’Tis the season . . . to be penitent

taco-bell-lent_0previewToday is Ash Wednesday. In the Western Christian calendar, it is the first day of Lent. It occurs 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter and begins the most sacred part of the Christian year. It’s probably known mostly for the imposition of ashes on the forehead, a custom that aims to remind Christians of their complete sinfulness and mortality. They’re made in the sign of the cross to direct Christians to the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death for their salvation.

For liturgical churches, Lent is a season of penitence, reflection and prayer. Worship is solemn and restrained. Songs of praise and “alleluias” are removed from the liturgy until Easter. And Christians in these traditions engage in fasting, special almsgiving (charity) and increased prayer as special disciplines to focus the mind on Christ.

Of all the various aspects of Ash Wednesday and Lent, the aspect the mainstream media usually seem most interested in is fasting.

On its religion blog, the Dallas Morning News asked readers what they’re doing for Lent. So did the Chicago Tribune, with some interesting and amusing responses. Here’s the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s version. The Austin American-Statesman mentioned Lent on its religion blog. And the religion editor of the Telegraph (U.K.) notes the Church of England’s Lenten Twitter campaign with a request that they “tweet” Holy Week from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

As for actual stories, I didn’t see too many, although more might be found throughout the day. The Columbia Missourian looked at how area Christians are marking Lent and introduced that with a description of Lent. Here’s the lede:

After a weekend of carnival and Mardi Gras festivities, Christians, Catholics and Methodists participate in a 40-day period of repentance and humility known as Lent. Ash Wednesday begins this season of repentance; it concludes with the celebrations of Easter Sunday.

Christians, Catholics and Methodists? That’s quite a ragtag group of people. I wonder if this means Catholics and Methodists are not considered Christian by the paper and I also wonder who gets included under the Christian umbrella. Just some odd writing there.

Still, the story gets into much more detail than most stories on the matter:

The 40 days are reminiscent of the 40 days Jesus walked through the desert, the 40 days Noah was on the ark, and the 40 years Moses spent in the desert, all references found in Scripture. Christians take this time to focus on Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection by fasting from worldly obsessions.

Along with fasting, Ash Wednesday consists of praying, worshiping and almsgiving. The Rev. Simon Felix Michalski, associate pastor at the St. Thomas More Newman Catholic Center, said fasting is done to discover more depth and seriousness to the purpose of life, and to spiritually prepare for Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Christ.

“The reason we start on Ash Wednesday is to get the 40 days in because Sundays don’t count during Lent,” Michalski said. “We never fast on Sundays because Sundays are a celebration of the Resurrection. In order to get 40 days in before Easter, we start Lent on a Wednesday.”

On Ash Wednesday, ashes derived from the palm branches of the previous year, are placed upon the worshippers’ foreheads in the sign of a cross to represent mortality, sorrow and repentance. The ashes are burned and blessed by clergy before use.

Religion teacher Joshua Brumfield, who teaches at Archbishop Shaw High School in New Orleans, explained that the ashes are seen as a sign of acknowledgment of the sacrifice of Christ’s death, recognizing that Christ’s forgiveness comes at an infinite price to allow worshipers to realize the consequences of sin.

Another story worth pointing out comes from the Salt Lake Tribune about how Protestant groups are increasingly marking Lent:

Uintah — On Ash Wednesday, Pastor Mark Hladek will gather his congregation — Crossroads Christian Fellowship — together to begin the 40 days of Lent.

Church members will fast that day, which Hladek hopes will remind them of their hunger for God, and they will pray for physical, emotional or spiritual healing. Hladek will ask the congregation to pray and spend more time in Bible study and to set aside a small sum each day during Lent.

“It will be a season for building our hope and expectation in the Lord, culminating in our Easter celebration,” Hladek said.

That his church, which is associated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, is observing Lent at all is a surprise.

Long the province of the Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, Lent — a period of penitence, fasting and almsgiving — has always been regarded by many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, as ritualistic or extra-Biblical.

The story doesn’t really substantiate the claim that Protestants are increasingly practicing Lent with anything other than anecdotes but it’s interesting none the less.

Do let us know if you see any particularly good or bad Ash Wednesday/Lent stories today.

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  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ivan Wolfe

    I don’t celebrate Lent, but if I did, I think I would never eat at Taco Bell again, based on that photo. I’ve never seen that ad before – I wonder if it actually helps get business.

    But perhaps those who do celebrate Lent find the ad amusing and clever. I don’t know.

  • Shaun G

    It looks like the Columbia Missourian has corrected its lede, changing “Christians, Catholics and Methodists” to “many Christians.”

  • James

    That picture reminds me of a picture I took at Sonic in Texas a few years ago.

    http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1213/1067071820_c2ba769139.jpg

  • Julia

    The Taco Bell ad isn’t particularly amusing or clever.

    But it is a good shout-out to folks who won’t be eating meat on certain days in Lent.

    In my area, McDonald’s pushes it’s fish sandwiches a lot during Lent.

    Both make good business sense if there are Catholics in the area.

  • Julia

    Interesting that the comments on the Dallas and Chicago blogs are mostly on point and interesting. The St Louis blog is almost totally mocking of the whole idea of Lent and/or Catholics. Wonder what that indicates about St Louis Post Dispatch readers?

  • Matt Jamison

    It seems to me that “carnival and Mardi Gras festivities” are social events observed in some historically Catholic societies; while the observance of Lent is a much broader (though not universal) tradition in world Christianity. I would have appreciated some distinction between these.

  • Julia Duin

    Cast your net for articles a bit wider: I did a column on fasting for Sunday’s paper: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/feb/22/duin-different-ways-to-fast-for-lent/

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  • Julia

    Matt Jamison:

    Carnival – last chance to eat meat before Lent starts.

    Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – last chance to eat and drink a lot before Lent starts. In some cultures, all the lard and butter in the house is used up.

    There would be neither if there was no such thing as Lent.
    Similarly, there would be no bachelor party unless there was going to be a wedding the next day.

    Carnival and Mardi Gras can be social events, but not necessarily riotous. In my area there is a colonial French party for Mardi Gras in Cahokia. People come in colonial costume (there are even Indians) and everybody eats, drinks and dances to old-timey fiddle music – last chance to party before Lent – but it is not an over-the-top orgy like New Orleans. http://www.bnd.com/yourlife/story/652600.html

    There is another tradition in French Cajun rural Louisiana involving treks/parades on horseback followed by feasting. Check out how one small town does the Courir de Mardi Gras http://www.louisianacajun.com/main.asp?URL=http://www.eunice-la.com/festivals.html&id=fea

    Here’s how they do the Courir in Mamou, LA:

    traditional Mardi Gras celebration called le Courir de Mardi Gras a Cheval (the Mardi Gras run on horseback). The men and boys ride horseback or in wagons into the countryside for 20 or 30 miles, stopping at farm houses asking for donations of chickens and rice for the gumbo to be made at the end of the day. At every house they stop they have to do a Mardi Gras dance, it is a trade; entertainment for a food donation(they dance for their supper-so to speak.) When the donation is a hen or rooster, it usually has to be caught by the riders.
    The Mardi Gras in this area dates back before the Civil War. . . It is a very popular celebration and now thousands of spectators visit Mamou every year to witness this traditional, festival event. . . .

    There is a big dance and gumbo that night made fom the food donation collected by the Mardi Gras runners.

    Source: http://www.louisianacajun.com/main.asp?URL=http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/9812/mardi.htm&id=fea [WARNING - loud music]

    Unfortunately, it’s the rioting orgies and parades with women showing their boobs that get all the publicity. These events have become pretty secular.

  • Julia

    Sorry to be back again, but here’s a great link to a description of rural Louisiana Courirs with great pictures and explanations of what is going on and the connections to medieval European practices – coming of age, costumes, begging, antics, whose in charge, whipping, there is even medieval-style singing.

    http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Festiva1/en/lsm/page4.html

  • Kris D

    Just a question about popular culture and Lent, but did anyone else think it was unusual for “Top Chef” to have their finale in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday?

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