by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Thursday of Holy Week (the week before Easter) has special meaning for Christians. Often referred to as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday (from the Latin mandatum which means "command or instruction"), it is not a “holy day of obligation” for Roman Catholics but often includes a church service commemorating the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was crucified.
The events recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 22, verses 19-20 — in which Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciplines — are said to be the liturgical basis for practicing communion. Many churches offer the Eucharist at a special mass on this day.
Some Roman Catholic priests will perform a rite of foot-washing to commemorate and reflect on Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his twelve disciples. The Gospel of John (13: 1-7) describes this act as a service to others despite your social position, a willingness to be closer to your neighbor. Though normally the task of a servant, Jesus performs this task as the host, despite the protest of his disciples. In doing so he invites them into an intimate fellowship with him, and modeling the behavior he wishes to teach to all humanity:
"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."
Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
Cardinal Roger Mahony washes the feet of 12 people, following the example of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 apostles, during the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
In England, a Royal Maundy Service is held on Holy Thursday. During the service, the king or queen gives Maundy money to his or her subjects — one coin for each man and woman equal of the royal’s years of birth.
Queen Elizabeth II (right) distributes the Maundy money to 86 men and 86 women during the Royal Maundy Service at York Minster in York, northern England on April 5, 2012. (Photo by Arthur Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)
In Jerusalem, processions of all sorts take place in the Old City on Holy Thursday.
Roman Catholic clergymen hold candles as they circle the Anointing Stone during the Holy Thursday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on April 5, 2012 ahead of Easter celebrations. Christians traditionally believe the church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. (Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor
"Contemplation" (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?
Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.
If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?
To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.
Amy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.Comments
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Photo by John (mtsofan)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sA 2.0
Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return.
The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent — the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent has called Christians to through the centuries.
Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from — even as it continues to endorse — the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”
Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or — forgive the pun — onto solid ground. When we Christians receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future — to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. We could even say: "remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!"
The season of Lent also reveals how relentlessly incarnational is the faith we confess. When Jesus sojourns for 40 days in the wilderness, it is physical hunger (“he was famished”) that the gospel writers make special note of — except in Mark’s version, this year’s lectionary gospel, which is characteristically spare with the particulars. Fasting from food and its physiological consequences are part of Jesus’ quest for wisdom, understanding, and clarity of purpose.
There is an essential unity among body, soul, and the material world. Jesus is not “freed” of his body — nor of his bodily needs and desires — for the sake of his soul. And his soul is not disengaged from the material realm. As Berry notes about scriptural religion generally: “The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.”
In our own time, a relentlessly incarnational Christianity invites reflection on a host of ways that body, spirit, and world interact — ways in which our whole lives and our whole selves are either enriched or impoverished by situations of our own making or circumstances beyond our control. What does it mean, for example, to observe a Lenten fast in the context of social and economic realities like starvation among the poor, increasing food insecurity among the middle class, and growing obesity rates for all of us? How has the formative rhythm of feasting and fasting been obscured, overridden, undone by a culture of excess in which increasingly every meal is a mindless, hastily consumed feast, lacking in both nutrition and conviviality?
Or this: When late in Lent we regard the body of Jesus on the cross, can we see him as he is?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Can we share in poet Mary Karr’s unflinching gaze of a human body abandoned and broken? Can the “sack of flesh” disabuse us of our tendencies to sanitize the scene, fetishize the cross, and spiritualize the meaning of this first-century revolutionary’s death at the hands of the imperial authorities? With theologian James Cone can we see the reciprocity between the crucified Christ and “the lynched black body” of America’s shameful past? A past, Cone reminds us, that is not so past: one-third of all young black men are in prison or somewhere in the “system.” Bodies, again, alas, abandoned and broken.
The ashes we Christians will receive on Wednesday may not convey enough of our connection to soil and stars and our sisters and brothers, but they do have deep associations with sorrow and repentance. The charcoal smudge across the forehead is a public sign that says to all I meet: I have sins to confess, wrongs to right. The challenge is to take this penitence seriously but to “wear” it lightly. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” warns Jesus in the gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. The task of repentance grounds us in the work of serving our neighbors, not ourselves.
The materiality of the faith we confess is most evident in a simple meal shared with friends. Christ’s body — taken, blessed, broken, and shared — makes of his followers a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others, including the earth from which we came and to which we will return. In Lent, we journey with Jesus to the place where his own “sack of flesh” redeems a broken world, revealing God’s love for all of creation, and forever conjoining body and soul, matter and spirit, earth and heaven.
Inset photo by Mandy Jansen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication with the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In preparation for the Maha Shivratri festival, an Indian girl touches up these in-demand statuettes of Lord Shiva at a roadside stall on the outskirts of Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Lord Shiva, one of the Trimurti in the Hindu trinity, is recognized today during the festival of Maha Shivratri. At this time, Hindus offer special prayers and fast to worship Lord Shiva, the Lord of Destruction. Lord Shiva’s devotees consider him to be the destroyer of the world, ego, and attachments. At temples devoted to Shiva, the devout pray and burn incense as offerings during a night-long vigil.
Shiva is often represented symbolically with a Shiva Lingam (photos below), an ancient phallic figure that is incorporated into the ritual of bathing as part of the Maha Shivratri celebrations. Subhamoy Das offers this helpful description:
The phallus symbol representing Shiva is called the lingam. It is usually made of granite, soapstone, quartz, marble or metal, and has a “yoni” or vagina as its base representing the union of organs. Devotees circumambulate the lingam and worship it throughout the night. It is bathed every three hours with the 5 sacred offerings of a cow, called the “panchagavya” — milk, sour milk, urine, butter, and dung. Then the five foods of immortality — milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, and sugar — are placed before the lingam. Datura fruit and flower, though poisonous, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered to him.
Nepalese Hindu women offer prayers to Shiva on the banks of the Shali River on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Hundreds of married and unmarried women in the Himalayan nation fast for the month leading up to Maha Shivratri with hopes of a prosperous life and conjugal happiness. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)
A Hindu priest scatters rose petals on the Shivling at the Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa village on Mahashivratri. The Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa, a replica of that in Nepal, is thronged by Nepalese Hindus across Gujarat state. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
The next morning followers break their fast after the nightlong worship with a family feast.Comments
by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor
In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.
In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.
For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.
by Meg Smith, guest contributor
Although I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.
My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.