I always get a kick out of the way my friends and colleagues celebrate Mardi Gras with a fervor not seen since before the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. But mere hours later the liturgical calendar is forgotten. These devout observers of Shrove Tuesday can be heard telling the Christians they have "dirt on your forehead." The Montgomery Advertiser ran a quick Q&A for readers so that they could learn more about today's holy day:
1. What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins in the Catholic faith. It occurs 40 days after Good Friday.
It is rather impressive for the reporter Darryn Simmons to include two errors within two sentences. Of course, Lent begins today for all Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, not just Roman Catholics. And it doesn't occur 40 days after Good Friday but before. Other papers had some of the same confusion, thinking Ash Wednesday is only celebrated by Catholics. More than one story mentioned the interesting note that many Catholic churches have changed the recitation while marking foreheads from the Genesis verse ("For dust you are and to dust you will return") to "Turn away from sin and believe the Gospel" or some variant thereof.
Many newspapers had good and interesting articles about Ash Wednesday. Jean Gordon with the Clarion-Ledger looked at how the day is observed in Methodism. Arizona Daily Star religion reporter Stephanie Innes had this delightful lede to her story on how the practice is celebrated in her region.
Probably my favorite story, headlined "Believers give up to grow up during Lent," came from Newsday's Michael Amon, who spoke with various clergy about Lenten disciplines such as fasting and abstinence:
The Venerable Theodore Bean, an archdeacon for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, made this remark in his monthly newsletter: "I hasten to point out that eating lobster 'because it is not meat' really rather defeats the purpose of Lenten abstinence."
It's a point about sacrifice that Long Island clergy say they have to make more often.
"We are a society of instant gratification," Bean said in an interview. "We're not a society that views giving up things and taking the long-term view as being good for us."
The article includes an anecdote about a Roman Catholic priest who says his pre-Lenten programs designed to prepare people to sacrifice during Lent probably caused people to leave church.
"People don't always like to hear about it," Hanson said. "They want to have control, and sacrificing is giving up control."
The standard story explaining Ash Wednesday is good and necessary, but Amon really pushed the story forward and gave readers an even better understanding of the significance of the day and penitential season.
Los Angeles Times writer Francisco Vara-Orta took a spin on the traditional Ash Wednesday story by looking into how churches get their ashes. Traditionally churches keep palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations, burn them and mix them with oil. But that's changing, Vara-Orta finds out:
Some churches abandoned the practice because of the fire danger. Some responded to air quality laws.
At Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, a parishioner who for years made the ashes for Ash Wednesday died in the 1980s -- and so did the parish's practice of burning fronds from the previous Palm Sunday for the centuries-old rite.
So Our Mother of Good Counsel, like churches all over the country, began ordering ashes from a church supply store. Some churches buy them in person, others on the Internet.
The lengthy article discusses the church supply store business and extent of selling ashes. The one thing I wanted was a bit more discussion about the propriety of the change. While Vara-Orta quoted some folks defending their decision to purchase the ashes, it might have been interesting to talk to someone who didn't think it was such a good idea. But it's still a great new angle on an ancient story.