Convergence of Holy Days

In recognition of the suffering that natural disasters have recently inflicted on millions of people throughout the world, Jeanette Powell gathered all the attendees into a prayer circle. As we passed a small bell from woman to woman, each of us recited a small prayer in our own tradition or prayed silently before handing the bell on.

Ann Eppinger Port introduced our topic by explaining that Joan Burstyn, a charter member of WTB and a current member of the WTB Advisory Board, had brought to our attention an article written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a member of the Jewish Renewal movement and an authority on ecological issues and contemporary Judaism. In his article, Rabbi Waskow wrote:

At just the moment of history when religious conflict, violence, terrorism, and war have coalesced in a lethal brew for our different communities and our shared planet, God has given our spiritual and religious traditions a gift of time:

During October 2005—and then again in the fall of 2006 and 2007—a confluence of sacred moments in several different traditions invites us to pray with or alongside each other and to work together for peace, justice, human rights, and the healing of our wounded earth.

To begin with, two strands of time that are celebrated in two communities now often at odds with one another are this fall woven together in a way not seen for three decades: The sacred Muslim lunar month of Ramadan and the sacred Jewish lunar month of Tishrei, which includes the High Holy Days [of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] and [the holiday of] Sukkot both begin October 3-4.

But there is more: October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi [who almost alone of all Christian leaders of his generation opposed the Crusades; who studied with Islamic teachers; and who connected deeply with all the creatures of the earth];

October 2 is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday and Worldwide (Protestant/Orthodox) Communion Sunday.

Moreover, from October 4 through 12, Hindus celebrate the festival of Navratri (which honors female cosmic energy, or the Goddess within each of us). And on October 20, Bahá’ís celebrate the birthday of the Báb.

Since WTB is devoted to fostering our understanding of different religions and ethnicities, we asked a panel of women to speak about their own faith experiences.

Protestant: World Communion Sunday—Tanya Atwood-Adams

Tanya has lived in 11 states but spent most of her growing-up years in California. She and her husband, Bud, share four adult children, all living in different states. Tanya received her master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. She is the chaplain for the palliative care consult service at St. Joseph’s Hospital and the director of spiritual care for the InterReligious Council of Central New York.

Tanya explained that growing up in diverse neighborhoods and experiencing communion with friends of different cultures, she recognized that there are many paths to God. As she prepared for this talk, she asked others about their Protestant traditions and found “a happy lack of uniformity”: customs that had been bent to accommodate the needs and preferences of different congregations, and perspectives that had been shaped by each individual’s childhood experiences.

World Communion Sunday originated in the Presbyterian Church USA in 1936. It was meant to mark the unity of the Christian church and designed to be a worldwide ecumenical service. By 1945, many Protestant denominations were observing it as a celebration of their oneness in Christ. World Communion Sunday commemorates the life, work, death and gift of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Catholics, Protestants view communion not as taking on the specific properties of the body and blood of Jesus, but rather as a symbolic representation meeting a biblical requirement; in some traditions it is also considered to confer special grace. Communion celebrations vary in many ways: Some are open to all; others require communicants to be members, baptized, or believers, with this decision frequently being made by a governing body. Communion is served by deacons, elders, or members of the congregation. Some congregations use leavened bread; others, unleavened wafers. Some use wine; others, grape juice. Presentation varies as well: People might receive communion while standing, kneeling, sitting in pews (as trays are passed from person to person), or sitting at long tables (as for a meal). The frequency of communion can vary from weekly to annually. Tanya illustrated her explanations with trays, plates, chalices and breads used during communion.

Jewish: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—Lynda Fuchs

Lynda has been the director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national interfaith coalition, for more than ten years. She is also a teacher and a designer and creator of jewelry, with emphasis on the multiculturalism of beads. Lynda has two 20-something daughters—an engineer and a second-year medical student. During her moves around the Northeast she has been an active member of communities in which she has lived. She calls Reform Judaism her home.

Lynda explained the intricacies of the Jewish calendar and how it relates to the Gregorian calendar. The Jewish calendar has 12 lunar months of 29 or 30 days each, totaling 354 days per year. To keep up with the solar year, a leap-year month is added—seven times in a 19-year cycle. Days begin at sundown because Genesis, chapter 1, says, “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.”

On the Gregorian date of October 3, 2005, Jews across the globe listened to the sound of the shofar, or ram’s horn, and began to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and welcome the Jewish year of 5766. The sounds of the shofar trigger a memory of Isaac bound and waiting to be sacrificed.

Rosh Hashanah is followed by Days of Repentance and then Yom Kippur. This period, known as the High Holy Days, is a time of reflection, repentance, and a spiritual inventory consisting of four steps: recognition of wrongdoing, regret, resolution not to repeat, and restraining oneself in the face of temptation.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, adults abstain from food and water for 25 hours. Services continue throughout the day, and they stress the confession of sins, using “we” so that the sinner is not isolated; the community recognizes that the group must assume some responsibility for the acts of individuals. Many congregations share a communal “break the fast” meal at the end of Yom Kippur.

Four days after Yom Kippur is the holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Sukkot has two origins: One is God’s release of the Jews from captivity in Egypt, when the people lived temporarily in sukkot (sukkot is the plural of the Hebrew word sukkah, meaning “booth” or “hut”). The other origin is the harvest, when farmers lived in booths beside their fields so as to avoid having to travel back and forth to their homes. Jews build these booths of natural materials and decorate them with the fruits of the harvest. Many eat their meals there for seven days. These holidays are rich with music, poetry, foods, and family traditions.

Roman Catholic: Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi—Sister Jeanne Karp

Sister Jeanne has been a Sister of Saint Francis for 20 years. She is a nurse practitioner and runs a free rural clinic part-time in northern Oswego County for persons without medical insurance. She is currently a full-time vocation minister for her community. Her hobbies are camping, canoeing and woodworking.

Catholics celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi on October 4. Sister Jeanne first explained that the Church confers the title of saint on individuals who lived special lives. Catholics look up to these individuals as heroes or models for their own lives and, recognizing that prayer is powerful and important, ask the saints to pray to God as intercessors.

Francis was born in 1182 to a wealthy merchant and lived a party life. Then he chose to join the Crusades. He was captured, put in jail, and experienced a profound conversion, after which God appeared to him saying, “Rebuild my Church.”

When Francis returned home, he stressed the importance of being kind because all people and things are created by God. He had no tolerance for individuals who abuse God’s creation, and he is today the patron saint of ecology.

In his own time, Francis was also recognized as a peacemaker, mediating between warring villages and kings and between Christians and Muslims in the Crusades. The World Day of Peace was started in Assisi by Franciscans. Today, Franciscans International is a nongovernmental organization with a seat at the United Nations and has a voice in the policies put forth there. As a follow-up to Tanya’s explanation of World Communion Sunday, Sister Jeanne told us that today, October 16, is the end of the Year of the Eucharist, a liturgical year that has been celebrated by Roman Catholics worldwide.

Muslim: Ramadan—Danya Wellmon

Danya is a medical technologist currently working for the Red Cross. She lives in Chittenango with two of her three children and is active in the Islamic Society of Central New York.

Danya explained that there are five pillars of Islam: declaration of faith, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, charitable giving, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims follow a lunar calendar that does not provide leap months to keep it with the solar year. Thus, over time, Ramadan, the ninth month, travels through the year.

During Ramadan, a holy month of 29 days, Muslims seek to train and purify their inner selves through prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Ramadan is the most blessed month of the year for three reasons: (1) God sent the Qur΄an down to the lower heavens during the month of Ramadan, and then it was revealed by the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad, verse by verse over a 23-year period because it would have been too overwhelming all at once. (2) Ramadan includes the Night of Glory, a period of all-night prayer. (3) Beginning at puberty (the age of accountability), healthy adult Muslims are required to fast from sunup to sundown, sharing their break-fast meals (where it is prohibited to overeat) and celebrations with other Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The Ramadan fast disciplines the individual physically and spiritually, teaching control of passions, anger and emotions. Portions of food should be given to the poor so that everyone shares. Those unable to fast are required to feed a hungry person every day.

Each evening of Ramadan, portions of the Qur΄an are recited from memory in Arabic, with the goal being to recite the entire sacred book during the month. Muslims are urged to give to charity, even in excess of the required 2.5 percent of their wealth. One’s faith is manifest in actions and deeds. Ramadan ends with the Eid celebration, which includes communal prayers (in Syracuse, these are held at the Oncenter), a festive dinner, a children’s party, and the giving of gifts to children.

Hindu: Navratri—Helina Mehta

Helina is from Guntersville, Alabama. Currently she is a junior in a predental program at Syracuse University. She is president of the Hindu Students Council, a board member and vice president of the Student Wishmaker Foundation (which sponsors and helps children with terminal illnesses at nearby hospitals), and an e-board member of Masti, a cultural event of the South Asian Students Association.

Helina explained that Navratri (translated as “nine nights”) is one of the most celebrated festivals of the Hindu year, intended to thank the mother goddess Durga for the female principles of nature. It is celebrated with worship, dances and music directed to the goddesses of energy and valor, peace and wealth, knowledge and art. There are many stories of the gods, and Helina shared two of them with us.

Lord Brahma was pleased with the buffalo demon Mahishasura for his excellent meditation and told him that no man or god would be able to kill him. Pleased with this invincibility, Mahishasura set out to conquer heaven, earth and hell. When he invaded heaven and drove the gods out, the gods’ anger was incarnated in the goddess Durga. After a battle lasting nine days, Durga beheaded Mahishasura. The tenth day, Vijaya Dashami, celebrates the triumph of good over evil as well as the power of women, education, and the ability to learn.

In another story, Lord Ram was married to a beautiful woman, Sita. The demon king Ravan kidnapped her and took her to his land, Lanka. With help from the Kingdom of Monkeys, Ram beheaded Ravan and rescued his wife, then returned home to become king in his own land.

Helina showed us photos of people doing Navratri folk dances—raas and garba—in the Indian state of Gujarat. The women were wearing jewel-toned dresses decorated with beads and tiny mirrors; the men too were in traditional garb. All of them were dancing with small, polished, wooden sticks that they were tapping together. The enthusiasm and happiness of the dancers were evident.

Bahá’í: Birthday of the Báb– Mary Roderick

 Mary was born in Portugal and immigrated to the United States in 1960 when she was nine years old. She and her family settled in Rhode Island. Mary is a wife, mother of three wonderful adult children, and proud grandmother of two. She is a retired hospice nurse, currently works at St. Joseph’s Hospital as a transcriptionist, and has a part-time home-based business as a distributor of USANA Health Science nutritional supplements. Mary became a Bahá’í when she was 19 years old and has served the community in various appointed and elected positions both in the United States and in Portugal.

Mary explained that the birthday of the Báb is one of the nine holy days of Bahá’í and is celebrated from sunset October 19 through sunset October 20. In Central New York, which has a small Bahá’í community, services and celebrations are held in members’ homes. Since there is no clergy, volunteers organize readings, music, food, ceremonies, and children’s programs such as plays. Religious practices are not set, but they are reverent and reflect the local culture.

The Báb (which means “the gate”) was born Siyyid ΄Ali-Muhammad and grew up to become a merchant. He was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and was known, even as a child, for his wisdom. In 1844 he made a declaration of faith, stating that he was a messenger of God and had come to prepare the way for “He Whom God Will Make Manifest.” His fame spread quickly. He was persecuted and executed in 1850. Bahá’ís believe that the Báb prepared the way for Bahá΄u΄lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith.


In response to Joan Burstyn’s question about the importance to us of this confluence of holy days and the direction it should give us, Mary said it should bring us to a realization that we are all made by the same Creator. We can picture ourselves being on different lanes of the same highway, but all going in the same direction. Each of us contributes to the whole, and we should open our hearts and be more tolerant and accepting of each other. We are interconnected not only in our religions but even in the very air we breathe, in our atoms. This creates strengths in us to go forward. When we see injustice, we have a part to play in making situations better and changing what is near us.

Smita pointed out that the Hindu lunar calendar also adds leap year months. Important life events, such as getting married or buying a house, are not done during these months. Mary noted that the Bahá’í calendar is a solar calendar, with 19 months of 19 days each, plus a few extra days. Sabra pointed out that the Bahá’í fast is similar to the Ramadan fast and done for the same reasons.

Janet Donoghue said she had read a biography of St. Francis. During the Crusades, St. Francis had offered to cross enemy lines to speak to Muslims. They were willing to make peace, but the Christians were not. Sister Jeanne responded that this biography scrambled the order of some actual events in Francis’s life. She noted that Franciscans are known for pushing the envelope, attempting to make necessary changes.

Nancy Sullivan Murray noted that this convergence period falls under the astrological sign of Libra, the balance scale. She said that nature is out of balance. The poor, the nameless, the faceless are caught in the upheaval. How can we better balance our lives to promote justice in the natural world and in our communities? Global warming is a symbol of social injustice—the developed world’s use of fossil fuels without concern for the effect on others. The Bahá’í faith warns of the excesses of civilization and calls for moderation. The commonalities in our faiths are an expression of the need to connect with God with humility and reverence, the opposite of the excesses of civilization.

Betsy reminded us that this confluence of dates will continue for three years. We can continue this conversation and expand on it, looking at different perspectives of the impact we can make on the world. 

[1] See also September 2006 and October 2007.