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.
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's Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.
A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.
"What?" I say. Because I am inside and can barely hear her.
"Who made up God?" she asks again. I walk to the open door, pondering the question. It sounds as though she might expect me to name someone — an actual person responsible for the creation of this great character that she's heard so much about.
"Quentin Tarantino," I think about saying, but don't.
I go back to my old reliable: Some people believe... It's imprinted in my brain by now.
"Well, you know," I say, "some people believe God is not made up at all—"
"—yeah yeah yeah, I know," she says, totally interrupting me.
She is 8, see, and 8-year-olds do not need to be told things they've been told before. Because 8-year-olds have brains like steel traps. They remember everything. Except, you know, where they last left their backpack. And their lunch box. And their homework and shoes and every hand-held electronic they own. But, like, everything else.
"I mean," she continues, "who was the first person to have the idea of God?"
"Okay, that's a really great question," I say, because it is, isn't it? Incidentally, I do not know how to answer this particular question, but I do know precisely where she last left her backpack, lunch box, homework, shoes and Kindle.
This is 40.
Anyway, I say something about how the idea of God and gods has been around for many thousands of years. No one knows who the first believers were, but the idea might even go back to the first humans. Probably, I tell her, it wasn't just one person but a bunch of people who started believing around the same time.
"Why?" she asks.
Another great question. "People believe in God or gods for all sorts of reasons," I say. "It makes them feel good to not be alone. It makes them feel good to believe that something larger is out there, watching over them. And it makes some people feel good to believe that they'll live on after they die."
The answer satisfies her — she moves on to something else — but it doesn't satisfy me. I start wondering: How far back does belief go? What exactly were those early believers lacking or longing for? What is it that led them to spirituality?
So I did some Googling.
1. There's no telling for sure when belief in the supernatural first took root. What we do know is based on archeological finds that point to ritual behaviors. Rituals = supernatural beliefs, or at least that's the idea.
2. Evidence of rituals dates back at least 130,000 years; that's when we know homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead — suggesting that they may have believed in some sort of an afterlife. (Burials actually go back to the Neanderthal period, some 300,000 years ago, but we don't know whether those burials were intentional.)
3. These early rituals didn't involve gods, per se. (This was 125,000 years before Zeus even entered the picture.) According to scholars, the beliefs of these early humans probably resembled totemism or animism, both of which are practiced today and emphasize the spiritual essence of all living things. In totemism plants and animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and totems are thought to "interact" with individual peoples or tribes, thus serving as their emblem or symbol. (Not unlike school mascots.) You can read more about totemism here and here. I plan to. It's fascinating stuff.
I still can't answer Maxine's questions about the when and the why of religious belief, but next time she asks, at least I'll be a little more prepared about the what.
Of all the religious concepts that I've discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that's precisely what makes it a great addition to "Mommy, What's That?" a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan: The short answer:
Satan is the "bad guy" in the Bible.
The long answer:
In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the "bad" parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a "fallen" angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about "the devil" — they're talking about Satan.
In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.
"According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes."
Um, like, no.
At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.
That's why, beginning this week, I'll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.
Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they'll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.
In each segment, I'll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend's three-year-old. Then I'll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)
"What's An Angel?"
The Short Answer:
An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.
The Long Answer:
Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only "good" things. That's why people might use the word "angel" when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children "little angels.") Some stories say God has special angels, called "guardian angels," who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die.
Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don't really exist.
My daughter, Maxine, is 8 years old and really getting the hang of logic these days. If A is true, then B must be true. If you believe A, you must believe B. If A doesn't exist... You get the drift. Anyway, Maxine's little cousin Jack (4) is very into the movie Frozen right now, particularly the character of Elsa, the snow queen. Recently, when chatting about beliefs, he told his mom, "I believe in Elsa" — which is so cute it makes my heart hurt. But when I told Maxine about Jack's statement, she immediately went into critical mode.
"Jack can't believe in Elsa," she said.
If Jack believes in Elsa, she explained, he has to believe in Olaf (the snowman friend) and Sven (the talking reindeer). This was clearly illogical, and the whole thing bothered her. You could tell she wanted to call Jack up right that instant and tell him how wrong he was.
This is not to say that Maxine is free of her own irrational beliefs, of course; she has plenty of them, believe me. But she is, for the first time, beginning to make logical arguments of her own and experiencing a very strong desire to set people straight when they come to the "wrong" conclusions. (God help us all.)
The whole thing has made me realize that this is a great time and opportunity to talk with her a little about tolerance. After all, how kids respond or react when someone holds irrational or illogical beliefs is a huge indicator of their level of tolerance, is it not? How Maxine responds to her little cousin's announcement could easily indicate her ability to exercise restraint, compassion and kindness in the face of absurd testimony. And, let's face it, she will be hearing (and reading) a lot of that in her life.
We already know kids need to be encouraged to think critically about different beliefs, to weigh those beliefs against what they know to be true, and to figure out what makes sense to them. This is important stuff for kids.
But thinking critically about other's beliefs is very different from criticizing others' beliefs. We need to explain to our kids that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and sometimes those reasons won't make any kind of sense. But everyone has a right to their own personal beliefs, and they don't deserve to be made fun of, or criticized, or talked into changing those beliefs. Unless their beliefs are hurting someone, people deserve to be left alone.
We all do.
If Maxine chooses not to believe in God, that's nobody's business but hers. If her cousin believes in Elsa, that's nobody's business but his.
In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, do yourself a favor and listen to the following four-minute clip from This American Life, Episode #188. The entire episode, which centers on children using "perfectly logical arguments and arriving and perfectly wrong conclusions," is titled Kid Logic. It originally aired in June 2001 and has been making its rounds ever since because it's just. that. good. If you haven't heard it, and hopefully you already have, be prepared. It might may you cry. It will definitely make you think.
(Among Kid Logic's other highlights is the hilarious and adorable story of a little girl who, in second grade, comes home from school announcing that she has finally discovered the true identity of the tooth fairy. Listen here.)
You know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid. There's no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends' beliefs, but because it would naturally just "come up" more often.
Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I've ever found. And vice versa! That's part of the reason I'm glad some of my friend's children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.
That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world's religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad's Birthday, I'm determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:
Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)
Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s "only begotten son." Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)
Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur'an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.
Symbol: Star and the crescent
Major Sects: Sunni and Shia
Sacred Texts: The Qur'an and the Hadith
Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca — which are called Hajj.
Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur'an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur'an will be banished forever.
Clothing: The Qur'an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu'ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.
Major Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua'ran.
Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.
Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)
Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)
Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Heart, a touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.
Recommended Eating: "Haram" refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) "Halal" refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma...
After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let's make sure we let our children know that.