grains and vegetables dominate in recipes associated with Great Lent. Of course, some families from an Orthodox background skip the fasting rules—just as many Western Christians overlook their own far-less-restrictive fasting traditions. But, observant Orthodox families around the world do change their eating habits, each year, in the weeks leading to Pascha.

During the fast, Eastern Christians avoid: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, wine and oil. There are traditional exceptions within the Orthodox calendar. Wine and oil are permitted on all Sundays during this period, for example. And an ancient tradition—the feast of the Annunciation—is considered so sacred that it always falls on March 25, even during Great Lent. That feast recalls Mary receiving news that she would be the mother of Jesus, nine months later. Thus, on Tuesday March 25, this year—fish, wine and oil are permitted for the feast.


Greek Orthodox Calendar App

The Tsolias logo.

HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK? Here at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, how do we cover this complex season? Well, thanks to longtime reader David Adrian, each year, we receive the kind of Orthodox wall calendar that many congregations provide to their faithful. That’s one way.

The other is via smartphone apps. Our favorite is the Greek Orthodox Calendar app, developed by Tsolias Software. The app shows us each day’s spiritual resources at a glance, including colorful little icons of the food groups permitted that day. (There are lots of fasting days in the Orthodox calendar, each year, and the app keeps track of all the rules.) We also have heard strong reader recommendations of the apps developed in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And, if you want a “free” app, we’ve heard that the Orthodox Calendar by David Ledselidze is pretty useful, as well. Plus, Ledselidze’s app has more resources of special interest to Russian Orthodox men and women.


Considering the strict nature of this fast, the cheery celebration of Clean Monday may seem jarring. Congregations are reminded, however, that it is important to remain outwardly pleasant during the fasting period. The passage of Matthew 6, verses 14-21, is read to drive home this spiritual lesson. It says, in part: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

The most common Clean Monday vista in Greece is a blue sky full of colorful kites. Families pack up traditional Lenten foods for a picnic. It’s a national holiday, so most workers and students have the day free.


The traditional Greek Orthodox taste of Clean Monday is a sesame-topped bread called Lagana—usually made long and fairly flat, and ideally a very tasty bread. It’s also true that some home cooks produce something more akin to a giant, crunchy breadstick—but, if prepared properly, this is a delicious bread.

Want a recipe that’s likely to produce the tastier variety? There are many online, but we especially like this photo-illustrated, step-by-step recipe from The Greek Vegan. Beyond the helpful photos, here’s another reason we like this particular website’s approach to the recipe: These days, a lot of online recipes wink at the restrictions of the Great Fast and include oil in the ingredients. The Greek Vegan recognizes that this is a serious issue for many Christians and explains how to make this bread in the traditional, oil-free way.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

JULY themes: Hog Dog Month, a Dog Day video—and family time!

JULY 2014: This month, many classic American foods are celebrated by commercial groups promoting everything from baked beans and horseradish to blueberries and ice cream. Some websites even declare July “Hot Dog Month.” But, seriously, we ask you: Do Americans really need to be encouraged to consume more hot dogs and ice cream in July? Nationwide, July is the month when summer is in full swing, complete with a holiday-shortened work week for the Fourth of July.
This month also is known for …

World War I Centennial

th Cover-Philip-Jenkins-The-Great-and-Holy-War-on-World-War-IThe 100th anniversary of the First World War could be dated anywhere from June 28 (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria) to August 1 (when the major European powers had declared war). Starting in the spring of 2014—new books, films, stories and photos will be flooding American media for several years. Fans of Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge on PBS already have been dragged into World War I. To learn more about the religious and cross-cultural issues that were transformed during the global conflict, read our recent interview with historian Philip Jenkins on his new book, The Great and Holy War.

Family Reunion Month

In recent decades, many calendars across the United States have listed July as “Family Reunion Month”—but the truth is: You can find June, July and August designated in that way, depending on the source you consult. In 1985, a proclamation by Ronald Reagan set the “month” from mid May to mid June in an effort to bookend Memorial Day weekend and the start of summer. Whatever your preference may be—go on, organize a family reunion this summer. You’ll be glad you did!

th Prayers-in-Afghanistan-for-RamadanRamadan

The Muslim fasting month runs through most of July, all around the world. Because the Muslim calendar moves through lunar cycles—and some Muslims still rely on physical sightings of the moon—the start and end of the fast can vary by nation, community and even by individual practice. You’ll enjoy our full Holidays column on Ramadan, published in late June.

Dog Days

Whether July is part of the “Dog Days of Summer” depends on your perspective and your era in world history. Ancient Romans thought Dog Days ran from late July through most of August. Some editions of the Old Farmer’s Almanac have started Dog Days in early July. The popular online reference tool, Dictionary.com, lists Dog Days as “the sultry part of the summer, supposed to occur during the period that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the sun: now often reckoned from July 3 to August 11.” A 16th-century edition of the Book of Common Prayers listed a similar range of “Dog Daies” from early July through mid August.

Our ReadTheSpirit team couldn’t find an official Dog Days of Summer website, so we’ve included our favorite dog video by a ReadTheSpirit author: Rabbi Bob Alper.

OK, OK! So, we admit: It’s the only dog video by a ReadTheSpirit author. But, please watch it: We all love Rabbi Alper’s wry humor—and his dog Barney? His portrayal of a culturally competent canine? It’s Oscar-worthy. CLICK THE VIDEO SCREEN BELOW …


You will enjoy our entire Interfaith Calendar of holidays and anniversaries. An easy way to reach that master index: Remember the URL InterfaithHolidays.com

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Feast of St. Columba of Iona


Pilgrims on the island of Iona off Scotland’s northwest coast. Photograph by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

MONDAY, JUNE 9: You don’t have to travel to Scotland to honor St. Columba, the brilliant 6th-century Irish monk who still is inspiring pilgrims around the world. In fact, wherever they live in the world, descendants of the Clans MacCallum, Malcom and MacKinnon all claim spiritual connection to Columba. Those first two families bear echoes of his name, which was spelled in many different forms. The latter family, the MacKinnons, were abbots of Iona through a number of generations.


Iona Abbey. Photo by John Hile.

Of course, the epicenter of St. Columba spirituality today is the tiny isle of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island’s lore and legacy are spread worldwide by the Iona Community of men and women who try to follow the spiritual ideals inherited from St. Columba’s community. Iona has produced a remarkably influential circle of teachers and musicians. ReadTheSpirit magazine has featured interviews with the Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell, long associated with the Iona Community.

The Isle of Iona still attracts swarms of visitors during the summer months. Anyone can travel to the island and tour the sites administered now by Historic Scotland, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Parks Service. There is a pleasant hotel on the island, which is open to the public. But, visitors hoping to experience one of the traditional Iona retreats in the abbey need to register long in advance with the Iona Community, starting by checking out information on Iona’s website.

Care to see a bit of the island for yourself? ReadTheSpirit took a fascinating pilgrimage to Iona in 2007! Check out the series, including videos.


The Irish-born Columba studied at Clonard Abbey as a youth, amid others who would become some of the most influential figures in Irish Christian history. Of the thousands who studied at Clonard during the 6th century, a mere 12 stood out in the crowd and became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland; Columba was one of these 12. (Wikipedia has details.) St. Columba went on to be ordained as a priest and founded several monasteries. However, he also was accused of committing a crime that led to many deaths—and, in his efforts to “right a wrong,” cemented his name in history.

According to tradition, St. Columba copied the Book of Psalms while studying at Clonard Abbey, intending to keep his copy. When his instructor demanded the copy be handed over, Columba refused—and battle broke out. Rather than be excommunicated, St. Columba suggested he become a missionary in Scotland, to spread Christianity there. With 12 men in tow, Columba traveled to Scotland and didn’t stop until he reached a place where he could no longer see his native country: the island of Iona. Great success ensued, and soon, the man who had once been on the brink of excommunication was converting hundreds, eventually winning the affections of the pagan King Bridei and playing a role in Scottish politics. (Historic UK has more.) The “Vita Columbae” documents Columba’s miracles (which include an encounter with a Loch Ness Monster); his prophesies (which include one of his own death); and his apparitions. Columba also left behind several monasteries and hundreds of books when, according to records, he left the earthly world with such a smile on his face that those around him knew of the angels he had seen.

JUNE themes: Caribbean, African-American, LGBT and cat awareness

JUNE 2014: This month, groups of Americans will celebrate Caribbean Americans, African-American music, Gay Pride—and the adoption of cats. Among the business groups claiming June as a promotional month is the American dairy industry. Back in 1937, dairy farmers declared June National Milk Month and later the campaign expanded into National Dairy Month. Today, dairy-free folks also celebrate Dairy Alternatives Month in June. Among other food industries claiming June are producers of iced tea, seafood—and okra! Throughout June, you’ll also see news about National Fireworks Safety Month, an important theme as Americans prepare for their July 4 celebrations.
Here are a few of the bigger month-long celebrations …

Caribbean-American Heritage Month

Celebrate National Caribbean American Month

Click the logo to visit the official site.

Over the past three centuries, millions of men and women have moved to what is now the United States from the 700 islands known as the Caribbean. In 2006, the U.S. Congress called for an annual season honoring this group. Each year, the White House issues a proclamation designating June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month. This year, President Obama declared: “Caribbean Americans have contributed to every aspect of our society—from science and medicine to business and the arts.


National Museum of African American History and CultureLike the Caribbean-themed campaign, African-American musicians urged officials in Washington D.C. to honor their contribution to our nation’s culture. They succeeded in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter held a White House reception and named “Black Music Month.” Later, the idea was renamed, the White House remains involved—and plans are underway to have an annual June emphasis on music at the still-under-development Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. That museum is expected to open in 2015.


Stonewall Inn in New York City

Click this photo of the Stonewall Inn to visit the Wikipedia page about the Stonewall riots.

The late gay-rights activist and feminist Brenda Howard is credited with touching off the movement that led to today’s month-long series of LGBT Pride events. She helped to organize the first annual march to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in late June of 1969. Only two presidents have made annual declarations of this special month: Bill Clinton once and Barack Obama in each recent year. This year, the White House declaration says in part: “As progress spreads from State to State, as justice is delivered in the courtroom, and as more of our fellow Americans are treated with dignity and respect—our Nation becomes not only more accepting, but more equal as well. During Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month, we celebrate victories that have affirmed freedom and fairness, and we recommit ourselves to completing the work that remains.


You will enjoy our entire Interfaith Calendar of holidays and anniversaries. An easy way to reach that master index: Remember the URL InterfaithHolidays.com

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Rama Navami: Honoring the birthday of India’s Rama

Lord Rama and his wife

Lord Rama and his wife Sita in an image widely seen in India at this time of year.

TUESDAY, APRIL 8: For more than a week, starting with the Hindu new year Ugadi, families across India celebrate the April 8 birthday of Lord Rama. Hindu descriptions of Rama vary, but he generally is described as a divine of Vishnu, the supreme deity in Hinduism. Lord Rama certainly is one of the most popular deities in India and his annual festival is a time for recalling ancient Indian stories about him.

The Ramayana, or Rama’s Journey, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature—and a great epic in India’s sacred traditions. Written down in sanskrit about 2,500 years ago, the Ramayana is made up of 24,000 verses. Lengthy readings and recitations from the epic are a beloved part of this season each year.

Inspiring readings, decorations and fasting are traditional preparations for the birthday on April 8, this year. While Rama’s story is not widely known in the U.S., his image is echoed in other Asian cultures and also reportedly was an inspiration for the blue figures in James Cameron’s 2009 movie, Avatar.

Care to dig further into the vast riches of the Ramayana? Wikipedia has a fairly extensive introduction to the epic.

Observances vary widely by region. This year, The Hindu newspaper reported on one center in  Coimbatore, a city in southern India, where an 18-day celebration of Rama Navmi is underway! If you live near an Indian temple in the West, you are likely to see local Hindu communities planning all-day services for this special period of the year.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Qing Ming: Chinese on the move to honor ancestors

QING MING traffic jams are not a modern development! This detail comes from a much larger Chinese mural of a Qing Ming festival as men and women fill the streets and waterways.

QING MING traffic jams are not a modern development! This detail comes from a much larger, thousand-year-old Chinese mural of a Qing Ming festival as men and women fill the streets and waterways.

SATURDAY, APRIL 5: English spellings of the holiday vary, but newspapers in Asia are clear in reporting the most important news at this time of year: Watch out for traffic congestion and travel safely! Huge numbers of Chinese families are heading home to reconnect with their families and honor their ancestors at this time of year.

In the past, other English phrases have been used to describe this holiday: Wikipedia’s entry lists many names, including the Clear Bright Festival and Grave Sweeping or Grave Tending Day. The scale of annual ceremonies honoring ancestors has grown to elaborate heights in some eras—and shrunk in others—over many centuries. Chinese writers claim that the annual observance has continued in various forms for nearly 3,000 years!

Today, popular springtime customs associated with Qing Ming include kite flying, time spent with family, picnics and other outdoor gatherings near sites associated with ancestors. As spring flowers are blooming, many enjoy the sights and smells. Chinese news media already are featuring photos of families enjoying flowering trees in parks.

APRIL themes: Autism, Jazz, Poetry, Arab Americans and more

APRIL 2014: Americans will hear a lot this month about everything from jazz, poetry, Arab Americans, frogs and kites—to foods including Brussel sprouts and cabbage. Here are just some of the dozens of special month-long themes …


Autism Society logo for April awareness monthThe Autism Society offers a resource page for the April observance, including the recommendation that supportive men and women display the puzzle-piece autism-awareness logo. The Society says: “The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon is the most recognized symbol of the autism community in the world. Autism prevalence is now 1 in every 88 children in America. Show your support for people with autism by wearing the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon—as a pin on your shirt, a magnet on your car, a badge on your blog, or even your Facebook profile picture—and educate folks on the potential of people with autism!”


The coolest news from Washington D.C., this April, is that the Smithsonian is kicking off Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) by receiving jazz legend John Coltrane’s “Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, made in Paris about 1965, the year that A Love Supreme was released. The saxophone is one of three principal saxophones Coltrane played and will be on view in the Smithsonian’s American Stories exhibition.” (Unfortunately, the newly donated sax won’t make it onto public display until June.) Check news outlets in your part of the U.S. for special jazz programs this month. Look for events labeled with the appropriate acronym “JAM.” Plus, you may want to join the several thousand people who already have “liked” the Facebook page for Jazz Appreciation Month, a page that includes some photos of Contrane’s sax.


Nearly two decades ago, in 1996, The Academy of American Poets introduced National Poetry Month. The group was founded in 1934 and now gives away some of the most sought-after awards in poetry each year. The Wikipedia entry for the special month points out some of the past observances, including: the Empire State Building turning on blue lights in honor of the month, special White House programs and special distributions of poetry books. Look for regional events in our area through schools, libraries and bookstores. Here is the official 2014 National Poetry Month page, including a copy of this year’s poster, at the Academy site.


Relatively new in the long list of month-long themes is Arab American Heritage Month. Check schedules in your region for schools, libraries and community groups that may be scheduling programs. If you are coming to Michigan, visit the Arab American National Museum.

The following programs are just a handful of the many April themes promoted in various parts of the U.S.: Parkinson’s Awareness Month, Holy Humor Month, National Frog Month, National Kite Month—and many foods are honored, including Brussel Sprouts and Cabbage Month.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)