Western liturgical Christians (and a few other believers, these days): I hope you are having a blessed Ash Wednesday and not getting into any trouble at work.
In newsrooms, the days just before Ash Wednesday officially open the season in which lots of editors and non-religion-beat reporters scramble to try to find photo-ops and maybe even easy stories linked to something that is going on called "Lent" and, eventually, "Easter."
This year, the calendar yielded a perfectly valid news hook, as captured in this headline from Religion News Service: "When Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, what’s a clergyperson to do?" What happens when the waves of advertisements for jewels and chocolate collide with centuries of Catholic -- large "C" or small "c" -- tradition?
(RNS) -- For many this year, Feb. 14 is a day of mixed messages. It’s Valentine’s Day, a time for chocolate, roses and perhaps a dinner date. But it’s also Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians is the start of Lent, a period of penitence that precedes Easter Sunday.
How do clergy reconcile this calendar clash, the first of its kind since 1945?
Eventually, attention will return to Lent itself, the penitential season (in the West) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. In the ancient traditions of Eastern Christianity, Great Lent begins this year -- on the older Julian calendar -- this coming Sunday, Feb. 18, with a service called Forgiveness Vespers, a beautiful rite that would be worthy of coverage. This year, Easter is on April 1 and, for the Orthodox, Pascha is on April 8.
Now, journalists -- on or off the religion-news beat -- what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lent? There are lots of facts and traditions linked to this season (the Orthodox go vegan for the whole thing), but I would assume that most people think, well, of one thing.
Right, what is the one thing you will give up for Lent? Chocolate? Colas? Facebook? While thinking that through, check out the top of this new Rick Hamlin commentary at The New York Times: "What Will You Give Up for Lent?" Reading between the lines, this piece seems to be a great overview of Lent, Episcopal Church-style:
Lent is here, and as a practicing Christian, I know the question is inevitable: “What are you planning to give up?” It’s a tougher decision than it sounds; I look with awe at a woman who gave up sarcasm one Lent. Now, that would be a real hardship.
Lent is the penitential season in the Christian calendar that traditionally runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter. It is 40 days long, not counting Sundays because Sundays are feast days (that woman could indulge in sarcasm on Sundays), and it marks the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
So there you have it?
However, this raises a question: Where did this "give up one thing during Lent" riff come from? A decade ago, I decided to try and find out, and wrote an "On Religion" column about what I learned.
The bottom line: No one seemed to know the answer.
Thus, I assumed it was a Church of England compromise thing. Nope. Well, then that led me to the Catholic Answers site online, the Catholic Center in Washington, D.C., and several other places. Here's a chunk or two of that:
When most people think of Lent, this "giving up one thing" concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America's 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.
"There are Catholics who don't practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) website. "But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.
"The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the 'one thing' was supposed to be about."
Once upon a time, Catholics kept a very strict fast during Lent. Lots of things happened through the centuries, leading to Vatican II, of course. Back to the column:
Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused. Akin tries to cover the basics online in what he calls his "Annual Lent Fight" roundup.
It's impossible to know how or when the idea of "giving up one thing" came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.
"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God ... something above his prescribed measure," states the Rule. "Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."
Ah, but there's the key. This "one thing" was supposed to be an extra spiritual discipline of some kind, added to efforts to practice the Lenten basics. The Rule of St. Benedict even warns believers not to go too far when doing this, thus being tempted into the sin of pride.
How did this turn into a "one thing" as the only thing? How did the Lenten bar get lowered for Catholics (and others)? Back to Akin one more time.
It's also possible, he said, that the "give up one thing" tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children -- who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons -- to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.
It appears -- as best as I could tell -- that when waves of Vatican II changes swept through the church, church leaders managed to communicate that Lent was really about spiritual things, but the details of disciplines linked to fasting got blurred in many dioceses.
Meanwhile, all those Catholic school kids grew up and all they knew was the "one thing" for Lent concept, so that is what they handed on to their children. Many even forgot the crucial detail that going to Confession was essential during the Lenten season.
So what was the last Lenten memory for millions? That would be that very American, very individualistic tradition (small "t") of giving up one thing for Lent.
So readers! I need your help.
As you read news coverage of Lent 2018, please look for information about Lent, its traditions and, especially, the roots of this "one thing" news hook. Also, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others: Have you ever heard an explanation, at church or in school, for the church-history roots of this whole "one thing" thing?
Please let me know what you see and hear.