Fresh hooks for annual occasions

lent07Each year, I like to look at what stories the mainstream media publish for Lent. The papers that noted Ash Wednesday, such as the Indianapolis Star, Newsday and the Orange County Register, published brief stories about the imposition of ashes.

Others went searching for a creative hook. Agence France Press, for instance, wrote about the Roman Catholic Church in Austria offering an SMS service for the faithful. During each of the 40 days of Lent, those who signed up receive quotes from Pope Benedict XVI.The Telegraph (U.K.) wrote about two Church of England bishops who are calling on parishioners to give up carbon for Lent by avoiding plastic bags, giving the dishwasher a day off, insulating the hot water tank and checking the house for drafts:

Those taking part in the Carbon Fast will be asked to remove one lightbulb from a prominent place in the home and live without it for 40 days. On the final days of the Fast they will be asked to replace it with a low-energy bulb which over its lifetime will save 60kg of carbon dioxide per year and up to £60.

But I thought the best entries were by Ann Rodgers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and K. Connie Kang at the Los Angeles Times. Rodgers’ story is about the Pittsburgh Diocese pushing for a return to the practice of confession. She mentions that the sacrament is also available in the Eastern, Episcopal and Lutheran churches.

After the Rev. Thomas Burke says Mass at St. Paul Cathedral, he enters his reconciliation room to hear confession and offer absolution. Penitents can kneel before a stained glass partition so that Father Burke can’t see them, or join him on the other side, seated by a small table with a box of tissues.

Whether it’s called confession or penance or reconciliation, “it’s one of my favorite sacraments,” Father Burke said.

“I try to comfort them and offer hope and healing, and tell them that they shouldn’t beat themselves up. This is not the end of the world. I always give them my business card so they can stay in touch,” he said.

Kang’s story was a nice overview of how Ash Wednesday is being celebrated in the Los Angeles area. But I loved her hook. Many times people justify not covering liturgical seasons on the grounds that it’s not newsworthy. The same feasts, holy days and seasons happen year after year. Well, Kang looked at what was different about Ash Wednesday this year and came up with something that people in my church were discussing. It’s early this year:

Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, is observed by much of the Western church on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox.

At Masses and services today, priests and ministers will apply ashes in the sign of a cross — indicating inner repentance — to the foreheads of Christians.

Easter often occurs in April and the word Lent comes from Anglo-Saxon lencten, meaning spring. But this year, because of cycles of the moon, Easter, or Resurrection Day as many prefer, will be observed March 23. The last time it occurred on that date Woodrow Wilson was president. Ash Wednesday in 1913 was Feb. 5, a day earlier than today because this is a leap year, which adds an extra day in the middle of the Lenten season.

So with Christmas decorations barely put away, churches have been gearing up for 40 days of repentance, reflection and fasting.

All in all, some good efforts this year. There’s no reason reporters can’t continue to write about the penitential season of Lent so let us know if you see any other good stories.

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  • Kevin Jones

    The Rocky Mountain News titled its story “Christians to have foreheads daubed with ash today.” While that’s a descriptive hook, something about the wording just makes me cringe.

    Would it describe a baptism as “Christians get dunked in water”?

  • Philly

    The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story was very short, which was unfortunate. The content of the story deserved some more depth (alas, Ann Rodgers is five hours west in Pittsburgh)… The story reported without much detail that the Philadelphia Archdiocese is holding confession times in every single church in the diocese on every Wednesday during Lent (and there are a lot of churches in the archdiocese!). I was very interested in why the archdiocese was doing this — just because it’s Lent? because it’s the archdiocese’s 200th anniversary? to use it as a steppingstone to a return to more frequent reception of the sacrament of confession? Alas, no details.

    The Allentown Morning Call did a pretty nice article about some area Christians who are giving up certain technologies (email, Facebook, cell phone) for Lent. The article isn’t very long, but I thought it did a good job of letting the subjects speak for themselves.

  • FrGregACCA

    A local TV station here in Columbia SC began its Ash Wednesday story by referring to “a savior who walked the earth thousands of years ago.” Technically correct, I guess, but this phraselogy usually implies “more than two” or “many”. Other than that, the story was okay, given the fact that its primary focus concerned social ministry with very little time devoted to liturgy and the history of Lent. Not that I’m arguing against featuring the former, but a story about Ash Wednesday should prominently include the latter as well.

  • Martha

    Okay, this little piece leaped out at me: “Easter, or Resurrection Day as many prefer”

    Huh? Whazzat? What many? Who? Where?

    I can safely say I have never ever heard anyone refer to “Resurrection Day”. Is this a specific usage of a specific denominiation, or just something this guy heard someone say once, along the lines of “I prefer to think of it as Resurrection Day”?

    Clarification, please! :-)

  • Jill C.

    On the liturgical calendar hanging on the wall of my parish office, March 23rd this year is marked as the “Feast of the Resurrection” AKA “the Resurrection of our Lord,” or “Resurrection Sunday.” As our children were growing up we attended the Church of the Resurrection and were sensitive to making a distinction between the real reason for the day and the secular trappings of Easter egg hunts and bunnies, etc. I know there is some symbolism there but it’s pretty much lost on the young ones since it is no longer reinforced at school. So half the time we called it Resurrection Sunday and the other half “Easter.” And we were not the only ones in our church and community who did so.

  • tmatt

    Another interesting angle — Pascha, the ancient name for Easter in the Eastern church, is as far from Western Easter as you can possibly get. I mean, we do not even start Great Lent until A MONTH FROM NOW.

    People are really gonna think the Orthodox are strange this year when we start doing all of our many processions between Palm Sunday and Pascha.

  • Martha

    “On the liturgical calendar hanging on the wall of my parish office, March 23rd this year is marked as the “Feast of the Resurrection” AKA “the Resurrection of our Lord,” or “Resurrection Sunday.”

    Mmmm – but is this a purely American thing? How widespread is it? Is it cross-denominational? Yes, unhappily, Easter is getting as bad as Christmas – I had cause to remark on Ash Wednesday that ‘it must be Lent, because the shops have got the Easter Eggs on display!’

    It’s getting to the point where, the day after Hallowe’en, the Christmas stuff goes up, and then as soon as they clear the Christmas stuff away, the Easter chocolate goes up – until it’s time for Hallowe’en once again.

    It’s nuts, in other words. But that’s a whole different rant, when what I did mean to ask was along the lines of “So, is it now a really common, widespread thing that it’s not called Easter Sunday any more but Resurrection Day? Or is this only for the denominations which were not big on Easter anyway because it was ‘a pagan holiday’ but they now want to mark the season in the liturgical calendar?”

    (Oh, by the way, thanks Jill C. for answering my question!)

  • Julia

    The St Louis Post Dispatch had two interesting articles about Lent.

    1) A local chocolatier says that when Lent starts this early his business goes way down b/c lots of people give up chocolate for Lent. They lose $1,000/wk in sales for each week that Easter is earlier than April 18th.

    2) St Patrick’s Day is during Holy Week this year. Almost never happens. Interesting article on cancellation of parades in some parishes and going ahead in others, even though the actual religious feast is cancelled. On the other hand, the feast of St Joseph is moved to the week before Palm Sunday.

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