Ah, yes. Another year, another trip around the liturgical calendar. That means another request from an editor for an Ash Wednesday feature or two.
Based on my own experiences in newsrooms, I have always wondered if the tradition of news organizations doing Ash Wednesday stories has something to do with the high number of ex-Catholics or cultural Catholics (as well as Episcopalians) in newsrooms. Who will show up for work in the afternoon with ashes on her or his forehead? What will people say (in a post-Ted Turner world)?
Then again, maybe Ash Wednesday is a story year after year because it's an assignment that comes with easy, automatic art.
Finally, there is the fact that Ash Wednesday and Lent are highly serious religious traditions (think meditations on death and repentance) for the people that take faith seriously. However, for some reason, it also seems easy for people to tweak and/or laugh at these traditions. What editor doesn't want to smile in an ironic sort of way at an "ashes to go" lede? And there is an endless possibility of trendy (and stupid) variations on the "What are you going to give up for Lent" non-traditional tradition.
Then again, it is possible (#Gasp) to do stories on the actual meaning of Lent and it's relevance to issues in our day and age.
Yes, ponder the spiritual implications of Ash Wednesday selfies. This very interesting advance story -- "#Ashtags: When posting Ash Wednesday photos, use your head" -- comes from Catholic News Service, via an online boost from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ash Wednesday seems to offer contradictory messages. The Gospel reading for the day is about not doing public acts of piety but the very act of getting ashes -- and walking around with them -- is pretty public.
This becomes even less of a private moment when people post pictures of themselves online with their ashes following the #ashtag trend of recent years.
The online posting of one’s ashes, often marked in the form of a cross on the forehead, thrills some people and disappoints others. Some say it diminishes the significance and penitent symbol of the ashes with their somber reminder that humans are made from dust and one day will return to dust.
Others say that sharing the Ash Wednesday experience with the broader, virtual public makes it more communal and also is a way to evangelize.
Others note that it's possible to do an Ash Wednesday selfie stick thing for good reasons, or bad reasons. What's the motive here?
This passage really interested me, in part because I think it raises several issues worthy of follow-up reporting. A key voice here is Julianne Stanz, "new evangelization" director for the Diocese of Green Bay:
Stanz ... pointed out that for millennials -- the group most likely to observe Lenten practices, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University -- “the digital space is an extension of their world and so posting an image after receiving ashes seems natural.”
“Life doesn’t stop after we receive ashes. We go about our daily lives -- we wear our ashes at the grocery store, when picking up our children from school and at home gathered around the family table. Wearing ashes in the real and virtual world is about harmonizing who we are as people of faith. If we wear them in the ‘real’ world, then we should also wear them in cyberspace,” she said.
Wait, so millennials are really into fasting, almsgiving, extra prayers, lots of extra worship services and (here's a big point) going to confession? Or do they just like the focus on making a personal, innovative choice to give up something, including meat?
In other words, what does it mean to embrace "Lenten practices"? Does that mean honoring the ancient Christian traditions for this penitential season or creating some new, modern, even hip alternative?
Also, are we talking about Catholic Lent, Eastern Orthodox Lent, Anglican Lent or, yes, even "Hey, we can be a little bit liturgical if we want to me" Protestant Lent? Check out this story from the doctrinally progressive Baptists at the Baptist News Global website.
The bottom line: What is your definition of "Lent" if the goal is find new and innovative ways to observe this ancient season?
Finding fresh ways to observe Lent, year in and year out, can be challenging.
While Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox Christians and others can rely on tradition to guide them, some Christians and churches are left to their own devices. Fortunately for those in the latter category, an array of Lenten practices is available online, offering up hundreds of options via social media and social research.
Americans who observe Lent were asked how they typically observe the season by LifeWay Research.
The top answer, given by 57 percent of those asked, was abstaining from favorite foods and beverages, while 35 percent said they fast from bad habits during Lent.
Some may be relieved to learn that Lent isn’t always about giving up something.
So what will journalists write about late today and into tomorrow, in terms of actual news-event coverage of Ash Wednesday?
Please help me look for examples of the coverage. Yes, that would include news -- I assume it's coming -- about the much publicized "Glitter Ash" liturgical movement from the LGBTQ groups Parity and Queer Virtue. That's the project that led to this memorable -- some would say heretical -- RNS advance lede that showed up in USA Today:
Lighten up, Ash Wednesday.
Stay tuned. I will be traveling all of tomorrow, so it may take me a day or so to return to the live coverage of these issues. Again, please leave us some comments about the good coverage, and bad, that you see out there in ink, online and in cable television.