Sunday, March 29, 2015

Interfaith Days: Palm Sunday, St. Mary of Egypt

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. In Christian celebration, the day recalls Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, when worshipers carried palm branches and used Psalm 118:25-26 to honor Jesus. The donkey on which he rode, symbolizing peace rather than war, harkens back to Zechariah 9:9.

In Orthodox Christianity, this is also the Fifth Sunday of Lent, honoring St. Mary of Egypt. Her feast day is April 1 but as a model of devotion and repentance, she is also honored on this Sunday. This site and this site tell her story.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Interfaith Days: Rama Navami

Today is Rama Navami, the Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Rama to Queen Kausalya and King Dasharatha. It is the conclusion of the week of Ramayana. One of the most important Hindu festivals, the celebration includes community meals, Vedic chanting at temples, decorations in temples, and images of infant Rama that are cared for by devotees. This site, which is the source of the picture, provides much information about Rama and this festival.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Interfaith Days: Khordad Sal

Zoroastrians celebrate March 26 as the birthday of the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster). His birth date, and even the century in which he was born, are unknown; March 26 is the sixth day after Nau Ruz (New Year). Some call this day "Greater "Nau Ruz." As this site indicates, on Khordad Sal prayers are offered, scriptures read, and parties happen to celebrate the day. "Parsi families come together during the festivities that are put on during Khordad Sal – if families are unable to be together then prayers are offered for those who are not in attendance. It is an important celebration for the Parsi community and because family (and community) is central to the themes of Zoroastrianism guests are invited to participate in the festivities. Parsis also take the time during Khordad Sal to be introspective. They look at ways in which they can improve the lives of others and themselves." See also this site.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interfaith Days: Annunciation

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
Today is Annunciation, the Christian celebration of the announcement by Gabriel to Mary that she would become Jesus' mother. Annunciation is nine months prior to Christmas, but also falls within the Lenten season when the adult Jesus proceeds toward suffering and death. It is also close to the vernal equinox, which several religions have observed recently.

According to a book I've been reading recently, the ancient church had already set March 25 as the date of Jesus' conception, because the spring equinox was also believed to have been the date of the creation of the world (when light and darkness are equal). But it was also thought to be the date of Jesus' crucifixion---and so creation, incarnation, and atonement coincided on the older dating of the spring equinox.(1)

1. Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe, eds., God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014), 143.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Jolly Flatboatman in a Divine Pose

Years ago, my wife Beth and I worshiped at a church which featured a reredos copy of Raphael's The Transfiguration of Christ. It was an excellent rendering of the 1516-1520 masterpiece. I never cared for this particular painting; I wish Elijah (on the left) didn't look so much like he's floating like one of the kids in Peter Pan, and Christ's hair looks poorly trimmed rather than wind-blown. As my daughter points out, too, the depiction of a different gospel story in the painting's bottom half seems distracting.

How interesting, though, to learn the connection between this painting, and work by the American painter George Caleb Bingham, who is the subject of a wonderful exhibition currently shown at the St. Louis Art Museum. This past weekend, the traffic through Forest Park was horrendous, but we had already given up on a previous outing to the park because of traffic---people desperate for a respite from winter and taking advantage of a pretty day. So we hung in and finally arrived at the museum--walked down to the zoo, too maddening to access by vehicle, and then toured the gallery. The Bingham exhibition contrasts several of the artist's paintings with drawings and sketches Bingham made of river workers and travelers.

One, I was amused to learn, has nearly the same pose as the transfigured Christ in Raphael's painting, revealing Bingham's knowledge of the artistic tradition. From now on, I'll enjoy Raphael's masterpiece a little more, because I'll remember the "jolly flatboatman," being his own lord of the dance as he and his friends float down the beautiful river.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Safe Spaces" and Classroom Discussions

I appreciated this piece by Judith Shulevitz in this weekend's NYT: "In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas." "In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity. As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea. But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe…..[W]hile keeping college-level discussions 'safe' may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else."

Interfaith Days: Sunday of St. John Climacus

Today is the FIfth Sunday of Lent. Until the late 1950s, the day was known as Passion Sunday in the Catholic Church and was the beginning of the two-week Passiontide. Passiontide is still observed in many churches. The Gospel lesson today is John 12:20-33.
Today is also the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Orthodox Churches. The day honors St John of the Ladder (Climacus), who wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book became a popular guide to spiritual growth and perfection. This site indicates that John, who was the "abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai (6th century) stands as a witness to the violent effort needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom (Mt.10: 12). The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, 'not against flesh and blood, but against ... the rulers of the present darkness ... the hosts of wickedness in heavenly places ...' (Eph 6:12). Saint John encourages the faithful in their efforts for, according to the Lord, only 'he who endures to the end will be saved' (Mt.24:13)." This site provides more information about him and the day.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Interfaith Days: Naw-Ruz, Nowruz, Week of the Ramayana

Nowruz festivities
Today is Nowruz, the vernal equinox and the first day of the Persian calendar. It is the most important holiday in Iran and is also a holiday for Zoroastrians. The day was adapted by The Bab, and then by Baha'ullah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, as the first day of the Baha'i calendar, to honor the Most Great Name of God, and the Manifestations of God (Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, Baha'u'llah, and others) in association with the new life of springtime.  This site describes aspects of the holiday. Here are Baha'i prayers for the day.

This is also the beginning of the Ramayana Week, culminating on the birthday of Lord Rama. It is a time of fasting and devotion to Rama, including the reading of the entire epic,
Heroes of the Ramayana, Rama, Sita,
Lakshmana, and Hanuman
the Ramayana, and also stagings of episodes of the Ramayana.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Interfaith Days: Ostara

Today is Ostara, the Wiccan/Pagan festival of the vernal equinox. Ostara is a version of the name of the German goddess Eostre, from which we get the name "Easter." The symbols of Eostre are the rabbit (or hare) and eggs, symbolizing fertility and new life. As this site indicates, "The purpose of Ostara is to celebrate the rebirth, the new beginning of a new life and to honor gifts that nature has presented us. For that reason, pagans celebrate this day in many ways, and these activities are similar with Easter, such as: egg hunts, egg painting…  It’s also the right time for them to have a good feast that has been stored from the winter months and enjoy fun with their family and friends. Besides, pagans also take a walk and visit the nature surrounding them, paying attention to all the changes in the atmosphere, even the little one. That’s when they are looking for the balance of their lives as well as showing their love towards nature." This site gives more information about the vernal equinox in different cultures, as well as this site.

This post was my 900th on this site, woo hoo!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Interfaith Days: St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's in Dublin

Today is the feast day of Saint Patrick. He was originally a Briton but was kidnapped by Irish raiders when he was sixteen. He spent several years as a slave in Gaelic Ireland, converted to Christianity, returned home and became a priest, then returned to Ireland. He was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland but he was very influential, converting many and achieving acceptance among the native Irish, so much so that he eventually became Ireland's patron saint. It is said that he used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. According to tradition he died on March 17, around the year 460. This site provides more information about him and the holiday.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Interfaith Days: Veneration of the Holy Cross, Laetare Sunday

In Orthodox Christianity, today is the third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. The day connects to the upcoming Good Friday, but also to the feasts of the Corss on August 1 and September 14. The scripture is Galatians 5:24, where Paul reminds the church that we have "crucified the flesh," that is, we've offered to Christ's healing power the wrong desires of our human nature.  As this site teaches, we "will have mortified ourselves during these forty days of the Fast, the precious and life-giving Cross is now placed before us to refresh our souls and encourage us who may be filled with a sense of bitterness, resentment, and depression. The Cross reminds us of the Passion of our Lord, and by presenting to us His example, it encourages us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice, being refreshed, assured, and comforted. In other words, we must experience what the Lord experienced during His Passion - being humiliated in a shameful manner. The Cross teaches us that through pain and suffering we shall see the fulfillment of our hopes: the heavenly inheritance and eternal glory."

In Roman Catholic churches, this is Laetare Sunday, or the fourth Sunday of Lent. "Laetare" means "rejoice" in the imperative form and comes from the day's introit, "Laetare Jerusalem." The Gospel is the story of the loaves and fishes, John 6:1-15. The day is also called Rose Sunday because the vestments may be changed from purple to rose, brightening the solemnity of the season with the color of flowers. A similar day is Gaudate Sunday during Advent.

Friday, March 13, 2015

John Adams' "Christian Zeal and Activity"

This past week I felt blue and Charlie Brown-ish, mostly because of emotional tiredness following a  happy but marathon effort to finish a 40,000-word manuscript in a timely manner. These days have been dreary, too, in terms of weather. To cheer up and feel more peaceful at heart, I sought out favorite music that I haven’t listened to for a while. It turned out to be the John Adams Earbox on the Nonesuch label, which my wife Beth bought for me in 1999 or 2000.

The January 2015 Gramophone magazine had a nice feature on the composer John Adams. I like this quotation (from his autobiography): “On a dark day I will become nearly overwhelmed at how little I have mastered in my life. Starting a new piece can cause me torment and can mean having to slog through a dismal swamp of indifferent ideas, pushing hem, prodding them, often abandoning them in disgust or desperation.” I valued that sentiment. Whenever I conclude a writing project (or some other big commitment) I begin to think about a next one, and for a while I feel similarly downhearted and self-doubtful.

My family and I met Adams on very brief occasions. When he won the Grawemeyer award for the violin concerto in 1995, Beth and I shook hands with him at the ceremonies. (Beth was on the Grawemeyer committee for the education award.) Then our daughter Emily worked as a dresser on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of The Death of Klinghoffer a few years ago, and she and Adams said hello to each other backstage as they passed each other. I was happy that Emily could use her theatre talents as part of a local production that became an occasion of intentional, interfaith understanding.

The article notes something that I hadn’t realized---since I’m a music lover but don’t know its technical side. Several of Adams works slow down harmonic rhythm in order to allow modulation to accomplish fresh things in a piece, the way Ravel’s Bolero has that change from C major to E toward the end. The article mentions several of Adams' earlier works, like Nixon in China and Harmonielehre, but his more recent pieces like Doctor Atomic and City Noir are on my list.

A favorite Adams piece for me is the short Christian Zeal and Activity. He got the name from a subject heading in an old hymnal. In the piece, he takes “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and slows it down so that it’s nearly unrecognizable (“like slow-moving bubbles in a thick, viscous fluid,” as he writes in the CD notes), but more mystical and meditative than Sullivan’s marching verses. Incorporated into the music are reassembled sections of a radio preacher’s sermon on Jesus' desire to make anyone whole, with the example of the man with a withered hand.

This week, I suppose I’ve been seeking wholeness from the too much busyness and emotional tiredness---my own desire for faithful activity, which gets mixed up with my self-esteem. Nice weather is on the way, and Easter is at hand.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Carl Nielsen's 5th Symphony

The January 2015 issue of Gramophone magazine had a short feature on Carl Nielsen’s fifth symphony. One of my best friends, a professional musician, introduced me to this symphony as he was doing research on the Danish composer. I used to play portions of the first movement during my course on Europe After Napoleon at IU Southeast, during the section on the early twentieth century, although I think Nielsen was (similarly to R. Vaughan Williams’ sixth symphony) expressing human duality rather than a lead-up to war or war itself.

I like the whole symphony but that first movement has always been a favorite. Writer Alan Gilbert discusses “the work’s sparse, pregnant opening... The two-note ostinato in the violas conitnues… soil from which the wind themes, delicate and ominous, emerge like flowering weeds” (p. 42). Part of that opening is a section for snare drum. Once the ominous opening segues into “the first movement’s major-key Adagio passage... ushered in by the most innocent of gestures on a pastoral oboe” (p. 42), one listens along with pleasure until “in bar 324... two flutes suddenly become possessed by that niggling motif from earlier.... Soon it starts to infect the whole orchestra, leading to one of the most extraordinary confrontations in the 20th-century symphony,” when the snare drum begins to improvise and disrupt everything else (p. 42).

Gilbert quotes Nielsen scholar Daniel Grimley that the symphony “tells you something about the world we’re living in today, when challenges and evil rear their ugly heads in unexpected ways. If the end of the snare drum was a total victory, then we’d be at the end of the symphony, but there’s still the second movement to go. How timely is that? We think we’re going to have resolution and peace and accord, yet somehow there’s still something to fight with---always” (p. 43).

Here's Leonard Bernstein's recording:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Interfaith Days: Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas

Today is the Second Sunday of Lent in Orthodox Christianity, the Sunday of Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). He was a monk of Mount ethos and later Archbishop of Thessalonica. He defended the tradition of prayer called Hesychasm against an Orthodox leader named Barlaam. Palamas' views were finally upheld by the Fifth Council of Constantinople. The vindication of his views are considered a second triumph of Orthodoxy; last week we thought about the iconodules who were vindicated by the Second Nicene Council. The day's scripture lessons are Hebrews 1:10-14; 2:1-3 and Mark 2:1-12. See more at this site.

In the Western church, this is the third Sunday of Lent. In  some churches it is called Oculi Sunday, so named because the first Latin word of the day’s introit from Psalm 24:15 is oculi, or “eyes”.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Interfaith Days: Holi, Hola Mohalla

Today is Holi, the Hindu spring festival Holi focusing on love, playing, and colors. It happens on the full moon before the vernal equinox and celebrates the approach of spring and the victory of good. (In the stories, the righteous Prahlada, son of the evil king Hiranyakashipu, remained devoted to Vishnu in spite of punishments from his father and evil aunt Holika, and Vishnu rewarded him. The Holi bonfire symbolizes the fire that killed Holika.) Beginning with bonfires and dancing, participants chase one another with colored powder and colored water, and throw colors on one another. Food, drink, treats, music, visiting, and dancing are aspects of the festival. See this site and also this site.

Today is also Hola Mohalla, the Sikh festival on the first day of the lunar month of Chett. The week-long festival includes food, music, poetry, camping out, and mock battles. Although the festival happens at nearly the same time as Holi, the name has a different derivation and connotes a military charge (halla). The tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, established the festival during the time when Sikhs were under attack. See this site for more information.

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Interfaith Days: Purim, Magha Puja

Today is the Jewish holiday Purim. In the biblical book of Esther, the enemy of the Jews, Haman, used lots (in Hebrew, "purim") to select the day--13 Adar--when the Jews would be exterminated. Read the story to see how he and his plans were thwarted. The next day, 14 Adar, became the day to celebrate Jewish deliverance. On the holiday, the book of Esther (called the Megillah) is read; people listening to the story make noise, boo, hiss, and shout whenever Haman's name is said. Drinking, costumes, merriment, and giving to the poor are important parts of the celebration. The Judaism 101 site gives good information about the day:

Today is also Magha Puja, a Buddhist festival that falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month. It is celebrated in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The day commemorates the occasion when 1250 enlightened monks assembled spontaneously to pay respect to the Buddha, who preached to them. It is a day to honor Shakyamuni Buddha and to do meritorious works. This site provides more details.

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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Interfaith Days: Ta'anit Ester

Today is the Fast of Esther, or Ta'anit Ester, the Jewish fast on the eve of Purim. Usually occurring on 13 Adar, the fast commemorates the three-day fast which Jews observed in the Esther story (chapter 4 of that book).  This site gives information about the day.

Here is the scripture (NRSV): "Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

"Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Interfaith Days: Feast Day of the Wesley Brothers

Today is the feast day of John Wesley and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement and renewers of the church. This site gives a good overview of their work and importance. The picture is from this site.

Monday, March 2, 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).

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Interfaith Days: Sunday of Orthodoxy, St. David's Day

In Orthodox Christianity, today is Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, or the first Sunday of Lent. The day honors the victory of those who favored icons (iconodules) over those who did not (iconoclasts) at the Second Nicene Council in 787. In Orthodox Christianity, Lent is also the forty day festival prior to Easter (Pascha), but unlike the Western churches, Sundays are included. This icon, from this site, depicts the restoration of icons. See also the Orthodox wiki and this site (also the source of this icon).

Today is also St. David's Day, an official day in Wales and unofficial in other countries. David was a Celtic monastic who died on March 1, perhaps 588 or 589. He founded a monastery at the present site of St. David's Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. He was the national patron saint of Wales during the time of the Norman invasion. His day has been celebrated by the Welsh and Welsh diaspora for centuries.