Lent: new and improved?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Western Christians. On this day, Christians have traditionally focused on their utter and complete sinfulness and the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death to earn their salvation.

It’s called Ash Wednesday because many churches impose ashes — made by burning palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday and mixing them with oil — on worshipers’ foreheads as a reminder of their sinful nature. The ashes are applied in the sign of the cross to direct worshipers to Jesus Christ as the way to salvation.

Many Christians engage in some type of fast during the season. This can be anything from abstaining from all food in a given day or certain types of food throughout the season. Or it can be a fast from some type of activity. Others commit themselves to take up alms giving. And penitential seasons also emphasize increased prayer and devotions. In Lutheranism, at least, these fasts are not about pleasing God but about helping us meditate on Christ’s suffering and death

I realize that not every church body will have the exact same idea about what a Lenten fast means, but I think this Associated Press story manages to confuse the issue a bit. Which is not surprising, considering the entire story clocks in at 123 words. The story says that several prominent Anglican British bishops are urging a carbon fast for Lent:

But this year’s initiative aims to convince those observing Lent to try a day without an iPod or mobile phone in a bid to reduce the use of electricity — and thus trim the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere.

Bishop of London Rev. Richard Chartres said that the poorest people in developing countries were the hardest hit by man-made climate change.

He said Tuesday that the “Carbon Fast” was “an opportunity to demonstrate the love of God in a practical way.”

Okay, I realize that Lent is something that journalists just don’t care about when there’s so much more important stuff going on. (Hey look! People are writing on their hands!) But if all of Christendom is going to get only 123 words about Lenten fasts, this is just not a fair, balanced or accurate representation of how the spiritual discipline is practiced.

We’re told that several prominent Anglican British bishops are urging this fast but only one is named. I’m sure that even some of the Anglican British bishops (or their brethren in other lands?) think this fast idea is more gimmickry than substance. Or maybe they simply don’t agree that Lenten disciplines are about practical demonstrations of God’s love (however otherwise worthy they believe such demonstrations might be). Perhaps we could get just a bit more balance here.

Sadly, it seems the most common way to cover Lent is by trying to find some new spin on spiritual disciplines. And I understand that and there is a place for that. But the fact is that this means that coverage will likely favor those churches that think new spins should be put on Lent rather than keeping ancient traditions. Perhaps we could brainstorm new angles for covering ancient traditions.

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  • Peter

    I’m sure that even some of the Anglican British bishops (or their brethren in other lands?) think this fast idea is more gimmickry than substance. Or maybe they simply don’t agree that Lenten disciplines are about practical demonstrations of God’s love (however otherwise worthy they believe such demonstrations might be).

    Nice cheap shots there.

    If you read something other than the AP story, the move is part of focusing people on caring or God’s gifts, poverty, and justice. All ideas that have deep roots in Christian tradition.

    http://www.christiantoday.com/article/church.leaders.encourage.carbon.fast.for.lent/25309.htm

    The AP story could be better, as you point out. But the endless cheap shots against Anglicans and Episcopalians and anyone not “traditional” seems uncalled for and, frankly, rather unChristian in this time of Lent.

  • Evanston2

    Peter, is the goal of this blog to discuss journalism or to uncritically accept anything that calls itself “Christian.” These are very different things.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Guys, guys, read the post.

    What MZ said was that the story contains no information on what fasting is, in terms of centuries of traditions. She is not opposing the coverage of the new. She is saying that there is more to life and journalism that merely, year after year, the endless coverage of only the new.

    I would argue — in fact, I did this week for Scripps Howard — that one of the newsworthy trends right now is a growing interest in traditional forms of fasting, even among low-church evangelicals.

    Surely, you would not say that leaving one’s iPod at home one day a week should REPLACE traditional giving of alms to the poor in Lent? Traditional efforts to focus on the needs of the poor in this season?

    There’s a story: How many alleged traditionalists (pointing finger at myself now) do enough in that area, during the rush of modern life?

  • Evanston2

    TMatt, thanks but I read the post. It was principally about novelty (or as you say, “the new”). I’m not defending what Peter calls “cheap shots” (you take care of that) but I believe use of the “Christian” label to shut down any discussion of the journalism reveals a misunderstanding of the purpose of this blog.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Peter,

    The story included a defense of the carbon fast and, since that was all that was included, I thought it required much more in terms of balance and perspective.

  • Ben

    if all of Christendom is going to get only 123 words about Lenten fasts, this is just not a fair, balanced or accurate representation of how the spiritual discipline is practiced.

    Good grief! Christendom got a lot more than these 123 words on Lenten fasting this season. Check it out: http://tinyurl.com/ybsz64y

    Meaning, there’s no need for this poor AP reporter to write the definitive story on fasting that needs to “balance” traditional with innovative practices, as if the two are somehow locked in a zero-sum game anyway.

  • Philip

    There is another thread here, that of “climate change/global warming” being an intrinsic part of another religion, that of worshiping the earth. Of course, Christians are to be good managers of the physical gifts of God, but this story sounds more like it is about saving the planet than saving people. Lent is about God giving us “new and contrite hearts” so that we lament our sins and find forgiveness in Christ. Worrying about carbon footprints seems a bit narcissistic to me. MZ hit it right about better reporting on those of us who are keeping Lent in a traditional way.

  • Ben

    Hi Philip,

    From my experience as a Catholic, giving up chocolates appears to be the dominant experience of Lenten fasting. A truly “balanced” report would have to delve into that I guess. But, of course, the idea is you experience sacrifice of some sort to focus yourself on Jesus’ sacrifice, and through that reorient yourself toward God. If I gave up using my blackberry, for instance, that would be *much* more difficult for me than giving up either chocolate or meals on Friday. Mind you, neither going without a smart phone or going without some food are really worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice, but that’s true of any human sacrifice and that’s also kind of the point, right?

    Terry talks about giving alms to the poor. I live in India where I hate to tell you, Americans’ attitudes about climate change appear like the worst form of gluttony. Indians are arguing strenuously that they need a chance to be able to lift up their poor through development, but that cannot be done if America does not agree to curb its emissions. If the scientists are right, the atmosphere is like a bathtub that’s now 3/4s full thanks to historical pollution from the West. The argument now is over who gets to add the remaining 1/4th to the tub — the people who already had their chance to achieve a decent standard of living, or countries like India that have a shot of elevating millions out of destitution?

    Sorry, it’s too easy to say people’s concerns over this issue are “earth worship.” For many, it’s a poverty issue.

  • Julia

    giving alms to the poor

    I’ve not heard of that being recommended for Lent these days. It’s frowned on as buying grace or forgiveness these days, isn’t it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Julia,

    Giving alms is simply any material favor done to assist the needy and prompted by charity. I am unaware of any church teaching a tie-in with purchase of forgiveness . . .

  • Al Javier

    Julia,

    Not really – it’s always been viewed as compassion to the poor, and at least for Catholics, expected. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and all that.


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