Today 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.