New podcast: There's more to Lent 2021 than virtual-ash selfies and giving up (fill in the blank)

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It happened every year that I worked in a mainstream newsroom. Apparently, there was a law somewhere that official newsroom “advance calendars” should include a note about the beginning of Lent.

Thus, an editor would ask me a question that sounded something like this: “So where are we sending a photographer this year on Ash Wednesday?”

This was, you see, the official way to handle Lent and it would be followed, of course, by some kind of sunrise-and-lilies photo when Easter rolled around. There might be an Easter story of some kind, but that was always a problem since the goal was to have the story in print on that Sunday, which meant the story and photograph needed to be done early. It’s so hard to cover a holy day that hasn’t happened yet.

But Ash Wednesday photographs, backed with a sentence of two about Lent, seem to be a news-culture tradition. That reality was the hook — sort of — for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Thus, it was easy to anticipate this COVID-19 era variation on a familiar theme, care of Religion News Service: “Celebrating Ash Wednesday in a pandemic? There’s an app for that.

There are filters that blur “imperfections” in photos and filters that turn lawyers into cats on Zoom.

Now there are filters to help Christians safely display the very visible Ash Wednesday mark on social media.

Many Catholic and other liturgical churches observe Ash Wednesday by smudging ashes on congregants’ foreheads as a sign of repentance and a reminder of one’s mortality. That practice presents a problem during a season when health experts fighting COVID-19 have advised people to avoid touching their faces or coming in close proximity to others. …

In a year when so much of life has been lived virtually, Catholic prayer and meditation app Hallow has also taken the tradition online with an “AshTag” photo filter on both Facebook and Instagram.

That’s a valid story, even if it does fit a now familiar pandemic pattern — lots of coverage of virtual faith in these troubled times, as opposed to a few stories about the creative efforts of analog people to observe their traditions within the parameters of social-distancing guidelines. (For example, Catholics are supposed to go to Confession during Lent, which is another example of a sacrament that just doesn’t work online. How are creative bishops and priests dealing with that?)

Here’s another familiar story, at least to news consumers who have lived in Washington, D.C., for the past third of a century or thereabouts. The headline at The Hill: “Biden receives ashes at Georgetown for Ash Wednesday.”

According to the White House, Biden received ashes from the Rev. Brian O. McDermott, S.J. at Georgetown University’s Wolfington Hall. He was greeted by the Rev. Ronald Anton, S.J. Biden was not seen publicly receiving ashes.

The trip Wednesday morning demonstrates Biden’s effort to continue his traditions as a Catholic while president. 

Maybe I am wrong, but this is a subject I have followed for years. Am I the only person who wonders why it is more newsworthy for Democrats to have ashes on their foreheads than it is for Republicans to do so?

Anyway, this brings me to the Big Idea in this week’s podcast and in this post.

Somehow, Ash Wednesday and Lent have evolved into very, very American observances. Instead of a communal season — with believers following common disciplines and rites through a long season of penance — they have become vehicles for creative self expression.

I mean, the central theme of Ash Wednesday is the most universal of all realities — death. That’s a relevant topic during a pandemic. The other big theme is, of course, sin. Consider this prayer from the Western Catholic rite for Ash Wednesday:

O God, who desire not the death of sinners, but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers and in your kindness be pleased to bless + these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Sobering. Especially when (in non-pandemic years) the priest — to your face — says: ““Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

You see something similar in the Eastern Orthodox rite at the start of Great Lent — the service known as Forgiveness Vespers. That will take place on March 14, this year, since Eastern Christians follow the ancient Julian calendar, while others use the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

There are no ashes in this rite, but there is a different kind of face-to-face encounter. Here is an explanation from my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, a popular Orthodox commentator:

On the Sunday evening that Lent begins … we have the Rite of Forgiveness. The members of the congregation line up, face to face, and ask for each other’s forgiveness, and give it. …

How it works is, the congregation forms two lines, face to face. Each person is paired with another member of the church, standing face to face with them. Either one of you begins by making the sign of the Cross and bowing, honoring the presence of God in the other person. You say something like, “Please forgive me for any way I have sinned against you.” 

Yes, husbands face wives and children face parents. It can be quite moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a news story about this very emotional tradition. This rite is, of course, the door into weeks of fasting for the whole community and other shared disciplines, with many Orthodox believers (most of them in many parishes) fasting — every day — from meat and dairy all of the way until the great feast of Pascha (Easter).

My point is that, in the ancient churches, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about people in a community being united by common disciplines.

In recent years, many popular Lenten news stories have focused on people finding a way to do their own thing online. Here is a typical headline from last year — “Report: ‘Social Media’ Now the Most Common Thing Given Up For Lent.

This is linked to the whole individualist “give up one thing for Lent” concept, which has become the normal expression of Lent for millions of Americans, including for Catholics (as opposed to their church’s own Lenten traditions).

I’ve always been fascinated by this (dating back to my life as a “moderate” Baptist and then as an evangelical Anglican, before converting to Orthodoxy). I have never been able to find a definitive source for this vague tradition. Consider this bite from an On Religion column on that topic, featuring material from an interview with Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) website.

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. …

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.”

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice.

Like I said, this has turned into a very American, very individualistic practice. This is not the ancient Christian tradition, but this doesn’t mean that it is without meaning for many, many, individuals who have adopted some variation on this practice. And, clearly, there are valid news stories linked to this.

In conclusion, if you want to read a candid essay wrestling with this whole idea — observing a “one thing” Lent during a pandemic — check out this CNN essay by Tess Taylor: “What our second Covid Lent reveals about sacrifice.” Here is a key passage (this is long, but essential):

… In a year when we’ve already given up the world as we knew it, for nearly a year, how do we observe this season? What if we just don’t want to give up more?

I’ll pause here with a confession. As sheer time in the pew goes, I’m not always a particularly devout Christian. … (Our) family gave up on virtual church months ago.

But there are many gateways to the holy, and wherever I’ve been, I’ve always loved Lent’s offering of a spring fast. Over the years, I’ve filled Lenten weeks with dreamy practices (write in my journal every day) or social ones (try, each day, to call a friend). One way or another, I have practiced Lent for decades, even when I haven’t practiced much else.

Even in my 20s, when I joked about attending the “Church of Brunch” and the “Church of the Holy Comforter” (i.e. bed) I still loved the ritual of being more intentional in spring, of watching the trees begin to bloom and the tulips rising out of the thaw.

How I’ve practiced has changed, however: in later years, after I’d wandered back to church, I’d use Lent to give up wheat or alcohol or sugar, enjoying abstaining, perhaps also hoping that my Lenten practice would make me (ahem) a bit leaner. As I began to raise kids, Lent sometimes snuck up, feeling like one mindfulness too many, something I’d just fail in an already busy life. “This year I’m giving up Lent for Lent,” I once told my priest.

What has she concluded? Read it all. Her words will comfort many American believers (and many nones, of course) and, well, make others — traditional Catholics, especially — shake their heads.

But that’s sort-of Lent, these days.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, share it with others.

MAIN IMAGE: Screenshot from the #AshTag2021 page at Hallow.com

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