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.

Crucifixion Story, As Told By a Freethinking 7-Year-Old

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A couple of weeks ago, while walking along a gravel road in the French countryside (!!!), my 7-year-old daughter, Maxine, decided to tell her 4-year-old cousin the story of Jesus' death. It hadn't been a recent topic of conversation in our house or anything, but we'd just passed by a very old, very Christian cemetery, so that must have been what prompted the storytelling. The narrative was classic Maxine — relatively accurate, deliberately paced, full of distractions and incredibly amusing, with an editorial comment or two thrown in along the way. After the story was over, my nephew had A LOT of questions for his mom. I'd like to apologize for that, Jen. But what could I do? It was blogger gold! Oh, and a special thank you to the iPhone for allowing me to both record the conversation and get this shot of Maxine in a field of sheep.

Field of Sheep

Maxine: Once upon a time, Jesus... well, you know the story of Christmas. Do you know the story of Christmas?

Jack: No.

Maxine: Well, we’re not going to tell the story of Christmas. Okay, so one time there were some men. Or maybe there was one man. Or some men. I don’t know. So this man was a mean man. He wanted to kill Jesus. And he wasn’t very nice. So he went after Jesus and got Jesus and he put him in … jail? Well, I think it was in jail. And he wanted to kill him, so this is what he did:  He nailed him to the wall. Nailed him to the WALL. He nailed his hands and he nailed his feet. I would think it would be really hard. And he left him there for three days, or five days, something like that. Three days, yes. Yes, three days.

[Gets distracted by a loose-gravel sign on the road.] 

So. They nailed him to the wall. They left him there for three days. He died. Of course. Well, it’s not the end of the story yet. You THINK it’s the end of the story. Don't you think?

Jack: Yeah.

Maxine: Yeah. But it’s not. People believe in God. You believe in God. Also, even if you don’t believe in God, you believe that someone nailed him to the wall and he died. People HAVE to believe that because if they don’t believe that, they’re wrong. Okay, so whatever. Now.

[Gets distracted by a car driving by.] 

Okay. So. He, of course, he died. But some of his relatives, like his mom and...  I’m not sure if he saw his dad or not. Oh well. His mom and maybe his dad, I’m not sure, whatever, his dad, whatever, I'm not sure, and his relatives, his friends —

Jack: Or maybe Jesus didn't have a dad.

Maxine: Yeah, Jesus had a dad. Mary and Joseph. Okay, whatever.

Jack: Hey, my grandma has a toy about that!

Maxine: Oh yeah! She does! She absolutely, positutely does.

[Gets distracted by a goat tied up in someone's yard.]

Okay. So, anyway, back to the story.

Jack: Is this a true story?

Maxine: Yes, true story. But some people don’t believe this part: Everybody put Jesus in a cave.

Jack: All the mean mans?

Maxine: Yes, there were mean men. Oh, who put him in the cave? Well his mom, his friends, his relatives, or even people who believed in him. Okay, so they put Jesus in a cave and they left him there for another three days. And guess what happened?

Jack: What?

Maxine: He came back alive! Remember, Jack, some people don’t believe this part. [Whispers] It’s probably not real, just to let you know. But people do believe in it.

Jack: When he came alive, is that true?

Maxine: Jack, I just told you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. People believe that it's true. Also, people believe that it’s not true at all. My parents believe that it’s not true at all. But I believe in ghosts, so I believe it is. Maybe. I’m not sure. I still don’t believe in God, though.

Jack: My grandma has an angel in the Jesus toy.

Maxine: Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, so we’re getting to the end of the story. Jesus came back alive and — BABY COWS!

[Gets distracted by cows in a field.]

 Okay so then Jesus came back alive and said, 'I’ll be back to visit you.’ And he floated up to heaven. The end. I can't believe I memorized that whole — BULL!

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.

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!