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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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.
We still remember it is a period of preparation that allows us to focus attention on who we are as Christians. —Vitalijs Permjakovs

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.

In recent decades, churches have broadened the meaning of the fast from inward repentance or simply not eating to giving to the poor or becoming outwardly involved in community causes. Catholic Relief Services raises millions of dollars during the Lenten season through its Rice Bowl campaign, which funds food pantries, community gardens and global hunger prevention efforts.

A couple of years ago, thousands of Anglicans joined in a "carbon fast" during Lent to reduce energy consumption and make a statement about global warming. This year, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, suggested members limit their food consumption to a food-stamp budget of $4 a day.

"An act of solidarity like that might increase your consciousness about those who go hungry. It might increase your own consciousness about what you eat. And it might provide an opportunity to share some of your largess," she wrote in her annual message for Lent.

Connecting with heritage

The Spanish- and English-speaking worshippers at St. Stephen's usually meet at separate times, but a large crowd is expected Wednesday as both congregations join together in the small, modestly adorned sanctuary for Ash Wednesday — a western tradition practiced by Roman Catholics and some Protestants, but not by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Clergy use ashes to make the mark of the cross on the forehead of the penitent as an expression of repentance on the first day of Lent.

"Ashes are a visible reminder of all of creation's limitations," said the Rev. Matt Seddon of St. Stephen's. "We are dust and to dust we shall return."

For Latinos, ashes have an additional symbolic meaning that predates the Spanish Conquistadors' introduction of Christianity to native populations. The Rev. Pablo Ramos, who oversees the Latino congregation at St. Stephens, said more than a dozen ancient Aztec rituals are known to have involved the use of ashes, which symbolized protection.

"A lot of Latinos attend church on Ash Wednesday because of the meaning of ashes," Rev. Ramos said. "It’s a big day for the Latino community."

A more conspicuous influence on Lenten worship by Latinos in the United States is on Good Friday, the second-to-last day of Holy Week. Matovina writes in his book "Latino Catholicsim: Tansformation in America's Largest Church" that the Way of the Cross procession and other dramatic rituals commemorating the suffering and death of Jesus are becoming more commonplace in cities throughout the country.

"It has revitalized parishes," Matovina said. "For Latinos, their relationship with Jesus, with Mary is so visceral and so real and not just purely symbolic."

But Latino immigrants aren't looking to transform worship in their new country by importing their own religious traditions. Rather, Rev. Ramos said, the purpose of introducing Latino traditions into Lenten worship is to connect second-generation Latinos to their heritage.

"Lent is an opportunity to identify with their origins," Rev. Ramos said. "They can connect with them and feel good about it. It helps us shape who we are, especially in this country."

Gallegos tells her children stories about how her family, whom she describes as poor farm workers who walked 30 minutes to church in a neighboring town, observed Lent. She explains how those stories give meaning to the special food she prepares, her daily fasts where she just drinks water until dinner, her not wearing much makeup, and other personal Lenten practices.

"I try to be an example so they can carry on these traditions," she said.

Informed belief

McAbee recalls his first Lent leaving him somewhat empty, and it wasn't because he was fasting. "I approached it by giving up an eating habit, and I found it very laborious and unfulfilling," he said. "There was some goodness in it. But for me it was like going on a diet — not spiritual but physical."

Since then, he has adopted Lenten practices that involve quiet reflection, prayer and community service.

"It's very personal for me. More of an inward reflection of me than an outward expression of fasting or giving things up," he said. "I have found that more rewarding than fasting."

Rev. Seddon said this will be his first Lent as an ordained priest, so he anticipates his focus will be more in helping others find meaning in Lent than on what he will be doing personally.

For Rev. Seddon, a former archaeologist and anthropologist, much of that meaning will come in simply performing the communal and personal rituals of Lent, such giving up a habit, forgoing a favorite food, praying more often or volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

"These Lenten practices are extremely important. It’s not just a bunch of strange magic that we do," he said. "It is an expression of our deepest beliefs that informs those beliefs in a constantly reiterative manner."