Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

So let's say that you are a religion-beat reporter and your editor assigns you to do a news feature about Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday rites found in Western Christian traditions.

What are the questions that you need to ask at that point?

That's where this week's "Crossroads" podcast starts, spinning out of my recent post with this headline: "Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there." Click here to tune that in.

A savvy religion-beat reporter would -- first thing -- try to find out what the editor means when she or he says the word "Lent."

Are we talking about Roman Catholic Lent? Pre- or post-Vatican II? Fasting or no fasting?

Are we talking about Anglican Lent? Lutheran Lent? Yes, there is such a thing in some congregations, on the doctrinal left and right. How about Eastern Orthodox Lent, in which many believers -- on the fasting side of things -- basically go vegan for the whole season? (By the way, who can name the rite that opens Lent among the Orthodox?)

Here is the key: Is the editor talking about what I call "American Lent," which basically allows a person to create their own version of the season. That's the whole "give up one thing for Lent" thing. The problem is that the ancient rites and traditions of Lent are not -- to say the least -- an exercise in American individualism. Just the opposite.

You see, there is a good chance that the editor may actually want a story that is FUNNY, not solemn. The editor may want "10 hip things for Millennials to give up for Lent in 2017" (I suggest kale or skinny jeans). Somehow, Lent has turned into a novelty story. Here's the tone at The New York Daily News:

If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)
A somber day on the Christian liturgical calendar, it marks the start of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians go to church and part of the service is to get blessed with, you guessed it, ashes. In this case, blessing means the priest applies ashes to your forehead. As with lots of Christian ritual, it's primarily a Roman Catholic thing, and many wear the mark throughout the day.

Wait! That's just one of the tabloid's Lenten offerings. Then there is the story about using Lent to "get bikini-season ready."

No, really.

For many Catholics, the 40-day period of Lent is something to be dreaded. For me, it’s an excuse to get bikini-season ready.
Sure, it’s a solemn religious observance. But it’s also the perfect path to more superficial goals. And if I can stay in God’s good graces and drop a few pounds in the process — what’s there to lose?And lucky for us, Lent -- when Catholics around the world give up a luxury or privilege as penance for sins -- kicks off on March 1, right after the glutinous season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. 

Notice that, the "one thing for Lent" concept is built into this little feature -- even though that is not the current state of Lenten practice for Catholics, other than school children (at least that is how Catholic educators have explained it to me).

So what is going on here? Help me out, wise guys at The Babylon Bee.

Yes, there is that temptation. That's a valid comment on Lent in all its forms.

But how about using Lent to make some kind of personal or even political statement?

But clearly the edgy Ash Wednesday and Lent angle for this year was the LGBTQ Glitter Ash project. For major media, it appears that the coverage began with USA Today picking up a Religion News Service report with this memorable opening:

Lighten up, Ash Wednesday.
A New York-based advocacy group called Parity is asking Christians who favor LGBT equality -- “queer positive Christians,” in their parlance -- to show support by wearing “glitter ash” on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday on March 1.
Ash Wednesday kicks off the six-week somber season called Lent that leads to Easter, and is usually marked in churches with the color purple. Traditionally, plain gray ashes, blessed by a minister or priest, are smeared on the foreheads of Christians to symbolize repentance.
“This is a way for queer Christians and queer-positive persons of faith to say ‘We are here,'” said Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director. “It is also a way for other people to be a witness to that and be in solidarity with them.”

This was pretty much THE liberal mainline Protestant Lent story of Ash Wednesday 2017, if you check out a typical Google News search. The question, for me, was the degree to which it was a reality in mainstream Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations, among others in that world. Parity was formerly known as Presbyterian Welcome and that network worked with Queer Virtue and the Metropolitan Community Church on this project.

Here's a story to watch in the future. Will any Catholic parishes (or campus ministries) take part in Glitter Ash Wednesday.

As one would expect, the RNS coverage, and editorial commentaries, appear to have driven most of the coverage, in mainstream, conservative and liberal publications online. I would expect more coverage next year, especially from television networks.

Here is the big question: Did reporters think that everyone would see Glitter Ash Wednesday as a good thing? Please note that I am not just talking about quoting outraged doctrinal conservatives (although that is an essential part of a balanced, accurate story).

There are liberal believers who thought that this project was guilty of taking a major Christian liturgical symbol into dangerous territory. I mean, even in a long, long, long Episcopal New Service Glitter Ash apologetic there was this nod in that direction:

... That blending of symbols may become spiritually “problematic” and “confusing,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, dean of academic affaris and professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. She would advise clergy against incorporating glitter into their Ash Wednesday rituals.
“It’s an ancient symbol of repentance, of regret … our mortality,” Meyers said. “To try to combine that symbol with glitter, which seems to be about a celebration and an affirmation of a particular group of people, seems to confuse the symbols in a way that doesn’t allow either symbol to work.”
The Book of Common Prayer only specifies that ashes should be imposed, without elaborating on the method or mixture, Meyers said. Traditionally the ashes come from the burnt palm fronds from the previous Easter, but even that aspect of Ash Wednesday is merely a custom for Episcopalians.
“People have to make their own well-informed decisions how to do that,” Meyers said. “There isn’t a rule that says, ‘Thou shall use only this for the ashes.’”
Even so, she suggested that people interested in showing solidarity with LGBT causes can take that on as a Lenten discipline without changing the traditional symbolism of the ashes.

Did anyone see mainstream media Glitter Ash coverage -- news, not commentary -- that was especially good or bad? What about Lenten coverage in general?

Please let us know, via email or in the comments boxes. And enjoy the podcast.

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