Penitence, fasting and pride

ash 22698BToday is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent for the Western Christian church. According to an ancient rite, ashes — made by mixing the burnt palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations with a bit of olive oil — are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of their depraved nature and dependence on God for forgiveness. During Lent, purple paraments drape the altars of liturgical churches and Glorias and Alleluias are omitted from the liturgy. These changes are meant to focus the worshiper on the penitential nature of the season. For their part, some worshipers traditionally mark the season by fasting from meat and alcohol, as well as spending more time in prayer and reflection.

Feast days and fast days are great hooks for reporters looking to explore larger religious issues, and today is no exception with papers from New York and North Carolina to Ohio and Nebraska getting in on the action. Overall, reporters did a fabulous job of getting local angles on this day that is observed by much of the Christian world.

Cheryl Sherry of the Appleton Post-Crescent wrote a substantive account of the season of Lent, especially considering how brief her piece is. She got quotes from a variety of clergy, and her narrative managed to do a better job explaining Lent, in fact, then the quotes themselves did. She wrote another piece with Lenten fish-fry recipes.

Bob Withers of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch explained why the season begins midweek:

Lent started as a pre-Easter fast of 40 hours, then was expanded to a week, then 30 days, and in 325 A.D., to 40 days, to memorialize Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. Confusion followed because Sundays weren’t supposed to be fast days, but omitting them threw off the count.

Pope Gregory I fixed the problem in the late sixth century by adding four days at the beginning of the period and counting Good Friday and Holy Saturday as well. Thus, for 14 centuries, Lent always has begun on a Wednesday.

Leslie Palma-Simoncek, religion editor of the Staten Island Advance, found a great angle for her piece on Ash Wednesday. She spoke with public officials who receive the imposition of ashes:

For some believers, the day presents a dilemma: Keep the ashes on through the workday or discreetly wash them off before returning to the office. . . .

“On this day, you wear your Catholicism on your sleeve,” the councilman said. “It’s a feeling of pride, really.”

Pride? Those of us who do receive the ashes, however, must admit that humiliation is not the only feeling we have when we walk out of church with ashes on our foreheads. Palma explains more, getting a great handle on some of the unintended consequences of this rite:

“It’s one of the biggest opportunities for people to confess their faith, and they feel some solidarity because a lot of other people are wearing the symbol as well,” [Sister Elaine Schenk] said. “It’s a good reminder.”

Ash Wednesday also provides a teachable moment for Christians to explain their beliefs in a society that is increasingly multifaith.

“People will sometimes come up to me and ask me about them. They are usually very respectful,” she said. “That’s a good opportunity to explain the custom.”

Palma explains that not all Christians observe Lent and why. She also gives a mention to Orthodox Christians — such as Old Man Mattingly — for whom Lent began earlier and is a much more austere season. She does such a great job with this story, in fact, that I hope I come across more of her pieces.

In any case, this reminds me that I had a reporter friend who came to her newsroom with ashes on her forehead and had multiple colleagues tell her she had dirt on her forehead. True story. You can read more on newsroom Ash Wednesday capers here.

A Massachusetts paper writes that Lent is a Roman Catholic liturgical season, with no mention of the other groups that celebrate the church calendar. A Florida paper went so far as to give an estimated count of how many Lutherans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in the area would receive ashes. On that note, Andrew Santella wrote a very interesting article in Slate about how Lenten penitential practices are increasing in popularity.

If you grew up, as I did, thinking of Lent as the Time of the Frozen Fish Sticks, you can’t help but be surprised by the expanding enthusiasm for the pre-Easter season of penitence and fasting. Lent, it seems, isn’t just for Catholics anymore.

nomeatLike I said, the article is interesting and has some great tidbits of information. The only problem is that Santella completely oversells his argument. While Lenten practices may be increasing in popularity among those folks who used to despise the liturgical calendar, Lent has never been just for Roman Catholics. He quotes Martin Luther, a huge proponent of the spiritual benefits of fasting and Lenten penitence, in a passage about Protestant opposition to Lent. We all tend to surround ourselves with similar folks. But if you’re going to write a piece about how Lent isn’t just for Catholics anymore, perhaps you should do a bit of research going in. Then, for instance, you would know that many mainline Protestants and confessional Protestants mark Lent with pious devotion. To that end, local reporters did much better than Slate.

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  • Mollie

    People should click on the link from Kevin Basil’s blog for better information on the Orthodox preparation for Easter. He notes that Orthodox are technically in pre-Lent with the Great Fast beginning next week.

  • Andy Crouch

    From the Slate article comes this bit of analysis in an effort to explain why evangelical churches are embracing liturgy (and Catholic churches are embracing “pop music and handholding”): it’s because of people moving from one tradition to another. “Inevitably, all this changing of churches ends up changing the churches, as people bring bits of their worship traditions with them.”

    This strikes me as cleverly written and completely wrong. Many of the most fervent megachurch Protestants are former Catholics; many of the most liturgically traditional Catholics are converts from Protestantism. The writer just seems not to have thought through why people change traditions. Closer to the point might be (possibly) that the lower barriers to changing religious tradition force church leaders to innovate and borrow to avoid losing people in the first place. I think that’s arguably true for the Catholics, I’m less so that that has been a factor for the Protestants.

    Or perhaps tmatt will be introducing “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” into Easter services at his church this coming spring?

  • Darren


    Only if it’s in Greek or some other Orthodox-approved language :)

    As to the articles, one of our friends who is definitely Protestant (Reformed) just wrote us saying that she is thinking about observing Lent this year for the first time. And two years ago, in a PCA church we were attending, the 40 days before Easter were spent meditating on the death of Christ, even though I don’t think I ever heard the word “Lent” mentioned (probably would have scared off some people).


  • Beth

    That “Massachusetts paper” is my local paper. While their religion page often does better, their general annual news stories on Christian holy days virtually always proceed as if all such observances were unique to Roman Catholics.

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  • TK

    The Minneapolis Star Tribune makes no mention of it anywhere that I could find (no surprise to anyone living in the Twin Cities and the land of 10,000 liberal lakes). The St. Paul Pioneer press makes brief mention of the Pope’s statement, which is no surprise to the many Catholic residents of the St. Paul area.

  • dk

    Tsk, Tsk. More terminological accuracy issues Mollie. “Mainline” Protestant churches generally are “confessional” churches. I can’t think of an exception. They all have historic confessional standards rooted in their own denomination, as opposed to things like the “Five Fundamentals” of the “Four Spiritual Laws.” “Confessional,” however, is probably too ill-defined and too much of an insider term for mainstream journalistic use. “Mainline” may be as well. It’s also getting to be anachronistic and inaccurate.

    Then there is your use of “liturgical church”–

    “During Lent, purple paraments drape the altars of liturgical churches and Glorias and Alleluias are omitted from the liturgy.”

    Technically, almost anything that happens down front in any kind of church could be called a liturgy, but from the standpoint of a formal analysis, maybe the viewpoint of a historian or anthropologist, there is much more in common between traditional Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican worship. I’d say, considered as community ritual and expressive, participatory medium, these groups have more in common with Anabaptist and Muslim practice and experience than they do with free church Evangelicalism.

    What you really mean by “liturgical churches” is Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox and assorted other churches that follow approximately the same tradition of liturgical rituals and standards for the mass. Other Protestant denominations, especially Calvinists, are often “liturgical,” but it would be highly, highly unusual to seem them using altars, purple paraments, the gloria, etc. Most of this stuff got cut out long ago, and even where it has been recovered (the PCA would be a good example), this is a rather different phenomenon and doesn’t really fit with the others who might be identified by their relative continuous fidelity to the mass and their retention of that term.

  • Mollie


    I have no problem with your tsking (although it kind of makes me laugh) but I am not convinced that you offer language improvements.

    1) Liturgical churches is a great way to describe, well, liturgical churches. While I agree that all religious groups follow a liturgy of sorts, “here’s the part where we start the Power Point, here’s the part where we have the unplanned altar call” etc, there is no clearer way to describe those churches that keep the historic liturgy. Seriously, if you have a better way of putting it, let me know. Some Presbyterians are more liturgically rigorous (in a historic sense) than others, yes, but that doesn’t negate my characterization.

    2) It is not true that mainline churches are best described as confessional. It is true that most mainline churches have confessional traditions. I separated out the two descriptors for a very specific reason. American pietism has had an overwhelming influence on mainline churhces and many now focus more on feelings than confessions, political activism over doctrinal standards, special interest groups over clergy, etc. For more on this, I highly recommend D.G. Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism.

    I do relish precise language and would love to do a better job with it if possible. So if you have more thoughts, I’m all ears. Just keep in mind that a certain economy of words — not to mention proper focus on the thesis of a post — are to be kept in mind.

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  • dk

    Good, I was trying to be goofy while being such a nit-picker. But I do think it is a terminological problem worth some thought. I did not mean to offer language improvements, at least not single terms or short-phrases that can somehow conjure up a contextual understanding for readers who know little or nothing about different religious group practices and histories. That is a chronic problem for writers with a general audience and space limitations. However, you may have a solution: “the historic liturgy.”

    I think your comment #1 vindicates my original note. I objected to “liturgical churches” as being far too vague. You disagreed and said it clearly refers to “those churches that keep the historic liturgy.” How? That is a much narrower designation, and it is in no way applied by the single modifier, “liturgical.”

    “Liturgical” can mean any church with a liturgy, without any stipulation on what the liturgy includes or excludes. Churches that mix and match different “historic” liturgical elements are “liturgical,” but that does not imply they adhere to “the historic liturgy” in even the bare-bones form of the Genevan or Scottish Calvinist standards which are now seldom followed among mainline, middle-of-the-road, and reactionary right-wing Calvinist churches that are all to different, conflicted degrees “confessional” churches.

    I think this is a fair and meaningful point for people who write about these things because I have often heard “liturgical church” used in a minimalist, dehistoricized, and purely aesthetic/formal sense to describe Evangelical or Reformed churches where a liturgy is made up on an ad hoc basis by an individual or committee each week with few or no structural features belonging to “the historic liturgy,” which would include things like the Gloria. These churches are categorically different in what they are doing compared to Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, and the Orthodox where the essential and genetic similarity is obvious.

    On #2, you are using “confessional” in an eccentric and highly politicized fashion inscribed with your personal judgment that churches with confessional charters can no longer be called “confessional” when *you* judge that a sufficient membership does not care about those charters anymore. This doesn’t fly by journalistic or scholarly standards.

    “Confessional” refers to a church with a confessional tradition rooted in historic confessional documents, regardless of what members of the church emphasize or believe as long as their church has not formally discarded those teachings. I doubt people such as your colleague Mr. LeBlanc are ready to consign the confessional status of the Anglican communion to the dustbin of history.

  • dk

    Sorry, I meant “in no way IMPLIED…”

    And on another note, the points I am making have relevance to ecumenical initiatives and both have to do with deeper, fundamental points of similarity and relative unity that are not widely uinderstood. The churches that have a liturgical common ground still officially have the most doctrinal common ground, regardless of the infidelity of much of their clergy and laity.

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  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic who has received ashes for most of his 63 years–I have never heard we were being administered the ashes because of our “depraved nature” as you wrote. That is a phrase I have heard fom my mother’s (Protestant – Calvinist) side of my family (but the churches represented there did not administer ashes on Ash Wed.)
    I have since learned that, in the past, this has been one of the sort of sticking points between some Reformation churches and Rome::Just how strongly and deeply has “original sin” affected human nature? Most Catholics take exception to using the word “depraved” to describe human nature. In fact in the many hundreds-maybe thousands- of Catholic books and publications I have read over the years I don’t recall ever seeing the word “depraved” used this way. I think it was Hillaire Belloc who said Catholics had a much “sunnier” view of such things and claimed that is why Catholic countries are more known for laughter, good wine, and fiestas (if I have his list somewhat right).

  • dk

    Theologically and practically, Catholicism, at least in its traditional forms, emphasizes sin and repentance and does not take a particularly sunny view of human nature, but this sensibility coexists with the carnivalesque element. I don’t think Catholicism has a real theological problem with depravity and a high view of original sin, but to the extent that protestant and reformed theology tends to see human agency and certainly prescribed “rituals” as having no essential (or even salutary) part in redemption, that is a sticking point. From the Reformed perspective, Catholic theology takes too high a view of nature and reason, ascribing to them an inherent goodness apart from faith and grace. That is more of a modern view though, with some roots in humanist and early protestant reactions to the scholastic thomist-aristotelian tradition. Calvin wrestles with the problem, and in the Reformation there were attempts to articulate a Reformed humanism. SOme Calvinists take a high view of “common grace,” and others take a low view where “common” connotes something like “almost negligible.” I see Calvin as falling into the latter category.

    In practice, most Calvinists quit taking depravity seriously a long time ago. It no longer ties into spiritual disciplines and community discipline. The consistory is gone (most people are probably happy with that), and the rigorous, prescribed processes for discerning one’s election (or reprobation) are gone. On the Lutheran and Anglican side, confession is nearly gone but remains as a laregly optional practice. So for all intents and purposes, there is a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on sin that holds as long as there is no scandal from “public sins.” This seems to result in reactions or compensatory outbursts, like the revivals Wheaton has documented on their campus, which center on extensive spontaneous confession. Of course you see all the same lapses in belief and practice among western Catholics as well. Lenten traditions open up these questions of orthopraxis and orthodoxy–looking at what we do vs. what we say we believe, and vice versa.

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  • Joseph

    With the talk about the Presbyterians being liturgical yet you may not find them singing Glorias using paraments ets is incorrect. PCA denomination is a more evengelical element of the Presbyterian group of Churches. The Presbyterian Church USA(mainline denomination) and Cumberland are really the more true Reformed/Presbyterian mainline denominations in the USA. Very common in our churches to see a set order of worship, prayers of confessions, gloria,kyrie,doxology, communion if not once a month ..every sunday more and more common. There is a real need to see our denomination get back to the Reformed roots which was liturgy versus this free form” puritan fasad which is in no way what John Knox nor John Calvin promoted.

    There are movements within our denomination to get us back to where we were. After all we are the reformed branch..the Reformed Roman Church. We are not Baptists, we are not pentecostals we are not Non Denominational. We are a Confessional Church with much beauty in the Reformed Liturgy.

    We need to go back to our roots , or we will have people leaving our church and going to Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to fill a void which can be met in our denominations.

  • Joseph

    By the way with regards to Ash Wednesday…whithin our denomination there is more and more use of imposing ashes followed by a solemn Holy Communion service.

    Our church actually had people write on a piece of paper areas of their life that they wanted the Lord to heal..areas of sin etc. Collectively we all took turns in lines going to the front of the chancel and dropping these little papers in an big urn like. After all these papers were in the container it was lit on fire and with those ashes, the sign of the cross was imposed on our forheads.