Saturday, February 28, 2015

"My Soul's a Shepherd, Too": George Herbert

This morning a Facebook friend paid tribute to poet George Herbert, who was commemorated yesterday in the Anglican Communion, and tomorrow in the ELCA. Herbert died in 1633, just short of his 40th birthday. The founder of the Little Gidding community encouraged him to publish his poems---a witness to the power of encouragement, because Herbert's poems became classics of beautiful, ingenious religious imagery.

Look back through blog posts, I realize I've returned in memory quite a few times to the now defunct Chapel Square Mall, a favorite stop in New Haven, CT. When I first discovered the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the albums I purchased (at that mall's music store) was the Five Mystical Songs, performed by John Shirley-Quirk. That was also my first introduction to Herbert's poetry---and ever after, the music and words give me lovely associations with New England.

1. Easter

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise with him may'st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is the best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long;
Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

2. I Got Me Flowers

I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East.
Though he give light, and th'East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

3. Love Bade Me Welcome

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

4. The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

5. Antiphon

Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing:
My God and King.
The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither flie;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing:
My God and King.
The Church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out;
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing:
My God and King.

RVW later set another poem, in his Christmas cantata Hodie.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.
Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my musick shine.

I return to that song often, throughout the year.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Interfaith Days: Baha'i Intercalary Days
Today (actually yesterday at sunset) marks the beginning of a four-day intercalary period in the Baha'i calendar called Ayyám-i-Há, or "Days of Há". Há, in turn, "is the Arabic letter corresponding to the English H [which] commemorates the transcendence of God over his attributes, since its name "Há" has been used as a symbol of the essence of God in the Bahá'í holy writings." (from this site, which contains additional information about these days as well as the special Baha'i calendar.) These days are dedicated to charity, hospitality, ministering to the sick and impoverished, meditation upon God's attributes, and other good works in preparation to the upcoming nineteen-day Fast. Here is a prayer for these days: See also this site.

(From the 2015 Interfaith Calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis---see for more information---and various online sources.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Interfaith Days: Clean Monday

Today is Clean Monday, or Ash Monday, or Pure Monday. It's the first day of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Lent. The name comes from the desire to cleanse oneself from non-fasting foods and sinful actions and attitudes. The whole week is devoted to housecleaning and daily confession. The first chapter of Isaiah, which stresses the sins of the people and the promise that they'll be clean again, is the week's theme. But it is also a happy time, in the spirit of Matthew 6:16-18.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Interfaith Days: Baha'i Nineteen-Day Fast

Today is the beginning of the Nineteen Day fast in the Baha'i faith, which has a calendar of 19 months with 19 days (periodically adjusted). The Báb, who founded the faith, insisted this sunrise-to-sunset abstention from food and drink for all healthy Baha'is between the ages of 15 and 70. Fasting is acceptable at other times of the year but it is obligatory during this month (with the exceptions of the sick, elderly, pregnant, and others, similar to the Ramadan fast). Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha'i Faith in 1921-1957, writes: "It is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul." (From this site). See also this description.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Interfaith Days: Chinese New Year
Today is the Chinese New Year. The festival begins with the new moon of the Chinese New Year this site indicates, "New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving. The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household and the family ancestors." This site gives some of the evolution and historical background of the day. It is celebrated not only in China but also in countries with large Chinese populations and also Chinatowns in multiple cities. This is the year of the goat.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Interfaith Days: Ash Wednesday, Scientology National Founding Day

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It is 46 days before Easter, beginning the 40 days of Lent (minus the Sundays). The time reflects the 40 days of Jesus' fast in the wilderness, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The ashes, from the palm branches of the previous year's Palm Sunday, are placed on worshipers foreheads with the reminder of our mortality and need for repentance.

February 18 is also the date when L. Ron Hubbard established the first Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, in 1954.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Interfaith Days: Shrove Tuesday, Maha Shivaratri

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of Lent in the Roman Catholic Church and other churches."Shrove" is the past tense of "shrive," which means to hear a confession, or or to assign penance, and absolve from sin. The day is also called Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras (which is French for "Fat Tuesday), or Pancake Tuesday. The photo is from this site.

Today is also Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival honoring the god Shiva and his marriage to the goddess Parvati. It is the most holy of the several Shiva festivals. The day is celebrated with fasting and offerings to Shiva, the chatting of the sacred mantra ("Om Namah Shivaya"), and penances. This site describes more about the day and is the source for this picture.
(From the 2015 Interfaith Calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis---see for more information---and various online sources.)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Interfaith Days: February 15, Parinirvana, Quinquagesima, Meatfare Sunday, Transfiguration

Today is Parinirvana, a Mahayana holiday commemorating the death of Siddhartha the Buddha, and his entry into Nirvana. As this website indicates, "Nirvana Day is a time for contemplation of the Buddha’s teachings. Some monasteries and temples hold meditation retreats. Others open their doors to laypeople, who bring gifts of money and household goods to support monks and nuns."

It is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or Quinquagesima, the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

In many Christian denominations, this is also Transfiguration Sunday, commemorating the event, recorded in the Synoptic gospels, where Jesus transformed into his glorified appearance along with Moses and Elijah atop Mount Tabor in Galilee. Peter, James, and John were the frightened disciples at the experience.

Today is also Meatfare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment. For Orthodox Christians, it is the third Sunday of the pre-Lenten period. Typically it is the last Sunday before Easter for eating meat. The Scripture lesson is the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), where we are enjoined to serve Christ via serving one another. This site explains more about the day and is the source of the icon below.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Interfaith Days: St. Valentine's Day, Race Relations Day

On the Christian calendar, as well as popular culture, today is the feast of St. Valentine. Much of what we know about him is legendary, but he was a priest, said to have been martyred February 14, 269 at Rome. He is the Patron Saint of couples, bee keepers, persons with epilepsy, love, young people, travelers, and others. He is symbolized with roses and birds. Two Catholic sites about Valentine are (the source of this picture) and

Today is also Race Relations Day, recognizing the importance of interracial learning, communication, and relations.

(From the 2015 Interfaith Calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis---see for more information---and various online sources.)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lincoln and Religion

Alexander Gardiner photograph
from February 5, 1865. 
Today is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s last birthday. He turned 56 on Feb. 12, 1865 and died a little over two months later. These are my notes for a talk I gave today to a St Louis-area interfaith group to which I'm happy to belong. The theme was Lincoln and Religion. I talked about three different aspects on the theme, and we discussed how biblical ideas of providence still shape our national identity.

Lincoln’s positive relationships with Jews 

Lincoln was known as an honorable person. His racial sensibilities changed over time, although he was consistent in his opposition to slavery, but he was apparently free from some of the sadly common prejudices.  For instance, his law partner William Herndon marveled that Lincoln felt positively toward the Irish!  From early in his life, Lincoln had friendships with Jews and was known during his presidency as a supporter of Jews. When he was a young man in New Salem, IL, he knew Louis Salzenstein, a storekeeper and trader from nearby Athens IL. Julius Hammerslough of Springfield, IL, who was later one of the planners of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., was a friend.  Others included Abraham Kohn, with whom Lincoln conversed about both Bible and politics, Henry Greenbaum of Chicago, and a few others.

Still another friend was Abraham Jonas, an English settler of Illinois who lived in Quincy. He seems to have met Lincoln in 1838, when they were both involved in Whig politics. Like Lincoln, Jonas later joined the Republican party. During the 1850s Jonah warned Lincoln that he (Lincoln) was supposedly seen at a Know Nothing Party event, which Lincoln (opposed to that nativist movement) vigorously denied. Since Jonas had Southern relatives, he also gave Lincoln a warning about Southern plots against him. Later, four of Jonas' sons served in the confederacy, and when Jonas was dying he asked Lincoln to intervene for his son in a military prison. Lincoln was able to secure the son’s release.

Lincoln's other notable Jewish friend was Isachar Zacharie, also an English immigrant. He met Lincoln in 1862. He was a physician and chiropodist who treated Lincoln’s bad feet. Lincoln also trusted Zacharie to do a little intelligence work for him in New Orleans, probably concerning the city's military circumstance.

There were two notable situations during the war concerning Lincoln and Jews. One was the fact that initially Jews were not allowed to be chaplains in the war. The Volunteer Act of 1861 only made reference to Christian clergy. Ohio congressman Charles Valdingham tried to amend the act to allow Jews, but the amendment was defeated. But soon a Union regiment out of Virginia sought to appoint a rabbi as chaplain, Arnold Fischel of New York, and Jewish publications raised the issue of discrimination when Fischel was turned down. By the end of 1861 Fischel met with Lincoln about the situation. Lincoln then issued several recommendations for improvement of the chaplaincy act, including the need to permit Jews to serve as chaplains, and by July 1862 Congress passed substantially the same amendment as Valdingham had raised earlier. Thus, Jews became chaplains.

Lincoln also addressed the situation of Gen. Grant’s “General Order #11”, which expelled Jews “as a class” from northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and western Kentucky. The circumstance seems to be the black market activity. There was still trade between those north and south during the war, but Lincoln limited it to dealers with licensees from the treasury dept. One of Grant’s duties was to oversee this effort. A few Jews may have been involved but most were not.  Yet Jews of that area were blamed en masse and were given twenty-four hours to leave.

Many Jews were expelled from Paducah, Kentucky. One man there, Cesar Kaskel, telegramed Lincoln, and he soon made a trip to Washington. Lincoln apparently was unaware of the order. After Kaskel made his case, Lincoln asked, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking for protection.” So Lincoln quickly ordered that Order # 11 be revoked, which Grant did.

Lincoln also appointed seven Jewish generals to the US forces:  Frederick Knefler, who served at Cickamauga and on Sherman’s march; Leopold Blumenberg, who served in the Peninsular campaign and Antietam, Leopold Newman, in First bull Run and died from wounds at Chancellorsville; Edward S. Salomon, and he was also at Antietam and Sherman’s march (Grant, when president, appointed him governor of Washington Territory); Alfred Mordechai, a West Point grad, Phineas Horowitz, surgeon general of the Navy, and William Meyer, who helped deal with the New York draft riots.  About 10,000 Jews served in the war, about 7000 from the Union and about 3000 from the Confederacy. About 600 Jews died in the war.

(Principal source: Naphtali J. Rubinger, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, New York: Jonathan David, 1962.)

Lincoln’s Religion

As biographer David H. Donald points out, Lincoln was not conventionally religious but embraced the Doctrine of Necessity: “that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” In this regard, Lincoln appreciated and often quoted a line from Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will.” Like many Calvinist Christians who embraced this doctrine, Lincoln was motivated to action by the idea of a divine providence, rather than remaining passive in the face of unalterable events.

Lincoln’s parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, were predestinarian Baptists. These ideas certainly influence him, but although he was taken to church as a chil,d he disliked and sometimes mocked the emotional preaching. His experiences of several deaths likely influenced him as well. His mother died when he was nine. His infant brother died, and his older sister, who had been a surrogate mother to him, died when Lincoln was nineteen.  During the years he lived in New Salem, IL (1831-1837), Lincoln was close to a woman named Ann Rutledge, but she died when she was only 22. He was said to be distraught over her death.

During his entire life Lincoln never joined a church or made a public confession of faith, nor was he baptized, but he was a frequent Bible reader. He was sometimes criticized as a free thinker and skeptic. He experienced criticism when he ran for Congress in 1846 against the Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright. In a public statement, he maintained he had never spoken against biblical authority or the divinity of Christ, and he stated that he could not support a candidate who was an enemy or scoffer of religion

Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln had four children, all sons. The second son, Eddie, died when he was 4 in 1850. The third son, Willie, died during Lincoln’s presidency, in 1862, and this devastated the family.  With Willie’s death and the difficulties of the war, Lincoln’s determinism became more theological, and he did attend a church in Washington (but never joined).

His theology of theological determinism became a deep meditation on the purposes of God, the idea of providence.  His more abstract ideas about a Higher Power became more a search for something more personally helpful. He called it “a process of cryrstallization” rather than “conversion.”  His idea of the doctrine of necessity became more a sense of divine purpose in the war that, in turn, compelled him and others to work toward the “great ends” that God willed.

This was an era when people intensely believed in providence, AND they believed they could accurately discern God’s purposes. Religion historian Mark Noll writes, "[Stonewall] Jackson, who was anything but ordinary in his military capacities, was also probably not ordinary in his profound trust in providence...Early in his adulthood, he started peppering his speech and corresopndance with phrases like ‘an all-wise Providence’ and 'the hand of an all-wise God.’ .. Jackson was almost incapable of accounting for any event or outcome during the war itself without referring it to God’s sovereign direction. After the dreadful fighting of the battle of Second Manassas, an aide observed to Jackson that the Confederates ‘have won this battle by the hardest kind of fighting.’ Jackson... would not hear of it: ‘No, no, we have won it by the blessing of Almighty God.’”

Noll continues, "Not surprisingly, when Jackson died from wounds suffered at the battle of Chancellorsville.. . common people throughout the nation... instinctively sought the divine meaning in the passing of someone who had so consistently ascribed to God the rule over daily life. Yet what would that message be?” Answers varied: God was blessing the Union cause, or alternately the Southern cause, with victory. “[S]ome Southern ministers proclaimed that removing Jackson was a providential means of stripping away human props so that the glory for the South’s forthcoming victory would be given to God alone.” (Mark Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” University of North Carolina Press, 2006, pp. 85-86).

Like his contemporaries, Lincoln sought the divine meanings in the prolonged war, but he was unusual in his belief that neither the North nor the South was exempt from God’s justice.

Lincoln’s Great Speeches

Taken together, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863 and the Second Inaugural Address in 1865 are a compendium of Lincoln’s faith and reveal his ideas about the providential purposes of God in the American experience.

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Willas notes that the Gettysburg address (November 19, 1863), draws upon 19th century transcendentalist philosophy about nature, as well as Greek funeral oratory.  But the speech---which from the outset alludes to Psalm 90 in its use of the word “score”---mainly builds upon biblical language of miraculous conception and of new birth. Like the supernatural conception of Jesus (one could also add Isaac and Samuel), American was “conceived in liberty”; the democratic ideal of liberty crossed the waters from Europe, as God’s Spirit moved across the waters, and was conceived in America.

The Gettysburg Address also contains language of new birth in, for instance, the Gospel of John chapter 3. Since this is a funeral oration honoring the dead, repentance is implied but not stated. But repentance is implied in the idea of new birth: American has drifted from the founding father’s principles of liberty and equality, requiring now a “new birth of freedom” that draws from Jesus’ language of new birth in John 3.

The Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865) draws upon theology of judgment and atonement, in a way that the Gettysburg Address could not since the occasion was a memorial rather than a sermon against sin. In the long third (of four) paragraphs of the speech, Lincoln quotes Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:7, a warning against being the cause of sin in someone else’s life. But slavery is such a sin, and both the North and the South are not immune from the stain of that sin. Thus, according to Lincoln, Northerners should not be perplexed if their prayers were not answered fully; “Judge not, that ye not be judged,” as Lincoln quotes Jesus (Matthew 5). Lincoln calls slavery an offense (sin) calling for punishment and the payment of the “debt” incurred by the sin. He uses accounting language: “paid” and “sunk” (which means to pay a debt) but especially the biblical language of blood sacrifice. Lincoln suggests that, if persons of faith do believe in the God of the Bible---who demands righteousness and punishes sin---they should not be surprised that the Civil War may be an atonement for the sin of slavery.

Here is an excerpt from that third paragraph of the Second Inaugural:

“Both [Northerners and Southerners] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said [and he quotes Psalm 19], ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

Garry Wills points out that the providential theology of Lincoln is by no means the triumphalism of, for instance, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Lincoln is more humble in the face of mysterious providence than, for instance, Stonewall Jackson. Instead, the speech concludes with a reference to “the work we are in,” which harkens back to the Gettysburg Address and makes the two speeches complementary:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan [that’s certainly a biblical expression!], to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Since the days of the Puritans, Americans have often believed themselves providentially guided and have adapted the biblical narrative of Israel to American experience, so that the United States is a chosen people obliged to witness to Liberty and to trust in God’s ways. (“In God, we trust,” “One nation, under God.”)  But God demands faithfulness, and judgment looms if we as a nation neglect God or pursue policies contrary to the divine will. My daughter and I used to see a billboard along I-70 in Indiana: “If American will worship God, God will bless America.” I’ve also heard preachers and others cite 2 Chr. 7:14 as applying to America (forgetting its context with Solomon and the Temple): “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Lincoln certainly fits within this tradition of American identity, but unlike the triumphalism of some of his contemporaries, Lincoln is more humble about the purposes of God and our corresponding responsibilities to serve one another, especially in the aftermath of the hideous war of his time, where 2% of the national population perished. Lincoln provides a good point of departure for a discussion about the role of religion and religious imagery in public and political discourse.

(See Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Interfaith Days: February 8, Sexagesima

Today is Sexagesima Sunday, the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or (approximately) the sixtieth day before Easter. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days. Today is also known as Exsurge Sunday, after the beginning of the introit, "Exsurge, quare obdormis, Domine?" (Arise, why do you sleep, Lord?) from Psalm 43. The Gospel lesson is Jesus' parable from Luke 8, of seed scattered on both good and gad ground. If one adds the pre-Lenten season onto Lent, one has not quite 70 days---close enough to represent the traditionally numbered 70 years of the biblical exile. Last year, I listened to all of Bach's sacred cantatas and posted about them; Bach wrote several cantatas for these three pre-Lenten Sundays.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Interfaith Days: February 4, Tu B'Shvat

This evening (February 3 until sundown February 4) begins the Jewish holiday of Tu B'shvat. It’s a Jewish arbor day, marking the beginning of spring and the new year for trees. This site describes aspects of this day. As that site explains, the rabbis designed four new year days, the notable one called Rosh Hashanah but also two others. Tu B'shvat is the time of calculating the agricultural cycle as well as biblical tithes of trees and fruit. In modern times, the planting of trees has been a popular observance.
The picture is from another interesting site:

Interfaith Days: February 3, Setsubun-sai

When it's so cold and snowy in so many places in the U.S., I've enjoyed learning about spring holidays that are happening around the world. Today is Setsubun, or Setsunbun-sai (that is "seasonal division"). It is a Shinto holiday, a kind of New Year's Eve but on the eve of spring. Shinto has a focus upon uncleanness and ritual, and so on Setsubun, the evil of the previous year is cleansed and driven away, in order to provide a fresh beginning for the upcoming year.

According to this site, people throw beans at a temple to drive out the evil spirits from their lives and to bring good fortune. At home, an older relative roleplays a demon, and the family throws beans at him, 'saying "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi", which means "Evil is out, good luck is within."'

For more information see: (the source of this photograph).

(From the 2015 Interfaith Calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis---see for more information---and various online sources.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Interfaith Days: February 2, Imbolc, Candlemas, Presentation of Christ

Today is the Gaelic holiday of Imbolc, the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This site gives a lot of background about the day, once honoring the goddess Brighid, which became Christianized to St. Brigid's Day. The Brigid cross (shown here from the Wikipedia site) is a common symbol. The holiday is celebrated by Neopagans as well as Celtic Reconstructionists, and for Wiccans, the day is one of their eight "Sabbats," also associated with Brigid.

In Christian churches, today is Candlemas, also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”

Today is also Groundhog Day, a festival originating from Pennsylvania Germans, who expected that groundhogs would pop out of their holes on Candlemas and see their shadows (or not). The day is also related to Imbolc, which included weather prognostication. So Groundhog Day is not a religious festival per se but it is related to these other days when, at the halfway point between winter and spring, the quality of spring's weather was anticipated.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Interfaith Days: February 1, Triodion Season, Septuagesima

In the Orthodox Christian Church, today begins the Season of the Triodion, the period leading up to Lent. The Triodion is the primary hymnbook of Orthodox Lent. More about this season can be found here. As that site indicates, the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts are suspended for this week. That's because the first Sunday of this season---this year it's February 1st!---is the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee had become proud of his twice-a-week fasting and his other observances, and so abstaining from fasts reminds us that we must be humble in all things and not let our observance make us look to our own efforts in our faith. ( All of the Triodion season focuses upon humility and the avoidance of hypocrisy.

Today is Septuagesima Sunday, a day no longer included in the Roman Catholic and most Anglican calendars. Septuagesima is the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday (February 18th this year.) Although the day is 63 days from Easter, the word means "seventy." Thus, the 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity.

(From the 2015 Diversity Awareness Partnership interfaith calendar---see for more information---and various online sources.)

It's not a religious holiday, but my grandmother, Grace (Pilcher) Crawford of Brownstown, IL, was born on this day in 1890.  She was a tremendous early influence on my religious life and my interests in religion.