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.
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.
And God maketh the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, and God seeth that it was good.
— Genesis 1:25
Before there was Doctor Dolittle, there was St. Anthony Abad, patron saint of the animal kingdom.
St. Anthony the Hermit, or St. Anthony the Great, was born in Egypt in 251 AD and lived to be 105. At age 34, he relinquished all his wealth and headed into the desert to be alone with God and meditate on Christ. He spent twenty years in isolation living in an abandoned Roman fort on a mountain by the Nile. The devil tormented him with images of animals attacking him, but Anthony never gave in.
Later in life, according to legend, various animals helped guide Anthony on his travels, including a wolf and a raven. Once a dog attacked his enemy. Once he cured a pig from illness. He’s often pictured wandering the wilderness with a pig by his side.
Anthony’s other claim to fame was his fight against the followers of Arian Christianity in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Arias was an Egyptian Christian who taught that, while Jesus was divine, he was not the same as God. The Council of Nicea declared Arian Christianity heretical in 325 AD.
Blessings of pets and livestock are common, but not limited to Latin and Hispanic cultures. The biggest ceremonies occur on the Sundays nearest the feast days of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4) and St. Anthony the Hermit (January 17).
St. Anthony died on January 17, celebrated as his spiritual birth in Heaven.
Even now I remember being caught up in the moment, feeling inexplicably happy when my doggie received her very own blessing from the priest. When all is said and done, it was a remarkable experience, a chance to share our love for our beloved pets, and to renew our commitment to protecting and respecting all of God’s creatures.
Today is St. Genevieve’s feast day. She’s honored as the Patron Saint of Paris.
St. Genevieve became a nun at the tender age of 15 and devoted the rest of her life—another 65 years—to Christ. The secret of her longevity may have been her diet. She didn’t eat much more than barley bread and beans, and according to her biography, only twice a week, Sundays and Thursdays. She loosened this restriction at the age of 50 at the request of some bishops.
When Huns Attack
During the Hun invasion of what’s now France in 451, St. Genevieve’s prayers were believed to have prevented the Huns from attacking Paris; they headed toward Orleans instead. (Notice Genevieve is not the patron saint of Orleans…)
The following decade, during the lengthy Childeric siege on the city, Genevieve sneaked through a blockade to bring back much-needed grain to Paris’s starving citizens.
Death did not stop Genevieve from performing miracles. Parisians held a procession of her relics during the deadly plague of 1129 which killed 14,000 people. Spread of the disease ceased almost immediately, and many who were sick were reported to have healed upon touching her relics.
St. Genevieve’s saint day is January 3, but for centuries Parisians celebrated the anniversary of that first procession–November 26, 1129–with another procession in her honor.