Wednesday, March 05, 2014


[Yup, you guessed it: religious content ahead]

ODAY is the first day of Lent -- in Catholicism and related Christian faiths, a season of fasting and abstention that stretches roughly between Ash Wednesday (or thereabouts) and Easter. As I understand it, it's meant to remind Christians of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and drawing closer to God, before beginning his mortal ministry.

Since Lent does not appear to have been observed by the earliest Christians, it is not a tradition in most Restoration churches, although Mormons do observe regular days of fasting. But I've been reading quite a bit about Lent recently, and thinking about the potential advantages of observing it individually in some form. I don't really have a problem with Mormons choosing to adopt and adapt traditions from other faiths -- for instance, I've attended a couple of Seder services officiated by a BYU professor that were both deeply symbolic and thoroughly delightful celebrations -- and I'm wondering how a Latter-day Saint might choose to adapt some of the traditions of the Lenten season to her specific faith.

Lenten observance is marked by deliberate self-denial, penitence and similar activities designed to bring the individual closer to God. It begins on Ash Wednesday, so called because participants usually receive the mark of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. As someone who is part of an actively proselyting church, I find this tradition very interesting. Not only do ashes visibly show the participant's desire for repentance (thus the Biblical expression "repenting in sackcloth and ashes"), they also mark him or her out as a follower of Jesus Christ in an unmistakable way. You cannot hide a mark on your forehead; it is therefore a way of showing the world that you are not ashamed to own your faith in Christ. These days it is almost certain to start a conversation ("What is that thingy on your head, anyway?") which, under appropriate circumstances, might lead to the participant bearing his or her testimony of Christ.

Mormons don't do much with crosses -- we prefer to emphasize not just Christ crucified, but Christ resurrected and alive -- but we do choose to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and, when prompted by the Spirit to do so, to testify of Christ to others. How would we adapt the Ash Wednesday tradition to our own faith? Perhaps by strengthening our resolve to stand with Christ at all times, in all things, and in all places. It's not always easy or comfortable to be marked out as a believer. For some, it's easier to just sit back and be quiet, especially when our faith is taking a beating in the public eye. For others, it's a challenge not to become angry and combative when people not of our faith make accusations against us -- of not being "real Christians," of being anti-science, anti-woman, bigots, homophobes. But I'm convinced the right way to go is somewhere between these two extremes -- quietly, firmly, lovingly averring our love for God and man and our intent to follow the teachings of Christ, even when those teachings are unpopular.

Individual participation in Lent can prepare us more fully for the celebration of Easter. As we use the season to take stock of our sins and weaknesses, look for ways to improve and ask God to purify us and help us become better, we are likely to look forward to the celebration of the risen Christ and the attendant miracle of forgiveness of sins in a deeper, more meaningful way.

What about the tradition of giving something up for Lent? (I must here admit I'll be forever poisoned by Tom Lehrer's lyrical wit: "The girl that I lament for, / The girl my money's spent for, / The girl my back is bent for, / The girl I owe the rent for, / The girl I gave up Lent for...") I see this, in some ways, as being the logical opposite of the Christmas season, where we often receive so much bounty -- in the Lenten season, Christians choose instead to give. Giving something up seems to me to be only half of the equation -- it's a good way to exercise your "no" muscles, certainly, and it strengthens self-discipline -- but voluntarily giving something up also means freeing that something to be given away to others in need. I'm not sure you must trade it straight across ("I'm giving up chocolate for Lent, so I'll shower every food bank in a three-mile radius with Theo bars!"), but it might make Lenten self-denial more meaningful to find something specific to give or do for others, as a way of filling the vacuum. Volunteering your time to help at a shelter or a soup kitchen, or otherwise participating in an activity that a) forces you to see how others are struggling to get by and b) provides real, meaningful help to others, would probably strengthen your resolve. It's easy to give something up for a while if you're doing it out of love.

So I don't know. I'm not sure you'll find me receiving ashes or eating fish on Fridays this year, but I do see potential value in adopting certain aspects of Lent. I know I have approximately 2.5 regular readers, but those who visit this blog have varied beliefs -- there are Mormons, of course, but I know there are also Christians of various persuasions, agnostics, atheists and apatheists (of the "I don't know and I don't care" variety). I'd like to open it up to you: what are your thoughts on this subject? Do you, or would you, observe Lent? Why or why not? Is there value to be found in the Lenten season even if you're not from a faith tradition that observes it? I'm really curious.

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