It began with a two-foot tall sculpture. Headless at that.
Three fishermen were casting their nets in the Paraiba River in Brazil. The year was 1717. Their nets were turning up empty until one of the fishermen pulled up a dark brown headless statue of a woman. Intrigued the fisherman cast his net again and pulled up the head. After finding the statue, the men’s net grew heavy with fish. They called the idol Nossa Senhora da Aparecida–Our Lady Who Appeared.
For the first 15 years, the small black Madonna was housed in one of the fishermen’s homes. Legends grew around the doll and the miracles it performed, including one legend about a slave who visited the shrine, whose chains broke when he came in contact with the idol. It became a symbol of hope for the oppressed in Portuguese-controlled Brazil. By the 1760s, due to its popularity a basilica was built to house the shrine, and the town itself became known as Aparecida.
The basilica was renovated in the 19th century. In the 1950s a new, larger basilica was begun to accommodate the overwhelming amount of visitors.
The Pope declared Our Lady of Aparecida the patron saint of Brazil in 1928, and today the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is widely considered the second largest church in the world after St. Peter’s. It can accommodate 45,000 people and receives almost 7 million visitors a year.
October 12th is the national saint’s feast day, but these days the holiday is also celebrated as Children’s Day. Children throughout Brazil look forward to this day all year, for it’s the day they unwrap gifts from their parents. In many places in Brazil, Children’s Day is even bigger than Christmas.
The Eucharist originates from Jesus’s words at the Last Supper.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.“
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Or, as Paul retold it to the Corinthians:
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenants in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Corpus Christi came about in the 13th century, when a 16 year-old girl named Juliana began having visions. Juliana had been placed in a convent at age 5, upon the death of her parents. At 13 she decided to become a nun. At 16 the visions began, first with a vision of the moon, shining bright, but with one black spot.
She puzzled over the vision. It wasn’t until many years later when subsequent visions and conversations with the Holy Spirit revealed to her that the black spot represented the absence of a joyful celebration of the “Most High and Most Holy Sacrament of the Alter.” The only observance of transubstantiation at that time was Maundy Thursday during Holy Week, which emphasized the Jesus’ suffering and death, but not the aspects of joy, love, and salvation that the Eucharist offered.
Juliana breached the subject of a feast for the blessed sacrament with the Archdeacon Jacques Pantaleon–originally a cobbler’s son two years Juliana’s junior–and the Bishop de Thorete of Liege. The Bishop , enamored by the idea, officiated the holiday on a local scale in 1246.
When Jacques, the former cobbler’s son, became Pope Urban IV in the 1260s, he recalled the holiday envisioned by Juliana and extended Corpus Christi to be celebrated across Christendom. It has been celebrated by the Catholic Church every year since 1264.
Corpus Christi is also observed by the Anglican Church. John Donne wrote of the Eucharist:
He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
and what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.
Happy New Year!
Up until 1752, March 25th was the first day of the New Year in much of the English-speaking world. It was also known as Lady Day back then. March 25 marks the anniversary of the Annunciation—when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her of her child to be.
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In the 6th century, a monk and historian named Dionysius Exiguus was asked to calculate the dates for Easter for many years. In order to do so, he set out to determine the precise dates of Jesus’s birth and death. Dionysius devised the Anno Domini (A.D.) dating system by counting backwards to Christ’s birth, or more accurately, Christ’s incarnation.
Using the reigns of Roman leaders, Dionysius calculated that the Christian calendar began 754 years after the foundation of Rome. He didn’t consider the first day of the Christian Era to be January 1 or even December 25, but nine months earlier—March 25—the Annunciation. In essence, the conception of Christ’s corporeal presence.
So, according to Dionysius’s system, March 24 in the year 999, for example, was followed by March 25 in the year 1000.
Though there are no clues in the Bible as to when the Annunciation occurred (except that it was six months after the conception of John the Baptist), early Christian scholars placed the date precisely nine months before Christmas.
For much of Christianity’s history, the Annunciation was one of the most important holidays of the year. Over the last few hundred years, the emphasis on the Annunciation has diminished, but it is still widely celebrated across the Christian world.
In New Orleans, Carnival season doesn’t end with Mardi Gras, it just gets going. On the heels of the Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day comes St. Joseph’s Day, one of the biggest celebrations of the year.
Saint Joseph is the Patron Saint of Italy; he’s particularly revered in Sicily, where prayers to the saint are believed to have ended a deadly drought in the Middle Ages. His Feast Day is celebrated by Italian communities throughout Europe and the Americas. And March 19 is celebrated as Father’s Day in countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Bolivia and Honduras.
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In New Orleans, Saint Joseph’s Day has long been celebrated by Italian-American communities. Just as the Irish throw cabbage, carrots, and potatoes in the New Orleans St. Patrick’s Day parades, the Italians have recently begun throwing spaghetti (thankfully uncooked and in boxes). Just don’t throw meatballs, as St. Joseph’s Day falls in the middle of Lent.
But the stars of Saint Joseph’s Day aren’t Italian at all. They’re the Mardi Gras Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians consist of dozens of “tribes”, centered around African-American communities. The tribes have names such as the Golden Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Fi Ya Ya, Creole Wild West, Cheyenne Hunters, Yellow Pocahontas, and Guardians of the Flame. They meet throughout the year, but come Carnival season the tribes really strut their stuff. Literally. The tribes blend West Indian and African roots with Native American traditions to create some of the most incredible outfits, or “suits”, you’ll ever see.
The suits involve hundreds of feathers, beads, and other ornamentations. Tribe members—the Chiefs especially—can spend all year, and thousands of dollars, on a single outfit, and do so year after year.
The traditions and rivalries go back to at least WWI, though in not as formalized a way. Tradition holds that the Chiefs of each tribe confront each other and present their suits on Mardi Gras and Super Sundays (the Sundays closest to St. Joseph’s Day), surrounded by their designated Flag Boys, who carry banners and totems. Each Chief spreads his wings to emphasize the beaded panels hanging from his arms and chest.
Around 1970 the ceremonies were moved from the evening of St. Joseph’s Day to the nearest Sunday afternoon, making it a more family-friendly event, but the Mardi Gras Indians still meet and celebrate on March 19th as well.
Most years, there are actually two Super Sundays, usually one on either side of March 19. One is led by the Uptown Indians, called “New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council’s Super Sunday,” and the other by the Downtown Indians, called “Tambourine and Fan.”
The costumes are the most visual, but by no means the only tradition of Super Sundays. The celebrations include singing, dancing, music, and performance.
No one’s sure why the tribes celebrate on St. Joseph’s Day.
Montana, the “Godfather of the Chiefs” had been a involved with the Indians for over a half-century when he died of a heart attack at a New Orleans City Council meeting on June 27, 2005. His last act was to testify against police violence towards the Indians during the celebrations.
“With 83 years under his belt, this man came to the podium and reviewed interactions with the police over the past 52 years he’s been involved. Tootie astutely blew holes in all of Mayor Nagin’s exhortations by describing the police violence he has seen and experienced over his many years as Chief…His last words were ‘This has got to stop,’ and he turned from the podium, slumping towards the floor.”
Montana died just two months before Hurricane Katrina. Over the past several years, the Mardi Gras Indians have worked to overcome the double tragedy of the loss of the Chief of Chiefs and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“This was the moment, in the old days, when a knife would flash, a shot would pop, a broken bottle would fly. But the legacy of Tootie Montana and countless other chiefs who have striven to transform Indian culture from gang warfare to street art held firm. The drumming and chanting reached a crescendo, then burst and faded. The two chiefs laughed and embraced; the sweaty crowd applauded, took swigs from bottles of water and beer, and moved on down the avenue to find another battle.”
Don’t tell your co-worker he has dirt on his face; he’s been told this a dozen times already today, and it’s not dirt.
The ashes on his forehead, resembling the shape of a cross, most likely come from palms that were burned last year after Palm Sunday and were blessed by a priest. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, Catholic priests and some Protestant ministers mark their parishioners foreheads with the ashes, which symbolize both repentance and mortality.
“…till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19
Or as the Book of Common Prayer succinctly puts it: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Ashes have symbolized repentance since the days of Moses, when Hebrews used the ashes of a burnt sacrificial cow for purification:
“Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke…It is to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered…The heifer is to be burned…
…A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer… They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin.” Numbers 19:2-9
Later, in the time of Esther:
“When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” — Esther 4:1
Sackcloth and ashes often went hand in hand in the Scriptures.
“The name of Ash Wednesday is derived from a custom that prevailed in the primitive Church, for penitents at this time to express their humiliation by lying in sackcloth and ashes.”
Though featured prominently in the Bible, sackcloth was no fashion statement. It referred to different fabrics over the centuries, often a coarse material made of goat hair. Whatever it was, it wasn’t comfy. Criminals were forced to wear it as punishment, and to signify their status to others. People also wore sackcloth for mourning and repentance.
“Such persons as stood convicted of notorious crimes were on this day excommunicated by the Bishop, and not admitted to reconciliation with the Church until after the most public testimony of sorrow and repentance, and the greatest signs of humiliation.” (Jackson, 1847)
The sackcloth-and-ash self-flagellation combo was firmly established by Jesus’ day. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus denounces cities in which he had previously performed miracles by saying:
“If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Matthew 11:20-21
The Ash ritual became an annual event that marked the beginning of Lent sometime around the 7th century. Forty days before Easter, sinners were denounced and temporarily excommunicated. They were cast out, like Adam and Eve from Eden, and forced to live apart from their families and the parish for 40 days, hence the root of our word quarantine (“40 days”).
It’s actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The “40” days don’t include Sundays.
During the Middle Ages the emphasis on repentance shifted from from sins against the public to internal sins against God, a theme that is still at the heart of period known as Lent.
Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.
The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.
In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.
The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.
Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.
In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.
The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from Judean port
Aboard a Roman Ship.
The weather started getting rough,
The Roman ship was tossed.
Because of the sermons of the fearless Paul
Not a single life was lost.
They splashed about for 14 days,
No sight of sun nor star.
Until they crashed upon the reef
Of Malta’s rocky shore…
Of Malta’s rocky shore.
Reminded this was nothing to
His Savior’s sacrifice
Paul introduced the pagans there
To eternal life with Christ.
Here, on St. Paul’s shore!
St. Paul (the artist formerly known as Saul of Tarsus) was one of the worst persecutors of Christians before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus. The former Bad Boy of Tarsus is the only Apostle never to have toured with the living Jesus; yet he has more New Testament works attributed to him than any other author. At least 7 NT books are attributed to Paul, and he’s credited with having written or inspired another 8, making him responsible for up to half of the New Testament’s 27 books.
In the late 50s AD, the Apostle Paul was nearly stoned to death by his fellow Jews for bringing Gentile into a Jewish Temple. He demanded his right to be tried before a Roman court, hence his journey across the Mediterranean around 60 CE.
Because of the shipwreck, Paul was a few years late for his court date. He continued proselytizing in the Mediterranean before being tried in Rome. He lost his head during the reign of Nero, around 64 or 67 AD.
St. Paul is the patron saint of Malta, and the bay where he is believed to have crashed still bears his name.
February 10th is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as the feast day of the Shipwreck of Saint Paul, and it’s a national holiday in Malta. On this day each year the statue of St. Paul is carried in a procession through the streets of Valletta.
June 29, 2008 to June 28, 2009 was declared the “Year of St. Paul” by Pope Benedict XVI.
“So this Rabbi and a tax collector walk into a temple…”
Yes, this has all the makings of a great joke, but it’s actually Luke 18:10. Eastern Orthodox Churches recall the story of the Pharisee and the Publican today, the fourth Sunday before Easter. A different section of the New Testament is read each weekend during Lent.
The first parable of the Triodion (literally, ‘three odes’) stresses humility before oneself and before God…
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men—thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all that I possess.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Father George Morelli compares Lent to “a boot camp refresher course that we take each year so Christ’s teachings can be better lived in us…”
Next weekend churches focus upon the Return of the Prodigal Son and the Commemoration of the Dead.
The following weekend: the Last Judgment and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve.
Luke 18 is also the chapter where Jesus is asked:
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”