Holidays

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

This past Sunday, I received an interesting email just after I got home from one of the most symbolic rites of the Eastern Orthodox year -- Forgiveness Vespers.

For Orthodox Christians, this service is the door into the long and challenging season of Great Lent, which leads to the most important day in the Christian year -- Pascha (Easter in the West).

During these vespers, each member of the congregation -- one at a time -- faces each and every other person who is present. One at a time, we bow and ask the person to forgive us of anything we have done to hurt them in the previous year. The response: "I forgive, as God forgives," or similar words. Then the second person does the same thing. Many people do a full prostration to the floor, as they seek forgiveness.

Then we move to the left to face the next person in line. Doing this 100 times or so is quite an exercise, both spiritual and physical. Tears are common. So is sweat.

The email I received pointed me to stories coming out of the Dagestan region of Russia, near the border of Chechnya. As worshipers came out of an Orthodox church in Kizlyar, a gunman -- shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- attacked with a hunting rifle and knife, killing five.

An Associated Press report merely said the victims were leaving a church service and even stated that the "motive for the attack was not immediately known."

I was struck by the timing, coming in the wake of the Ash Wednesday school shootings in Parkland, Fla. I had the same question as the GetReligion reader who emailed me: Were these worshipers shot after the Forgiveness Vespers? 

It certainly appeared that this was the case, so I immediately wrote a post: "Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers." Needless to say, this was a topic of interest to Orthodox believers, and others.

Now, a reader who speaks Russia has found a link to a Russian website -- "Orthodoxy and the World" -- that confirms the poignant and painful timing of this attack. Here is his translation of that information, if you are into factual journalistic details of this kind:

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File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.

Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.

Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.

Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ...  Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.

The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:

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Happy Trump-idays! The real reason for so much winning and saying 'Merry Christmas' this season

Happy Trump-idays! The real reason for so much winning and saying 'Merry Christmas' this season

Thank you, President Trump!

Because of you, my family was able to celebrate and say "Merry Christmas" this holiday season. That's something we haven't been able to do since ... last Christmas.

As GetReligion readers probably heard, the president congratulated himself in a Christmas Eve tweet: "People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!"

So much winning — and Christmas spirit!

But personally, I identified with the response of Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, to Trump's tweet: "So, was this a thing that I missed? Were some of you really ashamed of saying Merry Christmas before the election? Or afraid to? Teach me — are you proud and more bold now? What?" (See Stetzer's Twitter timeline for some excellent feedback that he received.)

Here's the deal, though: Trump's emphasis on Christmas — like his "Make America Great Again" slogan — has tapped into something deeper than saying Merry Christmas, as a nice PBS Newshour segment noted Monday night.

I recall that when I interviewed Robert Jeffress, one of Trump's key evangelical advisers, earlier this year, I asked about the Christmas issue.

Jeffress told me:

People say, 'Well, what’s the big deal about Merry Christmas? I think President Trump understands that Christianity has been marginalized in our country. For the two years I’ve known him, he’s talked about that quite a bit, the marginalization of Christianity. He certainly believes that people of all faiths or no faith ought to have the right to practice whatever faith they have. But he’s noticed the decline of Christianity in America, and that concerns him.

Real war on Christmas or not (for what it's worth, the Washington Post's opinion Twitter account thought Dec. 25 was a great day to question Jesus' existence), Trump's Christmas focus seems to have resonated with much of his evangelical Christian base.

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A visit from classic MZ: Concerning 2017's sort-of news about anti-Starbucks evangelicals

A visit from classic MZ: Concerning 2017's sort-of news about anti-Starbucks evangelicals

It's that time of year, again. I know that I keep saying that, but there's no way around it.

It's time for the annual alleged cursing of the Starbucks Holiday cup design.

Once again, several major branches of elite media -- including the all-important New York Times -- are dancing with delight to know that some knuckle-dragging evangelicals are upset with some element of this iconic symbol in the lives of urban consumers of over-priced coffee.

This year, we are talking about a culture wars topic, as well as a new round in the Christmas Wars. Now, in the following Times passage, pay close attention to the sourcing on information about this alleged evangelical cyber-lynch mob. I will then turn things over to M.Z. "GetReligionista Emerita" Hemingway for her Federalist critique of this mess.

The latest controversy has focused ... on a pair of gender-neutral hands holding each other on the side of the cup itself.

Those linked hands came to wider public attention after BuzzFeed published an article about them on Wednesday. It suggested the cup was “totally gay.”
“While people who follow both Starbucks holiday cup news and L.G.B.T. issues celebrated the video, the ordinary Starbucks customer probably didn’t realize the cup might have a gay agenda,” BuzzFeed said.

Thus saith BuzzFeed. Then:

After that, it was off to the races.
Fox News picked up the story of what it called the “androgynous” cartoon hands, referring to Bible-quoting critics of Starbucks and criticizing BuzzFeed, which it said had “asserted the hypothesis is fact.”

Thus saith Fox News, one of our culture's most popular arenas for all things Christmas Wars.

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Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they make lawyers flock gladly.

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they drive the news clicks madly ...

Can somebody help me out here?

We really need some kind of Saturday Night Live worthy cold-open anthem that celebrates/mourns the role that First Amendment fights -- as opposed to waves of shopping-mall news -- now play during the weeks that lead up to the Holy Day once known as the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (see "Christmas").

Most of these annual stories are sad jokes, but some have substance. The latest Washington Post report on the mass-transit advertising wars falls into the second category, raising real issues about public discourse (and the First Amendment) in our tense times.

The headline: "Is Metro waging war on Christmas? Archdiocese sues to post biblical-themed bus ads." Here's the low-key, serious overture:

The Archdiocese of Washington is suing Metro after the transit agency rejected an ad for the organization’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” charitable campaign, which features a biblical Christmas scene.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, attorneys for the archdiocese argue that Metro’s ban on subway and bus ads that “promote . . . any religion, religious practice or belief” has infringed on the organization’s First Amendment rights. ...
The banner ads, designed to be placed on Metrobus exteriors, are relatively minimalist in their design. The display highlights the phrases “Find the Perfect Gift” and “#PerfectGift,” and includes a link to the campaign’s website, which encourages people to attend Mass or donate to a Catholic charitable groups. The words of the ad are overlaid on a tableau of a starry sky; in the corner are three figures bearing shepherd’s rods, along with two sheep.

As a 10-year (or more) regular on DC mass transit, I totally get why this is such a hot-button issue.

We're talking about messages displayed before some of the most tense, picky and politicized eyeballs on Planet Earth.

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Christian Zionist gathering during Sukkot takes on international tone, says The Atlantic

Christian Zionist gathering during Sukkot takes on international tone, says The Atlantic

Only religion-beat professionals used to know about the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Israel that was more Christian than Jewish and involved all sorts of odd folks waving Israeli flags on the streets of Jerusalem.

Fortunately, the Atlantic sent Emma Green to cover the 2017 version of this Sukkot festival with the angle that these days it’s not just American evangelicals populating the place -- 90 percent of the crowd is made up of internationals. And that the local Jewish population is truly OK with them being there.

From the front lines of a conference center in Jerusalem, here's what she wrote:

JERUSALEM -- The scene was like a contemporary Christian music concert, but with a lot more Jewish swag. European pilgrims wore Star of David jewelry as they swayed among the palm trees of Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judean desert. Spanish delegates sported matching “España loves Israel” T-shirts. A tiny woman from China jogged around waving a person-sized flag bearing a Hebrew word for God, while another Chinese woman periodically blew a giant shofar, the ram’s horn that is sacred in Judaism. The crowd sang songs from the Psalms, following transliterated Hebrew on giant television screens. As night fell, their chorus of “holy, holy, worthy, worthy” seemed to fill the desert.
This was the opening ceremony for the 2017 Feast of the Tabernacles, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s annual celebration held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More than 6,000 Christians from all over the world had come to show their love for Israel, and I tagged along with ICEJ spokesperson David Parsons and his wife, Josepha. “It’s like a pre-celebration before Moshiach comes,” she explained, using the Hebrew word for messiah.

I remember interviewing Parsons 17 years ago when some of us came to Jerusalem in the closing days of 1999 to record what a new millennium looked like from the Mount of Olives and to write news stories about some of the crazies who thought the Second Coming was imminent.

Christian Zionism typically involves a belief that Jews must return to Israel in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. While the movement long predates the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, it got new energy from the American religious right in the 1980s. Now, according to Daniel Hummel, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the movement is undergoing a transformation, both theologically and geographically.

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Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

What can we say? How long must we sing this song?

Once again there has been another attack in Egypt that has left scores of Coptic Christians dead and wounded. Currently, the death toll is at 26 or 28, depending on the source of the information.

Once again there are the same basic themes to cover. The ancient Copts -- the vast majority are part of Coptic Orthodoxy -- make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt. They are the largest body of Christian believers left in the Middle East, part of a religious tradition that emerged in the time of the first disciples of Jesus.

Once again, Egyptian officials have renewed their vows to help protect the Copts. Once again, reporters tried to find a way to list all of the recent terrorist attacks on the Copts -- a list so long that it threatens to dominate basic news reports.

So what now? Why now? Here is the top of the Reuters report -- circulated by Religion News Service, as well -- which caught my attention because of its early focus on what may, tragically, be a crucial fact.

In this case, the "when" and the "why" factors in that old journalism formula -- "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" -- may be one in the same. Read carefully.

CAIRO (Reuters) -- Gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt on Friday, killing 28 people and wounding 25 others, and many children were among the victims, Health Ministry officials said.
Eyewitnesses said masked men opened fire after stopping the Christians, who were traveling in a bus and other vehicles. Local television channels showed a bus apparently raked by gunfire and smeared with blood. Clothes and shoes could be seen lying in and around the bus.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. It followed a series of church bombings claimed by Islamic State.

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Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

What can I say? People keep asking me if there is some kind of "religion ghost" lurking in the story of the fall of Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly.

After all, he was one of America's leading "conservatives."

O'Reilly also mentioned, from time to time, his Catholic roots. Yes, we will get to that timely handshake with Pope Francis in a minute (Religion News Service report here). As religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling told me, in an email one-liner: "Since O'Reilly made so much of his Catholic identity, perhaps he should have asked Pope Francis to hear his confession when they met at the Vatican?"

But, you see, this is where I need to plead ignorance and seek help from readers. As I have said before, I never watched O'Reilly's show. I don't think I ever watched an episode from end to end, because I truly despised the style and content of his baseball-bat commentary work. His opinion-to-reporting ratio was not my cup of tea. I remain a Brit Hume, Kirsten Powers, Megyn Kelly, Howard Kurtz kind of guy.

So help me here: Did O'Reilly consistently make a big deal out of the CONTENT of his Catholic identity or did he just mention it in passing? Did he quote scripture, the Catholic Catechism or papal documents? I honestly want to know.

I also hear this: What about the whole "War on Christmas" riff that he used year after year after year, world without end?

From what I have seen, that part of his work was based on his anti-political-correctness stance and a kind of marketplace version of civil religion. I never heard him engage in the actual details of church-state debates linked to this important First Amendment topic. He just bashed away, knowing that his audience loved it. Did I miss something?

If there is a valid GetReligion angle to this story it is, in my opinion, the possibility that the very public falls of O'Reilly and original Fox News maestro Roger Ailes offer insights into the political philosophy at the heart of this news operation.

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Grating Eggs-pectations? Omission of 'Easter' nod roils world press, British prime minister

Grating Eggs-pectations? Omission of 'Easter' nod roils world press, British prime minister

Perhaps the greatest celebration of the Christian calendar is Easter, the commemoration of Christ's resurrection. Though not specified by that name in the Bible, the fact that Jesus rose on the third day, as promised, is of great comfort and inspiration to believers around the globe.

The resurrection, and not the advent, is what many believers would assert distinguishes Christian faith from other world religions.

Some traditions that have attached themselves to Easter are, one could say, rather extraneous to the biblical narrative. There's no scriptural mention of bunny rabbits or eggs of any sort in connection with the resurrection or with the early church, for that matter. But never mind: such elements of the celebration are enjoyed by many children in many lands.

Youngsters in England's fair and pleasant land, as William Blake called it, were in peril of hunting for special Easter eggs -- chocolate candies, actually -- without knowing that this was Easter.

Forget the calendar, it's the branding that matters. Calling it "Cadbury's Great British Egg Hunt," without the E-word, was this side of blasphemy.

Or so saith the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. John Sentamu, the Church of England's Archbishop of York and Primate of All England, second in rank behind the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dr. Justin Welby.

Sentamu's complaint was made via Britain's Daily Telegraph, but it jumped the pond rapidly, gaining space in The New York Times, no less:

[Sentamu] lamented that omitting an explicit Easter reference was akin to “spitting on the grave” of John Cadbury, a Quaker who founded the company, which initially sold cocoa and drinking chocolate, in Birmingham in 1824.

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