Fourth time’s a charm?

abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portraitYesterday I noted a Detroit Free Press story that referred to a Good Friday Mass at a Catholic church. No Mass is celebrated on Good Friday but the service is called the Mass of the Presanctified. So I sort of gave the reporter a pass, even though it violates Associated Press style guidelines.

But Clay Waters over at Times Watch notes that the New York Times seems to be having particular trouble with inserting the word “Mass” into Good Friday discussions:

And they say journalists know nothing about religion. Whatever gives people that idea?

Correction Appended: April 14, 2009 — “An article on Monday about the final Easter Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, referred incorrectly to the service he presided over on Good Friday. It was a liturgical service, not a Mass. (No Mass is said on Good Friday.)”

Correction Appended: February 8, 2009 — “An article on Jan. 25 about Pope Benedict XVI’s revoking the excommunication of four schismatic bishops referred incorrectly to the use of a Good Friday prayer that calls for the conversion of Jews. The prayer is part of a service — not a Mass — on Good Friday, according to a traditional version of the Latin Mass, known as the Tridentine rite. (No Mass is said on Good Friday.)”

Correction Appended: February 12, 2008 — “An article on Saturday about a resolution by Conservative rabbis critical of a prayer on Good Friday referred incorrectly to that prayer. It is part of a service on Good Friday, but not part of a Mass. (No Mass is said on Good Friday.)”

So as a service to all reporters — inside the Times and outside the Times — let’s remember that Catholics don’t celebrate Mass on Good Friday. Here’s how the Religion Newswriters Association puts it:

Mass: A term used by Latin Catholics and some high-church Anglicans for a worship service that includes the celebration of Holy Communion. The term cannot be used for services that do not include communion, including those in which someone distributes communion hosts that were consecrated outside of that service. Catholic sources say a Mass is celebrated or said; however, The Associated Press accepts only celebrated. Capitalize when referring to the celebration of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Lowercase any preceding adjectives, as in funeral Mass. Orthodox Christians call their Eucharistic service the Divine Liturgy.

Since we’re discussing Good Friday, I also have to give a quick shout out to Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune‘s Seeker blog. She has a really interesting post about the sacred significance (in a civil religion sense) of Abraham Lincoln’s death on April 14, 1865 — Good Friday that year:

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, said the Good Friday assassination earned Lincoln a permanent place in American mythology.

On that Easter Sunday in 1865, pastors across the country devoted their sermons to the memory of a man who had been “sacrificed on the altar of freedom and died for the nation’s sins,” Holzer said.

Easter lilies that already adorned pulpits for Resurrection Sunday services were painted black.

Moreover, in synagogues, rabbis celebrating the Sabbath after Passover compared Lincoln to Moses, who led his people to freedom but died before seeing the Promised Land.

“The irony of it is that [Lincoln] died in a sinful playhouse,” Holzer said. “What most people don’t know is he had received a suggestion from a bishop in Rhode Island a few weeks before reminding him that he ought to declare that day a day of fasting and mourning. He simply ignored it and went to the theater.”

A friend of mine sent me a humorous note on Good Friday arguing that Lincoln should have been at church. “If he’d been at church that night instead of at the devil’s play house, the theater, he wouldn’t have been shot in the back of the head.” It’s kind of surprising to see the same sentiment argued by a Lincoln scholar in the Tribune! Anyway, it’s just worth pointing out that the liturgical calendar is newsworthy (if, you know, the 16th President’s assassination can be considered newsworthy in 2009) even apart from the Christmas season.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Under the gaze of St. Joseph

stjosephandchildI must confess that I was pretty harsh, when it came time to pass judgment on that Easter-free front page of the dead-tree-pulp edition of the Sunday Washington Post.

I realize that all of those pre-Christmas ad sections tend to get the attention of editors, so Christmas is harder to avoid. But Easter is the most important day on the calendar of those who claim the faith to one degree or another, even “Easter-only Christians.”

As it turns out, there was a wonderful Easter story located inside that edition of the Post and I, for one, think it should have been on A1. Perhaps the editors did not know what they had, when religion-beat pro Michelle Boorstein turned in her news report on the heart-rending, yet also strangely triumphant, death of a popular priest in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. The headline also fell short of the symbolic details that were woven through the story: “Md. Priest’s Death Adds Meaning to Holy Week — Parishioners Find Symbolism in Loss.” Here’s the top of the C1 story:

Dying on Holy Thursday — the day marking the creation of the priesthood — on the floor of his parish’s sanctuary, under the eyes of a statue of the patron saint of happy deaths, the Rev. G. William Finch left his Rockville congregation with powerful Easter symbolism.

Even as St. Raphael Catholic Church, one of the region’s few Roman Catholic megachurches, mourned its pastor, members said yesterday that the imagery was striking. Not only did Finch die just after he finished saying Mass, surrounded by parishioners praying the rosary and priests anointing him, next to the statue of Saint Joseph, but it happened just before Easter, a time when Christians focus intensely on mortality.

That left Finch’s community grief-stricken and inspired by the memory of a jolly 55-year-old who loved red wine, Italian food and dancing fervently.

“As tragic as it was, it was kind of perfect,” John Reutemann, a seminarian who grew up at St. Raphael’s, said yesterday afternoon in the sanctuary, which was quiet except for the organist practicing for last night’s Easter Vigil and for today’s services.

From there, Boorstein heads straight into a summary of the priest’s accomplishments in this parish. In a way, this is simply old-fashioned Catholic stuff — only in an age in which so many demographic factors make the “old Catholic” news sound almost miraculous.

A question hovers in the background: Did this popular priest joyfully work so hard that his heart just gave out?

Finch, a St. Mary’s County native, charged into St. Raphael’s parish seven years ago with a burst of energy. He took a popular nursery school with almost 200 students and started adding elementary grades. There are now 100 students from kindergarten through third grade, and the school is set to break ground on a new building this year.

He remodeled the church, commissioning Italian artists to create a marble altar, designing a garden, lightening the color of the wooden pews and dragging out of storage statues of Mary and Joseph that would ultimately play a role in his passing. He expanded the youth program for St. Raphael’s, an 11,000-member church with seven Masses every Sunday and a compound of buildings that almost fills a suburban block.

I had a hunch, when the story mentioned the remodeled sanctuary, that the St. Joseph statue was going to figure into the plot of this drama. You see, this is the kind of emotional, traditional art that has become rare in modern American Catholic sanctuaries, due to the harsh judgments of modernists. I thought that, for sure, we were going to find out that Finch was the an old-school priest from some kind of bullet-proof Catholic family.

But, no, there was another interesting twist in this Easter story. If anything, I think that Boorstein could have played this detail higher — put that’s arguing about where to put a particular rose in an arrangement that’s going to be touch people no matter what you do with it (unless the readers simply cannot be moved by stories about faith).

Finch, born a Baptist, converted to Catholicism in his 20s after meeting nuns while doing construction work on a Carmelite monastery. …

Yesterday, clergy and parishioners were racing around trying to organize the most complex liturgical symphony of the year without the conductor.

“For him to die on Holy Thursday, his death makes more intense all the basic questions, the mysteries we are trying to explore this time of year: What is our faith? What is our life?” said the Rev. Terry Ehrman, who anointed Finch as he was dying. “It makes it all more alive.”

Holy Saturday, of course, is the traditional day for converts to enter the church. Then comes Easter.

What a story.

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Writing in tongues

blank-canvas1If great religion journalism is going to survive, it is going to be because of the writing and not because of the pictures, graphics, videos or even blogs. That was driven home to me today when I read Andrew Rice’s masterful piece in the New York Times Magazine on the Redeemed Christian Church of God, one of the African missionary churches that the Times says is transforming Western Christianity.

To make my point, I am not adding a picture with this blog post. Let the words carry me.

This is the second vividly written religion piece in the Times Magazine in so many weeks. My colleague Doug LeBlanc praised Zev Chafetz’s story on “Obama’s Rabbi” last week. Like Chafetz, Rice had the daunting challenge of making a devotional scene come to life. Here is one snippet:

Even by the passionate standards of Africa, the Redeemed are renowned for the intensity of their prayer. In Nigeria, it has been called “the weeping church.” During services, members of the congregation will clap, whoop and break into glossolalia — speaking in tongues — which Pentecostals believe to be the verbal expression of the Holy Spirit. They will collapse to the floor, burying their faces in the carpet, and writhe in the throes of divine communion.

And another begins with the preacher asking, “You want to talk to God?”

In response, his congregants dropped to their knees and began to speak in tongues, which to the uninitiated sounds like a babble of sharp syllables. Above the din, Ajayi-Adeniran voiced a series of petitions to God, seizing certain phrases and repeating them, almost as if he were chanting an incantation. “Father, restore the old glory back to our nation,” the pastor said. “The old glory. The old glory.” Ajayi-Adeniran jabbed a finger toward heaven, his sermon crescendoing in a high-pitched, swooping cry: “Churches are in pain. Children of God are in pain. People are losing their jobs. Many are losing their jobs. Marriages are breaking up. God — God almighty — come and heal our land. Come and heal our land! Come and intervene. Move! Move! Move!”

And the crescendo of the piece, which takes place in a Baltimore arena with 13,000 seats, is purposefully understated:

“In Africa, we get excited when people give their lives to Jesus,” Adeboye instructed his flock. “Go ahead,” he said, “talk to the almighty.” And then it came, in a roar like a wave, thousands of voices raised in the unknowable language of heaven.

While the writing brought me into the frenzy and passion of the moment, the one thing the article lacked was any personal interaction between the writer and his subject, something that Chafetz did so deftly in his piece on “Obama’s Rabbi.” As any religion writer who has covered Pentecostals knows, they want your soul more than they want your story. To be fair to Rice, he might have included such an interaction and the editors could have taken it out. I am all too aware of the Times‘ heavyhanded editing style. But since this blog is not being edited by the Times (or anyone else) I can conclude with my own story about recently interviewing a Pentecostal minster who was hellbent on converting me.

The pastor seemed okay with the fact that I am Jewish but added, “You do believe Jesus Christ in your Lord and Savior?”

“No,” I told him.

“But the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament,” he said. “It depends how your read it,” I answered. “And how do you read it?” he asked me.

“In Hebrew,” I said.

Photo: An empty canvas, added by an ironic editor.

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Busy, busy, busy (repeat thrice)

westernmarylandThis is an ultra-busy time of the year for people whose lives revolve around ancient religious traditions. I mention this, because your GetReligionistas are impacted in a major way.

Ari — just after his arrival here — headed deep into Passover.

Our own EEE is headed into the thick of the Triduum weekend as interim pastor of a parish, which may be even more stressful that spending Holy Week and Easter as the regular pastor of a parish. After all, the permanent pastor has had time to get to know all of the musicians, altar servers, etc. Most of the phone numbers are already in speed dial.

Meanwhile, as the GetReligion blogger who Faces East, this year’s Holy Week and Pascha cycle for my family’s church is a week behind the Western rites. So tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday, then there’s Palm Sunday (on western Easter this time) and then, hundreds and hundreds of pages of liturgy later, we will reach Holy Pascha the next Sunday. As the old saying goes, you know you’ve spent Holy Week in an Orthodox parish when you have rug burns on your forehead.

So GetReligion will be open for business, but perhaps not as busy as usual. Be patient with us, if major stories break.

But, hey, at least we will not be as busy as Father Jim Hannon, the subject of a seasonal A1 story in the Baltimore Sun. Here’s the crunch section of the feature:

The 55-year-old Hannon pastors six churches in Allegany and Garrett counties, the result of a priest shortage that the Archdiocese of Baltimore faces in Maryland’s westernmost jurisdictions.

The number of priests in the region, on the decline for years, has dwindled further since 2004, from 14 to 10. As Catholic churches throughout the world celebrate Holy Week, the sacred — and busy — period on the Christian liturgical calendar, Hannon’s road-warrior routine has become even more frenetic.

Palm Sunday was an apt illustration.

First came an 8 a.m. service at St. Michael Church in Frostburg, then a change of clothes before driving to Grantsville for St. Ann Church’s 10 a.m. service. An 11:30 brunch-fundraiser at a church couple’s home was next, followed by the annual Palm Sunday parish dinner at St. Peter in Westernport, about 40 minutes away.

Now wait just a minute. You know that if Hannon is the only priest at six parishes — with, we are told, 1,500 families — there had to be more liturgical work to do than than. Unless, there were permanent deacons who took some of the services, the priest must have started alternative rites the night before and continued on throughout the day.

stmichaelsfrostburgIf not, several of those parishes did not observe Palm Sunday and that is a big deal. Or perhaps members drove to nearby parishes for joint services, which would be another telling detail to include in a story about the era of the rare priest.

This is a nice story, but it simply raises more questions than it answers and, in this case, God is literally in the details. We are told that a Day Planner for Hannon would “would read like War and Peace,” but we are not told if he actually keeps one. Surely he does. Try to imagine the complexity of his life.

There was a time when this priest had two associate pastors on this circuit, but now they have gone elsewhere. He does get some liturgical relief from a priest who serves at a nearby college and another who is a hospital chaplain. And it’s good to know that his longest drive from home to one of his altars is 40 minutes. But how about one altar to another?

But here is my major complaint. If this is an Easter story and it’s about the life of a Catholic priest caught up in this set of circumstances, then we absolutely have to know one or two facts.

First of all, where is he going to celebrate the Easter Vigil, the middle-of-the-night rite that is the highlight of the entire Christian calendar? And how many of these parishes get to have Mass in the hours after midnight on Easter? How does he handle that challenge? How many Holy Week and Easter services can one man do, during a packed season that can push any parish priest to the point of spiritual combat fatigue?

Oh, and one more thing. According to canon law, all Catholics are supposed to go to confession during Lent before receiving Holy Communion on Easter. What is this priest’s schedule for confessions during the weeks before the holiest day of the year? Or has that sacramental duty faded? Either way, that is a poignant detail.

This was a great, great idea for a pre-Easter story. Kudos for whoever spotted this one. The story hook is so strong that it needed a stronger story to go with it. If you are a praying person, you might offer a prayer for Father Hannon in the next day or two. Lord have mercy.

Photos: Somewhere in Western Maryland. St. Michael’s Parish in Frostburg, Md.

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Can you believe that reporting, Wolf?

durer-prayerOn my way to church tonight, a media friend living in another country called me to tell me she couldn’t believe what she just saw on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. She said it was so dismissive of Christian prayer that she almost wondered if she’d misheard.

Well, having just gotten a look at the transcript, it appears my friend’s account of the report by Susan Roesgen (Gulf Coast Correspondent) was pretty accurate. The story comes late in the show and deals with Notre Dame student and donor protests of the school’s invitation to and honorary degree bestowal upon President Barack Obama. Or, as the goldenmouthed Blitzer says, “they’re asking God to keep the president away.”

I’ll go ahead and cut and paste the relevant portions of the show:

BLITZER: President Obama’s popularity is soaring these days. He’s been welcomed in cities here in the United States and around the world.

But protesters at the University of Notre Dame say — at least some of them say he’s not welcome there. And they plan — and plans for him to address the graduating class, they’re sparking a growing controversy right now.

Not that this is a religion coverage problem but it plays into the larger dismissive tone: Is it true that President Obama’s popularity is soaring? I have no doubt that his adoring media fans continue to be just that. But a recent Pew poll shows that President Obama is a much more polarizing figure than any of his predecessors for whom such data was gathered. Even George W. Bush’s approval ratings the April following his controversial election/Supreme Court case were less polarized than President Obama’s. I’m only putting this out there to point out how the media control the narrative. If they wanted to present President Obama as the most polarizing politician in history, they could do that and have the data to back it up. Since it doesn’t fit the agreed-upon narrative, however, we don’t see much mainstream coverage of that. Instead, it’s those wacky anti-abortion activists at Notre Dame who are the real divisive ones. See how that works?

We asked our Susan Roesgen to take a closer look at what is going on — all right, Susie, tell us what’s going on.

SUSAN ROESGEN, GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it seems as if some of these protesters are actually praying that President Obama won’t even step foot on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN (voice-over): Protesters at the University of Notre Dame are praying for divine intervention to keep President Obama away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY WSJV)

EMILY TOATES, PROTESTER: We do not believe it’s right to celebrate a man who’s gone so against Catholic principles.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROESGEN: Like many presidents before him, Obama has been invited to give the commencement address at this Catholic university in May. But hundreds of devout Catholics on campus and off are outraged that Notre Dame would welcome a president whose public policies lean pro- choice on abortion.

BISHOP JOHN D’ARCY, DIOCESE OF FORT WAYNE: The Catholic Church’s position is that — that taking a life in a womb is an intrinsically evil act.

ROESGEN: Bishop John D’Arcy, whose diocese includes Notre Dame, is especially shocked that the university plans to give the president an honorary law degree.

D’ARCY: But to honor someone with a doctorate of laws and the only laws he has made are laws which are against innocent life — no one is allowed to say who is going to sit at the table of life and, more important, who’s not going to sit at the table of life. God didn’t give us that privilege. He gave us many other privileges. That belongs to him alone.

ROESGEN: A spokesman for the university says there no plans to un-invite the president, but protesters say they will say one million rosaries until graduation day — praying that the president will become pro-life.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: Can you believe that, Wolf, they’re actually praying that God will change the heart and mind of President Obama to make him pro-life?

Emphasis mine. That last line is what my friend repeated to me on the phone — certain she must have misheard. It couldn’t possibly be true that a supposed reporter would express shock and dismay that pro-lifers might “actually” be praying that God would turn the heart and mind of President Obama, she figured. My friend is a media professional and is accustomed to less-than-stellar reporting but this, she felt, was beyond the pale.

I guess I’m wondering what’s so hard for Roesgen to believe. It seems so perfectly natural to me that pro-life Catholics would pray that God would change President Obama’s heart and mind toward pro-life policies that I’m kind of left wondering what’s so shocking about it.

I know this is the month for mainstream media professionals to be shocked by completely normal prayer practices but it seems to me that a reporter covering the Notre Dame controversy should be either vaguely aware of how Christian prayer works or the pro-life community in general. Or maybe she should just be a little bit more respectful of the subjects she covers. I’m also wondering how CNN might have covered Moses’ prayers that Pharaoh might change his heart toward the Israelites.

Anyway, the rest of the story includes the news that Obama will be giving the commencement address at Arizona State University but, unlike Notre Dame, he will not be given an honorary degree since his “body of work is yet to come.” Here’s how Blitzer responds to this:

BLITZER: Wow!

He’s giving the commencement address at Arizona State University, but will not be given an honorary degree by that university. What a snub that is.

This media reaction to ASU’s decision says quite a bit about why we’re seeing the coverage of Notre Dame’s decision such as that highlighted above. If it’s a snub to ask the president to speak at your university without giving him an honorary degree, these Notre Dame students and donors opposed to the honorary degree and speaking slot are clearly in the wrong.

Since we Lutherans commemorated Albrecht Durer this week, it seemed fitting to include his famous painting “Praying Hands.”

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A little religion goes a long way

kingpeacock_3We’ve remarked before how the media usually tell religious news stories when those stories interact with the true passion of the media: politics. This story, from the New York Times, is no exception. The whole hook is how a small religious sect is working the political system for survival. The Saddam Hussein years were hard for many groups who perished or suffered under his notorious oppression. But the post-Saddam Hussein years have been difficult in particular for non-Muslim groups. It’s an important story that hasn’t been covered as much as should be. So I was glad to see this story about the Yazidi, (who are definitely faring better post-Saddam):

DOHUK, Iraq — Prince Tahseen Saeed Ali, whose business card identifies him as “the Prince of the Yazidis in Iraq and the World and President of the Yazidi High Religious Council,” is a confident man.

It may be an odd posture, given that his people have suffered centuries of oppression and prejudice, tarred by the false claim that they are devil worshipers and caught in a battle zone between often antagonistic powers, the Muslim Arabs and the Muslim Kurds.

But a group so small and so widely misunderstood does not survive for centuries, much of the time at the mercy of far larger forces, without learning how to play politics. And few in Iraq have played that game as well as the Yazidis, whose ability to exploit Iraq’s byzantine electoral rules yielded them nearly a quarter of the seats in the government of Nineveh, one of the country’s largest provinces.

What’s so disappointing about the story is how little we learn about the beliefs and practices of the Yazidi. So they’re not devil worshipers. Why are they “tarred by the false claim”? We never find out.

Now, if people believed that Yazidi worship involved appeasing Satan, perhaps it’s because of stories like this one that appeared in The New York Times 15 years ago and dealt almost exclusively with the group’s obscure religious views.

The Yazidis believe that Satan, whose name they are forbidden to pronounce, is actively malevolent, while God is passively benevolent. To ward off evil, as well as use the powers of the Prince of Darkness to their own advantage, they propitiate Satan’s representative, known as the Peacock Angel, in their religious rites.

But to sum up various sources since that time, it could be said that Yazidis believe that the world, created by God, is in the care of seven holy beings. The Peacock Angel (Melek Tawus) is chief among them. The angel’s other name is Shaytan/Shaitan and this is the same name the Koran gives for Satan. Also, Melek Tawus rose to favor with God in a manner almost identical to jinn Iblis in Islam. The only difference is that Muslims believe that Iblis’ refusal to submit to Adam caused him to fall from grace and later become Satan while Yazidis revere Melek Tawus.

So whether or not Yazidis believe they must propitiate Satan’s representative or whether or not they believe that Shaitan is good . . . some clarification is in order.

Anyway, the Yazidis have some fascinating beliefs about moral responsibility and evil. They also believe that Yazidis are descendants of Adam and a houri. Other races are begotten of Adam and Eve.

The religion has strict laws regarding purity, including a system of caste, food laws, preferences for Yazidi communities and a shunning of various taboos. There is no conversion. They also believe that the seven holy beings are periodically reincarnated in, depending on who you believe, animal or human form. They have five daily prayers, mark Wednesdays as holy and rest on Saturdays. They have various festivals and an annual seven-day pilgrimage to north of Mosul, Iraq.

Of particular relevance to the story, one of the purity laws Yazidis submit to is to limit contact with non-Yazidis. They have avoided military service in Iraq to avoid contact with non-Yazidis. It might have been worthwhile to include at least that particular religious belief into a story about greater political assimilation in Iraq:

Yazidis, by most estimates, far outnumber Muslim Kurds in Nineveh, making the Kurds dependent on their support to bolster their claims to the region. And the Yazidis have largely given it; almost all of them who won in the election were members of Kurdish political parties. In exchange for that support, the newly victorious Yazidis are demanding a greater degree of Yazidi power in Kurdistan.

“Frankly,” said the prince, who wears the long, bushy beard often seen on older Yazidis, “now we feel the Kurds are more responsive to us.”

But the partnership pivots on something deeper and more complex: the murky, misunderstood Yazidi identity.

Yazidis are a zealously insular group, adherents of an ancient, monotheistic faith involving a 12th-century mystic and a peacock angel. After that, nearly everything about them is subject to debate.

Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, say Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who simply follow a different religion. Many Yazidis, too, say they are Kurds, and it is not uncommon to hear the Yazidis describe themselves as the original Kurds.

In my view, it helps to know a bit about Yazidi belief before reading passages such as that. But the story just provides the bare minimum. The views against mixing with non-Yazidi — as well as the view that Yazidis are a superior race born only of Adam while other races come from both Adam and Eve — help put the comments above and below in a much more informative light:

Though he is fiercely anti-Kurd, Sheik Saeed [Mendo Hammu, a member of a Yazidi political party that opposes allying with the Kurds] said he was in contact with several of the Yazidi winners on the Kurdish list. They have indicated that they will work for Yazidi interests, he said, and he will support them if they do.

“We are not Kurd, we are Yazidi,” he said. “We are fed up with fear.”

It’s an interesting political story and I’m glad to see The Times give additional coverage to the Yazidi. Just a bit more on the religion angle would have gone a long way.

Bonus question: the prince described as having a long, bushy beard is pictured in the article. Would you say that’s a long beard? I think it’s fine to call it bushy but considering that you can see his entire collar, it seems the “long” adjective might be a stretch. Perhaps I’m so focused on this since it was just a month ago that The Times described this man as having a “bushy mustache.”

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Here comes the sun

sunrise-apr26jpgPassover, a time of family gatherings and a myriad of rituals, comes once every year. Birchat HaChama, the blessing of the sun, comes once every 28 years on the Jewish calendar. Owing to the journalistic principle that the rare story is often the better story, Birchat HaChama has been getting an inordinate amount of coverage this year. Both arrive on Wednesday and it looks like Birchat HaChama has already outshone Passover.

Watching the Birchat HaChama coverage has been like watching a sunrise. It started a month ago with stories in the Israeli press and then spread to the Jewish press and in recent days has hit the mainstream media. Both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have had stories. What is it? Here’s the Times‘ summary:

According to the celestial calculations of a Talmudic sage named Shmuel, at the outset of spring every 28 years, the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it. This charged moment provides the occasion for reciting a one-line blessing of God, “who makes the work of creation.”

The astronomical metrics of Shmuel are by now considered inexact, but close enough so that the religious tradition persists….

While the Times emphasizes the ritual aspects of Birkat Hachama, the Journal focuses more on the modern meaning:

The sun is a hot topic these days, not least because of global warming, and this time around the blessing, in itself, is not enough: A whole environmental message is being attached to what was once a simple ceremony. Thus Jews who wish to mark the occasion will find a variety of options, including a Manhattan rooftop service that supplements the blessing with yoga sun salutations and environmental speeches.

And the story has the virtue of being localized. This is from the Montgomery Advertizer:

Interfaith Montgomery, the interreligious clergy association, has endorsed the event, as has Huntingdon College; planning for the event has truly been a joint effort. The Montgomery Chorale and orchestra will sing selections from Handel’s oratorio The Creation, and lead us in other songs appropriate to the occasion.

And finally, in Rhinebeck, N.Y. the Jerusalem Post reports, a young rabbi has chartered some hot air balloons.

Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, 26, who heads the Rhinebeck community, is expecting to lead four balloons in prayer from the air – two balloons carrying a minyan, one carrying women and another whose passengers are yet to be confirmed — in order to celebrate the sun’s return to its starting point when the universe was created, according to Jewish tradition. The service will also be transmitted to the crowd below via radio.

In other words, what we have here is a religion story with high tech, hot air balloons, a Handel oratorio, a yoga class and a local angle.

As rare as a sunny day.

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Laser beams and prayers

laserbeamThe BBC has what could have been an interesting little story about Muslim prayer practices and rules. Unfortunately, it has very little doctrinal meat to it. The story is this:

Some 200 mosques in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, point the wrong way for prayers, reports from Saudi Arabia say.

All mosques have a niche showing the direction of the most sacred Islamic site, the Kaaba, an ancient cube-like building in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

But people looking down from recently built high-rises in Mecca found the niches in many older mosques were not pointing directly towards the Kaaba.

Some worshippers are said to be anxious about the validity of their prayers.

There have been suggestions that laser beams could be used to make an exact measurement.

Tawfik al-Sudairy, Islamic affairs ministry deputy secretary, downplayed the problem in remarks quoted by the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat.

“There are no major errors but corrections have been made for some old mosques, thanks to modern techniques,” he said.

“In any case, it does not affect the prayers.”

Yeah, that’s the whole story. No details on why the Kaaba is the most sacred Islamic site, why mosques should have a niche pointed in that direction, whether this is a rule or suggestion, what the heck laser beams have to do with it, and whether everyone’s agreed that this doesn’t cause a prayer problem or it does.

But other than that, great story.

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