A Religious Mystery Revealed

The year wouldn't come to a proper end without our taking note of area congregations visited by the Mystery Worshipper from ship-of-fools.com.

The anonymous critic -- actually one of a team of 180 in the United States, Australia and Britain -- drops in unannounced and assesses the building, the pastors, the comfort of the pews, the warmth of welcome, the sermon, the music and other details. The only evidence is a Ship of Fools calling card dropped into the collection plate -- and a review posted on the Web site for the world to see.

Three of the 49 U.S. churches visited this year are in Maryland and Virginia.

The Mystery Worshipper appreciated the warm reception he (or she) got at the Roman Catholic Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City but didn't think much of the architecture: "This ugly building resembles a school gym rather than a church."

He was distracted by children "clomping around in the back" during services at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Winchester, Va., but loved the music and sermon. And he panned First Presbyterian in Harrisonburg, Va., saying the church "brought new meaning to the stereotype about Presbyterians being 'God's frozen chosen.' "

Ouch.

The Yogi's Road to Peace Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced transcendental meditation 45 years ago, has broadened his scope by addressing the world's crises through weekly news conferences via his Web site, www.globalcountry.org. Among his recent messages:

* "Research shows that just a few people are needed to create peace. They will dive deep within themselves and explore their own unbounded 'Atma,' the Self. As a byproduct of this blissful experience, they will create a stress-free, problem-free nation."

* "The goal of warmonger nations like the U.S., Britain and Germany is to create and maintain fear in the world and sell their arms. . . . Unless world consciousness rises in coherence, all this destruction will just continue."

Such coherence can be achieved through expanded use of transcendental meditation and yogic flying, an advanced stage of contemplation where the body lifts off the ground, said Maharishi, who is 84 and lives in the Netherlands. The yogi's plan "calls for the immediate establishment of several large groups of 8,000 Yogic Flyers throughout the globe, including one larger group of up to 40,000 experts in India," a press statement said.

Catholics' Loss of Confidence Crisis, a Catholic magazine, just completed its 2002 survey of Catholics in the United States and found "some very unexpected numbers," according to editor Deal Hudson.

One was that a "disturbingly large percentage" of Catholics has lost confidence in the moral teachings of the church in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, Hudson said in an "e-letter." Forty-five percent of active Catholics (those who attend Mass at least four times a month) and half of inactive Catholics (attending Mass three times a month or less) no longer trust the church's moral teachings.

He offered a few words for Catholic leaders: "Bishops, take note: 52 percent of all Catholics are dissatisfied with the way you have responded to the crisis. . . . [You] obviously have a lot of work to do."

Evangelicals and Poor Children Evangelical Protestants are more supportive than the general population of helping underprivileged children overseas -- 14 percent to 7 percent. But only 3 percent of evangelicals say they would "definitely" offer assistance for children orphaned because of AIDS, according to a survey sponsored by the evangelical Christian humanitarian organization World Vision.

"Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are still asking the question, 'Who is my neighbor?' And we're still getting the answer wrong," said World Vision President Richard E. Stearns.

Celebration

This Month's Spotlight: Yalda Night, Zoroastrian celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Date: Dec. 21.

Description: An ancient tradition marking the solar new year, the beginning of longer daylight hours, Yalda Night celebrates the ultimate triumph of good (light) over evil (darkness) -- a message preached by Zarathustra, a Persian prophet who lived more than 3,000 years ago. Yalda Nighters gorge themselves on snacks and fruits and dance and sing to drive evil spirits away, emboldened by the Zoroastrian belief that each person has a spark of divinity capable of bringing good and happiness to the world.

More Information: The Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, www.zamwi.org. 301-515-8080; Zoroastrian Archives, www.avesta.org

Religion 101

Why do some Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 and others on Jan. 6 or Jan. 7?

In 1582, Orthodox Christianity rejected the calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII to replace the Julian calendar. Some Orthodox churches continue to use the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian, and celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. But most, including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America, have switched to Dec. 25 on the Gregorian calendar. An exception to both practices is a branch of Orthodoxy that includes Armenians and Syrians, who mark the Nativity on Jan. 6 -- a date Christmas was celebrated before Rome shifted it to Dec. 25 in the 4th century.

E-mail your question about religious traditions or practices to religion@washpost.com. Put "Faith Q&A" in the subject line and include a daytime phone number.

-- Compiled by Bill Broadway

Saturday in Religion: Moravian nativity tradition in Bethesda.