Some weeks ago, she decided she wanted to have a dinner party. It had been too long since she had seen her friends.
But when the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler looked at the calendar, she remembered, oh yes, Ash Wednesday was approaching. She realized she wouldn't be partying with friends until after Easter.
Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter Sunday. Many Christian churches take part in this collective remembrance of the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Over her lifetime in the Episcopal faith, the Rev. Nestler says she has seen little change in the way Lent is observed within her church. Then, as now, it is a time for solemnity. Episcopalians usually won't schedule a wedding during Lent, she explains. Attendance at the Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services is high, as it always has been.
Even in families where Lent is not discussed much, she has no doubt that the children are thinking about what they've heard in Sunday School, are thinking about Christ's sacrifices and are, with no fanfare, making sacrifices of their own.
"Lent is so much a part of who we are as Episcopalians," she says. Yet, she also believes the secular world is changing, in regards to Lent.
The stores are increasingly full of baskets and candy, she says. At the community center where she exercises, the Rev. Nestler saw a sign advertising an Easter egg hunt for children that was to be held on March 21, which is Good Friday.
Good Friday is not a day for celebration, she points out. In her home, eggs are dyed, with little fanfare, on Saturday. Then, on Easter Sunday, comes the egg hunt, the huge dinner, the glorious singing, the joy of the resurrection.
The Rev. Nestler explains that Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians long have observed Lent in the same way. If you were to visit any of these churches during Lent, you would hear much the same liturgy.
This year, the solemnity of the season was in the news because, for the first time since 1940, St. Patrick's Day falls during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. March 17, this year, comes on the Monday of what many Christians consider to be the holiest week of the year.
Parade organizers in many
cities across the country moved the parade up a few days, to the Friday or Saturday before Holy Week. In cities like Columbus, Ohio, where the parade is still being held on March 17 despite a request by a local Catholic bishop to change the day there was a certain amount of public angst.
Still, in spite of the fact that people are more aware of the practice this year, the changing of holidays to avoid holding a festival during Lent is nothing new, explains Colleen Gudreau, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
During Holy Week, "we not only remember, we re-enact Christ's passion and resurrection. That week takes precedence over any other festival the church might otherwise celebrate."
This year, in addition to moving the feast for St. Patrick, Catholics also will change the date of the feast for St. Joseph. Then, too, they'll change the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation (the day Mary was told she would be the mother of the Son of God) because it falls during Easter week, or the week after Easter.
Among Christians who observe Lent, the season traditionally has come with three requirements: an increase in prayer, fasting and the giving of alms. Over the years, fasting has come to mean giving up more than food.
This year, Pope Benedict XVI specifically mentioned giving up technologies. Without cell phones and iPods and video games, how much easier might it be to hear the voice of God? This year, also, the National Catholic Educational Association urges teens to do good works for other people and for the environment.
But at their core, the messages from religious leaders are the same every year. They urge their followers to sacrifice and to do it without talking about it. Pope Benedict also has said Christians should continue to make their sacrifices even after Lent is over.
Gudreau says she thinks Catholics are taking Lent more seriously than ever. Over the last few years she's seen increasing numbers on Friday evenings at the Stations of the Cross. She says believers finally may understand that what society has to offer the big house, the important job is only temporal.
Speaking for Methodists, the Rev. Brian Hare-Diggs sees changes.
The Puritans officially disavowed Lent in 1645. And over the centuries, Protestants have tended to view Lent as a Catholic observance. But Vatican II bridged the gap and helped Protestants reclaim some of their traditions, the Rev. Hare-Diggs notes. As a boy, he remembers only the Maundy Thursday church services. Now his church observes Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and more.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not observe Lent, though they understand the same deepening of faith on special Sundays of fasting and giving and prayers.
And LDS leaders, as well, have been known to call for quieting, for allowing "the still, small voice" a chance to be heard. Elder Boyd K. Packer, writing for the church's Ensign magazine, noted that the world grows increasingly noisy even though people know inspiration comes more easily in peaceful settings.
A history professor at Brigham Young University, Craig Harline, has written a book on the history of the sabbath ("Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl," Doubleday).
"What you do in order to feel the presence of God really depends on your tradition," Harline told the Deseret Morning News, even as he noted all the ways different faiths have focused on giving up something as a way to come into God's presence.
Harline points out that early Christians were disdainful of the Jewish sabbath, of the things Jews refrained from once a week. And yet, Harline says, it wasn't long before the early Christians were giving up things themselves.
The Rev. Hare-Diggs says he sees his congregation, at First United Methodist in Salt Lake, becoming increasingly interested in observing the rituals of Lent. But that might be because their pastor stresses the importance of Lent, he admits.As he immerses himself more deeply in the cycles of the liturgical year Advent, Lent, Easter the Rev. Hare-Diggs says he finds himself more centered in the life of Christ.
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