Quick! What the Hell is Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food. The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their  ya-ya's out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here's the low-down on Ash Wednesday.

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. This year, it's March 5. In 2015, it will be Feb. 18.

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.

Associated Literary Passages: Mentions of ash can be found in 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1Job 2:8Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21, among others.

Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.

The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.

Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.

Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It's Just God'Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.

Quick! What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day?

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: St. Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said St. Valentine is rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday.

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows. In fact, it's probably that Valentine referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy. Jesus is considered the first and best saint.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. Click here to find out more about Catholicism.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, Valentine's cards.

 

 

 

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur?

I read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times this morning about local protests against the sacrificial slaughter of chickens being conducted this week in Jewish enclaves throughout Los Angeles — and, indeed, throughout the world. The ritual, as kaparotkapparot or kaparos, is supposed to help "cleanse" people of their sins. It's an orthodox Jewish thing. More progressive Jews are calling the ritual archaic and meaningless, and point to the treatment of the chickens before their deaths as further reason to stop the killings. Faith leaders have joined with animal-rights activists in the protest.

So, here's the deal: The sacrifices all tie into the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur. This period is meant to be a period of "atonement" — asking God to forgive your sins. The chicken is supposed to "accept" all the sins of those present and then be killed (knife to the throat) in one, big, bloody symbolic gesture.

Anyhoo.... in anticipation of Yom Kippur, which lasts exactly 25 hours beginning tomorrow evening, here is the latest addition to your friendly neighborhood Holiday Cheat Sheet.

Holiday: Yom Kippur (pronounced Yom Ki-POOR)

AKA: The Day of Atonement

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: The 10th day of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. In 2013, Yom Kippur lasts from from Sept. 13 at sunset to Sept. 14 at nightfall.

Not To Be Confused With: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Yom Kippur is a heavy 10.

What It Is: Yom Kippur is the last and most important of Judaism's 10 High Holy Days, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As you might recall, the New Year is a time to reflect on one's life and resolve to be a better person in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, God is said to take a look at the deeds of the Jewish people and to seal each person's fate in the "Book of Life." More than anything, Yom Kippur is a day of seeking forgiveness and giving to charity. (And, um, slaughtering chickens.)

Associated Literary Passages: Leviticus 16:29 and 23:27; Numbers 29:7-11 and Mishnah Tract Yomah 8:1

The Sabbath of All Sabbaths: Saturday (“the sabbath”) is to Jews what Sunday is to Christians; it is the "day of rest" when synagogues hold their weekly worship services. Yom Kippur is considered the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths” because, not only is it a day of complete rest (no work, no driving, etc.) but it's a day of fasting and other restrictions: no washing or bathing, no perfumes or deodorants, no wearing leather shoes, and no sex. Services run all day on Yom Kippur — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — with a break around 3 p.m. People wear white, and services generally end with a long blow from the shofar.

Coolest Thing about Yom Kippur: During their ever-so-long day of synagogue services (decidedly NOT the coolest thing about Yom Kippur, given the no-deodorant rule), participants take part in a “group confession.” They confess to being aggressive, slanderous, acting callously, and a number of other things — usually involving behaving badly toward others in speech or deed. The cool thing is that the sins are confessed in the plural — “we” have done this, “we” have done that — emphasizing “communal responsibility for sins.” Now, I don’t believe in “sins,” AT ALL, and I know that, in this sense, they are only talking about the Jewish people. But I think if more human beings could adopt even a little of this attitude, “we” could kick up the world’s compassion level a notch or two. Minus the chickens, of course.

Appropriate Greeting: "Have an easy fast." ("Happy Yom Kippur" is not considered appropriate, as Yom Kippur is not a "happy" holiday.)

Quick! What the Hell is Easter?

Easter CrossMy favorite anecdote told by Teach Not Preach blogger Jim Morrison appears in one of his first blogs. As you may recall, Morrison is a World Religion teacher at a Minnesota high school, and has been for decades. This particular anecdote involves a junior named Angel — Angel! —  who approached Morrison after class one day in 1997 to ask one, discreet question. "Is Jesus dead?"

Morrison said the girl had waited until they were alone and appeared to be blushing when she asked the question. Morrison played it off warmly, but, inside, he was dumbfounded. "How odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive," he wrote. Still, he was awfully glad she asked. (So many Christians talk about Jesus as though he's alive and well and walking among us, no wonder kids get confused!)

"Obviously, we should not fault Angel for being ignorant," Morrison wrote. "Her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion."

The moral of the story? Yes, Jesus is dead. He died 2,000 years ago. It's why we have Easter. And if our kids don't hear it from us, they might never hear it at all. So let's do this thing, people!

Holiday: Easter

AKA: Resurrection Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Celebrates: The resurrection of Jesus

Date: The first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. In 2013, Easter falls on March 31. In 2014: April 20.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Easter is a 10.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: During his lifetime, Jesus of Nazareth never called himself the Messiah or Christ, at least not publicly. But by the time he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for Passover in the year 33 AD (or thereabouts), many people believed he was both. As legend has it: Jesus caused a ruckus at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the tables of some dishonest merchants there — an event that likely raised the hackles of Roman leaders that may already have felt threatened by Jesus’ growing religious (and political) popularity. After hosting his Last Supper (famously depicted by Leonardo da Vinci), Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, and condemned to die. He was crucified on a wooden cross (which is now the symbol of Christianity) beneath a crown of thorns, his last words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” On the third day after his crucifixion, according to the gospels, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Christians believe Jesus' death brought forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and humanity.

Associated Literary Passages: There are many in the New Testament: Matthew 27:50-53; Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-53; John 11:25-26; John 20:1-22:25; Romans 1:4-5; Romans 6:8-11; Philippians 3:10-12; and 1 Peter 1:3, among others.

Easter is a Week-Long Affair: The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday (marking the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem). It also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper with Jesus' disciples (that's today!), Good Friday, honoring the decidedly not good day of Jesus' crucifixion, and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection.) Then there's the happiest day of the year: Easter. In a sense, says my Catholic-raised friend, Tim, every Sunday of the year is meant to be a mini-celebration of Easter.

The Food: Some of what Christians eat on Easter harkens back to the Passover Seder: Hard-boiled eggs and lamb, among them. Ham is also an Easter staple, along with chocolate and sweets.

The Fun: In addition to dressing in their “Sunday best” for Easter church services, Christians give to charity, share feasts with family, and give Easter baskets full of chocolates, jelly beans and other goodies to children. Much like the Hindu celebration of Holi, Easter conveniently falls at the beginning of spring — so lots of the activities are symbolic of fertility and new life. Eggs, which also are said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus, are central to Easter, with celebrants hard-boiling them, painting them and hiding them.  The Easter Bunny, although secular, also has become an Easter mainstay — the equivalent of Santa Claus to Christmas.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ironically, secular parents often have an easier time explaining Easter (without religion) than many Christian parents do (with it). The Passion is just such a damn mystery. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Why didn’t God intervene? How, exactly, did Jesus' death bring about forgiveness of human sins? And if Jesus rose from the dead, why can’t we? Secular parents are lucky they don't have to try to make sense of all this. Still, it's important to let kids know this story is the single most important one in all of Christianity. If your kid knows this one, the rest is icing. I am seriously remiss in not having some recommended Easter children's books for you guys here. Please check back; I promise to correct that. In the meantime, I strongly suggest thumbing through your library's selection of Easter books and staying the heck away from the Bernstein Bears' version. (Click here for tips on how to choose religious picture books appropriate for secular families.) Oh, and Jesus Christ Superstar is a great, G-rated conversation starter for kids, like, 9 and up.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012.

Quick! What the Hell is Holi?

I'll be writing more about some of the slightly more obscure (to mainstream America) holidays in the coming months. Again, I do this because it's a great and easy way to inject a bit of religious literacy into a child's day-to-day. I always suggest using dinnertime or car rides to talk a little bit about each holiday, its roots and its rituals. And, if you're game, you can "celebrate" the holidays yourselves with food, music and associated activities. Because, really, why not? First up: Holi, a Hindu holiday officially observed on Wednesday. Holi

Holiday: Holi

AKA: "Festival of Colors"

Religion Represented: Hinduism

Celebrates: Holi has both secular and religious meaning. First, it celebrates the beginning of spring. Second, it celebrates an ancient Hindu story ending — as so many do — with the triumph of good over evil.

Date: Full moon during the Indian month of Phalguna. In 2013, Holi falls on March 27. In 2014, it falls on March 17. The festival often goes on for days.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Religiously speaking, Holi is quite low — no higher than a 2. Culturally speaking, it's a 9.

Notable Rituals: Holi celebrants have parties and street festivals, light bonfires, and throw/rub colored powder and fragrant water on each other.

Holika and PrahladBack Story: Thousands of years ago, throughout India, bonfires would be lit on the first full moon of spring to mark the end of winter. People burned old leaves and wood to make room for new flowers and leaves. They rub their bodies with the ash. As the "religious story" of Holi goes, a demon king named Hiranyakashipu became incensed when his own son — literally a demon spawn! — became devoted to the much-venerated god Vishnu. The boy, called Prahlada, wouldn't stop praying to Vishnu. Unable to come to terms with the betrayal, the demon king tried to kill the boy using all sorts of antiquated methods. Poison was the first method, but the poison just turned to nectar in the boy's mouth. Then he ordered his son trampled by elephants and put in a room with hungry snakes. No dice. With Vishnu's help, the boy survived both attacks. Finally, the demon king recruited the help of his sister, a demoness named Holika who was immune to fire. Holika took Prahlada into the fire and sat with him, anticipating that he would burn up in her arms. Much to everyone's amazement, it was Holika who burned and Prahlada who remained unscathed. "Holi" is a shortened version of Holika.*

Associated Literary Passages: The first mention of Holi — including the use of colored powders and perfume — appears in the Ratnavali, a sanskrit drama attributed to the 7th-Century Indian emperor Harsha. Unlike the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Ratnavali is not considered a sacred text.

The Fun: Hindus and non-Hindus alike celebrate Holi, which is considered a time when enemies make friends and all social classes come together. The rich and poor unite and celebrate as one group, emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences — something of particular significance in India, where a traditional caste system reigned supreme for so long. Inhibitions also break down, and people are encouraged to break loose, drink liberally, and "openly flirt" with each other. For more fun information, you can visit holifestival.org.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Always a good idea to start out with a brief reminder of some Hindu basics. Then, if the weather fits, build a fire and tell the story of the demon king and his pious son. If you're more adventurous, you might let kids shoot each other with water guns and have a colored-powder party. You can buy the powder on Amazon here. Parents might also cook up one of these seriously delicious-looking Holi recipes and play the song Rang Barse, the unofficial anthem of Holi. Here's a video — complete with colored powder and open flirting.

*There are other legends associated with Holi, but this is the most popular.

Quick! What the Hell is Passover?

Most Christians (current and cultural) are all too familar with the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus hosts his 12 disciples for one last meal before he's crucified. What's rarely made clear, though, is that Jesus' final meal was quite likely a Passover meal. After all, the Jewish holiday of Passover was the reason Jesus had made his entrance into Jerusalem in the first place that year. Even if it wasn't technically a Seder (pronounced SAY-der and referring to that day's big feast), I have a hard time believing Jesus wasn't inspired by the all-too symbolic Passover Seder when he asked his guests to eat bread as though it were his body, and drink wine as though it were his blood. That sort of thing is, as you'll soon see, so very "Seder-y." Holiday: Passover

AKA: "Feast of the Unleavened Bread"

Religion Represented: Judaism

Celebrates: The exodus of the ancient Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.

Date: The 15th to 21st day in the Hebrew month of Nisan. In 2012, the date is April 6 to April 14. In 2013, it’s March 25-April 2.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Passover is about a 9, just under Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It’s one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.

Star of the Show: Moses

Back Story: The Torah’s Book of Exodus recounts the story of the ancient Jews (Israelites) who were living as slaves in Egypt. As the story goes, a cruel Egyptian pharaoh ordered all the Israelite’s eldest sons to be murdered, which infuriated God — who proclaimed that Israel was God’s firstborn son (making the Israelites his “chosen” children). God approached Moses at the legendary burning bush to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses accepted. "Let my people go," Moses told the pharaoh over and over again. But the pharaoh refused, even after God infected all of Egypt with nine of 10 horrific plagues. The last and worst plague was that God would kill the firstborn sons of all Egyptians. (Nice guy, that Old Testament God.) He warned the Israelites ahead of time to put lamb's blood in front of their doors, so the angel of death would know to “pass over” those houses and thus spare their sons. It was then that the pharaoh consented to let the Jews leave, and leave they did — so fast, Exodus tells us, that their bread didn't even have time to rise. (Fortuitous, really, since crackers make much better travelers than bread, anyway.) When the pharoah changed his mind and ordered his army to recapture the Israelities, Moses (again, legendarily) parted the Red Sea with his magical staff, which led his people to freedom and drowned all pursuers in their wake.

Associated Literary Passages: Exodus 3:1-15:26; Leviticus 23:1-15Numbers 9:1-15, among others. Also: The Babylonian Talmud: Tract Pesachim; and the Union Haggadah.

The Food: It wouldn’t be Passover without unleavened bread, called matzah. But there are other symbolic foods, too: Bitter herbs (to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon (to symbolize the mortar Jewish slaves used to build Egyptian cities); a roasted egg (perpetual existence); vegetable (new life and hope); salt water (tears shed during slavery); and roasted lamb (the blood over the doorways). Oh, and observers must — must! — consume four glass of wine over the course of the dinner, which represent the four-fold promise of redemption.

The Fun: Specific Seder rituals are all laid out in the Haggadah. (And, yes, in case you were wondering, there is an app for that.) Observers eat and drink in a certain order; recite the Passover story; invite children to ask “four questions” about Passover; sing songs; and hide the afikoman, which is a piece of matzah in a napkin that the kids must find and then share with everyone. Observers also pour an extra glass of wine and leave the door open in case Elijah the prophet arrives. (Spoiler alert: He never does.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Because Passover was, in a sense, created to introduce Judaism to children, there are tons of cute Passover children’s book, some that focus on the back story, others that focus on the traditions of the Seder. Both kinds are absolutely worth checking out, although some are more "neutral" than others. I like Passover by Miriam Nerlove (and not just because it has a character called Aunt Maxine); Let my People Go by Tilda Balsley; and Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then by Harriet Ziefert.  You can always hold a quasi-Seder, of course, telling your child the Exodus story and then serving the symbolic food and talking about what each means.

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012.

Inject Some Religious Literacy into Your Valentine's Day

For the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, "it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how limiting my worldview can be. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. That's a real bummer. I'd love to be able to spin like that. And even worse? The chances are almost zero that I'll ever be sainted.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need." And to that, I say, “Thank you. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I'm not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my obvious assets, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles, being dead, etc.

The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I'm dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it's rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew's Jewish preschool doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day proves that the connection isn't entirely lost.)

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows, but many believe "Valentine" referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. (It's this successorship thing that makes Pope Benedict's resignation so tricky for the church.) I wrote about 12 differences between Protestants and Catholics here.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, you know, candy hearts.

 

A version of this post originally appeared in February 2012

Taking the 'Myth' out of the Bible

B-I-B-L-E

Oh, Bible. You do confound us so. You are so very dense, complicated and repetitive, not to mention confusing, contradictory, outrageous and far too long-winded to actually read. And yet you are so wise, textured and powerful. You are surprising and exciting and flush with cultural references. In fact, you make it almost impossible for any of us to understand who we are as a civilization without at least getting your Cliffs Notes.

As author E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells children in The First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

The Bible is by far the best-known book in our culture. Hundreds of its sayings have become part of our everyday speech. Biblical stories are frequently referred to in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on television. Many paintings and other works of art portray people or scenes from the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible is the basis of some of our most important ideas about law and government. Because it is such a basic part of our culture, it is important for you to know something about the Bible, regardless of your individual religious belief.

 Unfortunately, when it comes to talking with kids about the Bible, some nonreligious parents categorically dismiss the entire the thing by calling it "a book of myths" — akin to Greek and Roman mythology — which is both short-sighted and completely inaccurate. (Ironic, as most these parents seem to value broad-mindedness and truth so very highly.)

The Bible's focus is a single god (AKA God) and, as such, is used as scripture for the three main monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, yes, there are myths in the Bible. But there is quite a lot of history there, too, and some really great stories about how to live that have been handed down from generation to generation. Certainly, we can tell kids that the Bible has lots of fiction inside it, but we must tell them, too, that it contains truth — and interpretations of truth. And there are many things whose historical accuracy is simply unknown because the stories were corroded by time and endless retellings. It's a like the game of telephone; something always get changed from one end to the other.

It's for this reason that the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all contain the "same" story of Jesus' life, and yet all of them are different — sometimes strikingly different. [Warning: This next part is a bit of a tangent] History tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark in telling their own versions. History also tells us that there was another, unknown source of information about Jesus' life — sometimes called Q — which is why Luke and Matthew have some overlapping stories that cannot be found in Mark. (There's a great diagram here that explains this much better than I do, if you're interested.)

Anyway, I think it's best to describe the Bible as a book of many genres. It's fiction, nonfiction, biography, genealogy, letters, poetry, wisdom, proverbs, songs, prophecy and apocalypse. It's also one of the world's most important works of literature. Right up there with Shakespeare's stuff, if you ask me.

Did Jesus really exist? Yes. Did Moses really exist? No one is quite sure. Did Moses introduce the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people? Not likely. Did Jesus feed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish? Not on your life. Is the following verse one of the most beautiful ever written?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Cor 13:4-13

You bet it is.