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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