Annunciation: Christians recall Gabriel’s visit to Mary

Painting of woman sitting in the dark by a doorway with a white angel looking at her through the doorway

A depiction of the Annunciation. Photo by Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 25: Jesus’s Passion and Easter (Pascha) may be on the horizon for the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, but today the Church turns to an event much earlier in the story of Jesus: the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Delivered by the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation informed Mary that she would soon conceive and bear a son; this son, to be named “Jesus,” would be the savior of mankind, according to Christian tradition. The Gospel of Luke describes how Mary, though frightened at first, listened to Gabriel’s words and then replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” In the Church’s calendar, the Annunciation falls precisely nine months before Christmas.

Gospels give no concrete evidence of the location of Mary’s Annunciation, though most agree that it took place somewhere in Nazareth. (Wikipedia has details.) While Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, the Annunciation was given to Mary: It’s written that John “leaped” inside Elizabeth upon hearing Mary’s news. As part of the Annunciation, Gabriel assured Mary that she had found favor with God, and the Catholic church emphasizes God’s decision to not only place the Son of God in her womb, but to “enrich her soul with a fullness of grace,” as well. (The Global Catholic Network has more.) The Annunciation is held in such high esteem, in fact, that it is observed as a feast in the Eastern Church even if it falls on Great and Holy Friday. The Annunciation is also described in the Quran, and Muslims tradition relates the Annunciation as having taken place during the month of Ramadan.

Orthodox Christians move to Great Lent with Meatfare and Cheesefare Sundays, then Clean Monday

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, FEBRUARY 23: 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 (Easter on April 20 this year)—but dairy products still are allowed for another week.
  • SUNDAY, MARCH 2: 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 3: 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.
  • EAST & WEST and the unity of Easter: Western Christians begin their Lenten season this year with Ash Wednesday on March 5. In this year (2014), the celebration of Easter—or Pascha in Orthodox terms—is shared by the world’s 2-billion Christians, East and West. But the centuries-old East-and-West differences in calculating Easter’s date won’t unify the Christian world again until Easter 2017—and then 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.

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

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.

WHY KITES?

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.

TASTE CLEAN MONDAY: LAGANA

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.

THE STORY OF THE PRETZEL

Long associated with the Lenten season, the Pretzel stretches back more than a millennia. Today, columnist Suzy Farbman tells the … twisted history of this popular treat.

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

Feast of St. Basil: Orthodox celebrate an ancient Christian hero

Cake with '2011' made of blanched almonds

Vasilopita, a Greek Orthodox cake traditionally made for the Feast of St. Basil, is often decorated with blanched almonds in the shape of the New Year. Photo by Sofia Gk, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1: The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated with hymns from St. Basil in Eastern Orthodox churches today, as devotees observe both the Circumcision of Christ and the Feast of St. Basil the Great. Across Greece, kitchens and bakeries are filled with the fragrance of baking Vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake. Recognized this year among USA Today’s “14 Holiday Desserts Worth a Trip,” vasilopita is characterized by its sweet ingredients, which are placed in the bread to symbolize the sweetness of life. Beyond a basic recipe, however, vasilopita varies greatly by region: It can be everything from a kneaded, bread-like version to a richer, denser cake. Whatever the recipe, Greeks believe that the “bread of Basil” brings good luck to a household in the year to come. Each household’s senior member slices the cake, and one lucky participant receives in his piece the coin that was hidden in the bread, which traditionally brings him luck for the coming year.

Are you fascinated by food-and-faith customs around the world? Then, you’re sure to enjoy our Feed The Spirit department with Bobbie Lewis. And, you’ll enjoy our book by Lynne Meredith Golodner, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

ST. BASIL THE GREAT:
A PATH ‘ALL IN THE FAMILY’

In contrast to the many saints who left their wealthy families to pursue an ascetic life, St. Basil the Great came from a family of steadfast, righteous Christians and maintained those family ties. Born to Basil the Elder and Emmelia in Caesarea of Cappadocia in 329 or 330 CE (dates vary), St. Basil the Great claimed a martyred grandfather and a mother and father renowned for their piety. Eventually, four of Basil’s siblings would become regarded as saints.

As a youth, St. Basil studied in Constantinople and Athens, eventually following his sister’s advice to turn from academics and law to a simpler, more virtuous life. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) In approximately 370 CE, Basil was elected as a bishop. This was the ancient era when what we would now consider orthodox Christian leaders, including Basil, were locked in a dispute that became known as the Arian controversy. Basil was highly respected, even by his opponents—so much so that the Arian Emperor Valens even asked for prayers over his gravely ill son, which Basil did, and the boy healed.

Man at long table cutting into a vasilopita cake

Cutting into a vasilopita cake. Photo by Sixskinsia, courtesy of Flickr

Basil died on Jan. 1, 379 CE, at age 49. He left behind hundreds of theological letters that discuss the mysteries of creation and the Holy Trinity, in addition to thoughts on monastic communal life—which are held in such high regard that they earned him the title, “the Great.” Numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name, as do the Roman Catholic Basilian Fathers. Basil is recognized as a saint in both Eastern and Western Christianity.

ST. BASIL THE GREAT:
A GREEK ‘FATHER CHRISTMAS’

In Greece, children await January 1 with great anticipation, as both feasts and gifts await them on this special day. On the eve of Jan. 1, adults and children carol New Year’s songs from house to house, and children believe that St. Basil delivers them gifts at night. On Jan. 1, feasts are prepared as abundantly as possible, in the belief that the more lavish the table, the more plentiful blessings will be in the New Year. Pork and the vasilopita are mainstays of every Greek table, and the senior member of the household makes a sign of the cross over the vasilopita before cutting into it.

In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, St. Basil’s feast is observed on Jan. 2.

Looking for a fun way to observe St. Basil’s Day? Try baking a vasilopita, singing carols and reciting a table blessing, courtesy of Catholic Culture.

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

Feast of John the Baptist: East and West come together to celebrate the Forerunner of Jesus

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, "His name is John." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, “His name is John.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JUNE 24: An unparalleled human birth is celebrated across the Eastern and Western Christian Church today, on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Or, in Eastern churches and communities around the world, many call this the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner.

Wikipedia has more on the Nativity. And, Catholics can find all of the Bible readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist online now, thanks to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Virtually all saints are commemorated on the day of their death—the day of entrance into heaven—except for St. John the Baptist and Jesus’s mother Mary. Christians also mark Jesus’s Nativity. But these Nativity feasts are exceptional customs intended for figures the Christian church traditionally believes were born without sin.

John also holds special status because the celebration of his birth has such ancient roots. Unlike many newer Christian holidays, John’s birth has been celebrated since the early centuries of Christianity. Why? In part because his birth is detailed in the Christian Bible. His birth became a first step in foretelling the coming of Jesus.

Care to read the entire story? You will find it only in the Gospel of Luke and, while the Catholic readings listed above contain part of the gospel story, here is the entire account which extends from Luke 1 verse 5 through 80. The passage contains some of the most beautiful and widely repeated lines in the New Testament, including Mary’s own hymn of praise.

AN ASCETIC FORETELLS THE KINGDOM

Years passed, and John became an ascetic in the desert before announcing the coming of the Kingdom, calling all people to undergo a reformation. John announced his purpose as being solely to prepare the way for a Messiah. Hundreds came to the banks of the Jordan River, including Jesus, whom John immediately recognized. John sent all of his followers to Jesus, insisting that “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease.” Some interpret John’s statement as indicating the cycles of the sun and, therefore, cuing its proximity to summer solstice; Augustine explained that John’s observance falls close to the summer solstice because Jesus’ falls close to the winter solstice. Both are festivals of light, and bonfires on St. John’s Eve have been a popular custom for millennia.

PAGANS & CHRISTIANS & St. John’s Fire

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year's St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year’s St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

In many communities around the world, St. John’s Eve still is greeted with St. John’s Fire. If that reminds you of pagan customs associated with the Solstice, then you’ve got a talent for cultural anthropology. Think about the ancient origins of the St. John the Baptist Nativity holiday, and its placement on a fixed date close to the Solstice, and the resulting Christian-Pagan friction across Europe is not surprising.

In a recent Scientific American column, Maria Konnikova reports on the diverse array of customs surrounding the Solstice. Among them is St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Fire. She writes: “With the rise of Christianity and accompanying threat to pagan traditions, the summer solstice became celebrated in many parts of Europe as the day of St. John the Baptist—St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia.”

Across the U.S., customs vary widely so check your local news media. A news report from northern Kentucky says that Episcopal churches in that region plan to combine their Monday evening liturgies for St. John’s Nativity at a central location. In California, the San Juan Bautista Mission is combining St. John’s Nativity with a fiesta to recall the early Hispanic settlers who built the mission. Of course, you will find the most lively observances in parishes named for St. John the Baptist.

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

Pentecost: Orthodox Christians count 50 days from Pascha

Man in black robe with green stole waves hand over long table of foods before onlookers

Pentecost feasts are extensive in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 23: The Godhead has been revealed and the mission of Jesus is fulfilled: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, today is the feast of Pentecost. Fifty days following Great Pascha (Easter), Orthodox Christians recall the ancient day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. As is written in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples began speaking in languages they had not previously known; those nearby were awestruck when they overheard uneducated fishermen speaking God’s praises in alien tongues. (Learn more from OrthodoxWiki.) Eastern Christians believe the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus the full Trinity had been revealed. For this reason, today’s feast is alternatively called Trinity Day.

In most Eastern Orthodox congregations, Pentecost services begin the evening prior to the feast. The Great Vespers of the evening give way to the Matins service of the day, and a special Kneeling Vespers is performed; although kneeling during Liturgy is suspended during the Paschal season, the suspension is lifted at Pentecost. (Get details from the Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Liturgical readings and hymns will begin a “new year” of counting today, as each week they are read in terms of “weeks after Pentecost.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Monday after Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Spirit; the Sunday following is the Feast of All Saints.

Millions of Orthodox Christians enter Holy Week

An Orthodox interpretation of the waking of Lazarus from the dead. Photo in public domain

An Orthodox interpretation of the waking of Lazarus from the dead. Photo in public domain

SATURDAY, APRIL 27 AND SUNDAY, APRIL 28: Easter may be past for Western Christians, but the Eastern Orthodox Church is just heading into Holy Week with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Traditionally, Lazarus Saturday is the day when hermits would temporarily leave their ascetic lifestyle behind, traveling to a local monastery for Holy Week services. Today, the Russian Church utilizes green vestments and church hangings for the weekend, symbolizing the renewal of life, while members of the Greek Church weave elaborate crosses from their Palm Sunday palms.

LAZARUS SATURDAY: FORESHADOWING RESURRECTION

Throughout the week leading up to Lazarus Saturday, hymns in the Orthodox Lenten Triodion detail the sickness and eventual death of Lazarus. According to the Gospel of John, the sisters of Lazarus write to Jesus as his sickness progresses; Jesus writes back, reassuring the sisters that the illness will not lead to death. Yet by the time Jesus arrives to see Lazarus, he has been in a tomb for four days. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) As his family and friends weep, Jesus displays his full humanity by weeping with them. Then, he demands the stone be removed from the cave, and turns his face toward heaven for a conversation with his Father. Displaying his full divinity, Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus emerges from the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths. This traditional story is recalled in Orthodox communities worldwide. (Wikipedia has details.) For the disciples, this was a reassurance that Jesus would ultimately triumph through the coming Passion with Resurrection.

Although Lent has officially ended, most Orthodox Christians continue to fast, with permission now to add wine and oil. Russians customarily eat caviar today, while Greeks bake spice breads known as Lazarakia.

PALM SUNDAY: THE FULFILLMENT OF A PROPHECY

Now, the traditional story shifts for millions of Orthodox families: Liturgy and readings recall how, surrounded by clamoring crowds, Jesus rides into Jerusalem in triumph. After having awoken Lazarus, Jesus is seen as the one named in the prophecies of the Old Testament: the Son of David, the King who has come. The crowds lay branches before Jesus, in an act that is mimicked in churches to this day. (Read more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

The feast of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem is one of the 12 major feasts of the Eastern Orthodox year.

Christian: Palm Sunday (& Sunday of Orthodoxy)

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Palm_Sunday_fronds.jpgPalm fronds woven into crucifixes. Photo courtesy of FlickrSUNDAY, MARCH 24: Holy Week kicks off for Western Christians with waving palm fronds reminding modern churchgoers of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Described in all four Gospels, Jesus’ ride was a popular event. Those who had gathered to greet him lay down their cloaks and small branches in his path, in imitation of a custom used only for those of highest honor.

WHAT’S IN A PALM? Although today bears the theme of palm fronds, only one Gospel—John’s—specifically identifies palms in the procession. In the ancient world, palms were symbols of high esteem and victory; they sometimes appeared on coins; ancient Egyptians carried palms in funeral processions as a symbol of eternal life. Even Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls and doors of the temple, and to this day, palms are one of the Four Species for the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Wikipedia has details.)

In Christian churches today, the faithful will receive blessed palm leaves (or a substitution that can be found locally), and many will carry them home to display. In Mexico and Italy, especially, many will weave the palms into elaborate patterns and shapes and hang them above holy pictures, behind a crucifix or on the wall. (Learn to weave palms with help from this site.) In Elche, Spain—the site of the largest palm grove in Europe—palm leaves whitened and dried, after which skilled craftsmen braid them into extravagant shapes and figures.

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Palm_Sunday_palms.jpg

PALM SUNDAY AROUND THE WORLD

The BBC issued a widespread plea for a new donkey this year—for a Palm Sunday service in Wiltshire. Reenactments are common around the world. In one community in Belgium, 12 actors imitate the apostles and carry a wooden statue of Christ through the streets; Filippinos tote their own statue of Christ through villages on a donkey, before which elderly women spread heirloom aprons in its path. Italians offer blessed palms to one another as gifts of reconciliation, while in Ukraine and Poland, pussy willow branches are playfully struck on others. (Get more customs and information from FishEaters, a Catholic site.)

EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS: SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Orthodox_icon_.jpgEach Sunday of Lent represents a theme in Eastern Orthodoxy, and this—the first Sunday of Lent—recalls the historic victory of icons.

While most themes are spiritual, this one is historical, as the Triumph of Orthodoxy occurred at this time in 843 CE. Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. More than a millennia ago, an iconoclastic controversy had been raging for decades. What began in 726 CE had forced a rift among Christians, with Iconoclasts believing the miracles and worship attributed to icons was a dangerous form of idolatry; Iconophiles, or Iconodules, argued that boundaries needed to be set but that icons remained an important part of man’s expression of the divine. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 deemed icons objects worthy of veneration, but not worship. In 843, icons were restored and their place reestablished. (Read more at Orthodox Wiki.) The spiritual theme of this Sunday is the victory of True Faith, and the texts sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy reflect those official teachings about icons.

Eastern Christians will observe Palm Sunday on April 28 this year.