Modern practice of Lent is changing to include more social activism and Latino influence

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School second grader Sadie Gray receives ashes from Deacon George Reade during the Ash Wednesday service at Saint Ambrose Catholic Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of rebirth and renewal and a time to overcome bad habits. When the children were asked by Father Andrzej what they thought were bad habits they listed stealing, lying, robbing a bank and not taking a shower.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Goya Gallegos and Chris McAbee are both faithful Episcopalians who plan to attend an Ash Wednesday service to begin their observance of Lent.

But the meanings of the rituals they will perform in the 40 days before Easter are as different as their backgrounds.

Gallegos, a 41-year-old mother of four, expects that when her priest marks her forehead with an ashen cross, she will be filled with conflicting emotions of longing for her parents celebrating the same ritual in Zacatecas, Mexico, and joy for the beginning of her personal preparation for Easter.

"It is very difficult. There is a huge difference between celebrating Ash Wednesday here and in Mexico," she said. Her large, dark eyes well with tears as she recalls the traditions of eating unique Lenten food, such as shrimp patties and bread pudding, before attending the evening church service with what seemed like the entire town.

McAbee, a 31-year-old history student at the University of Utah, will be in the same congregation to receive the imposition of ashes and begin what he says will be 40 days of quiet reflection and community service.

"This will be a time to reflect on my role in the world as a Christian," said McAbee. "I believe I have a responsibility to step away from the chaos going on the world, think about it, explore it and find out exactly where I fit and how I can work with everyone around me."

These personal expressions of faith illustrate how the centuries-old observance of Lent is evolving in modern America: McAbee is part of an ongoing trend toward community outreach, while Gallegos represents the growing impact of Latino immigrants on Christian worship in the United States. They will worship together at a special bilingual Ash Wednesday service at St. Stephens Church in West Valley City, Utah, followed by a meal of traditional Mexican dishes eaten during Lent.

"It’s not just that (Latinos) bring different, nice and novel customs. It’s the communal spirit imbued in all these customs," said Tim Matovina, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University. "It brings a vibrancy to anyone who comes in contact with it."

Period of preparation

More than a third of Americans observe Lent, according to a 2009 Marist poll that gauged the importance of the event among Catholics. Lent is also observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian church and by many, but not all, Protestant faiths.

The origins of Lent date back to the beginnings of Christianity when candidates for baptism were put through a rigorous 40-day period of fasting, prayer and instruction before being baptized into the church on Easter eve, said Vitaly Permiakov, a professor of liturgical theology at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary.

While the span of 40 days is mentioned in several significant events in the Bible, the period of Lent is in reference to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and preparing for his ministry.

Even when the majority of Christians were baptised as infants, the observance of Lent continued as a 40-day preparation for Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

"We still remember it is a period of preparation that allows us to focus attention on who we are as Christians," Permiakov said.

Over the centuries, various Christian faiths and cultures have introduced unique traditions and interpretations of Lent. But all faiths generally stay true to the basic idea of preparation through penitence, prayer, fasting, study and giving.

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