- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

American Protestants are lining up in increasing numbers to have their foreheads marked with charcoal on Ash Wednesday and to observe the 40-day season of Lent, once regarded as a mostly Catholic custom of self-denial and prayer.
Christians of all branches this year are seeking to establish traditions with the liturgical calendar their denominations once shunned. Ash Wednesday is tomorrow.
"In the past, we tended to follow the so-called 'low-church' tradition. But now we are recovering that sense of being part of the broader Christian tradition that goes back hundreds of years," said Dennis Bratcher, director of the Christian Resource Institute and a member of a Church of the Nazarene in suburban Oklahoma City.
Mr. Bratcher has produced a Web guide (www.cresourcei.org) on how Protestants can observe the days leading to Easter, which celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the dead and is regarded as the most important Christian holiday.
"The greatest resurgence of Lent has been among conservative evangelical Christians, a group that traditionally had rejected these kind of things," he said. "We're getting a lot of positive comments from Southern Baptists on this."
In his guide, Mr. Bratcher recommends that Protestants expand their Easter observances.
"It is too easy and promotes too cheap a grace to focus only on the high points of Palm Sunday and Easter without walking with Jesus through the darkness of Good Friday [the day of his death on the cross], a journey that begins on Ash Wednesday," Mr. Bratcher wrote.
The growth of Lenten observance also has become apparent to the Rev. Richard Bucher, pastor of Evangelical Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Mass.
"There is a hunger, a growing hunger for something older and more traditional among many churches," Mr. Bucher said. "People are looking for some external order and discipline in their spiritual lives. Lent helps put people in touch with Christ, his suffering and crucifixion."
Lent is not mentioned in the Bible. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record that Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry and immediately after his baptism, went into the desert for 40 days to fast. The length of his fast, theologians have noted, was a symbolic acknowledgment of the 40 years that ancient Hebrews wandered through the desert before entering Israel.
The earliest-known recommendation that Christians should fast for 40 days before Easter comes from a letter written in 330 A.D. by St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt. By the Middle Ages, Lent was enforced by law throughout Europe as innkeepers faced threats of imprisonment if they served meat during the final weeks before Easter.
But the Reformation changed many attitudes about Lent, which increasingly was regarded as a Catholic institution. Some Protestant leaders in the 1500s suggested the outright elimination of the season, prompting an outcry from Reformation leader Martin Luther.
"Lent, Palm Sunday and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the passion history and the [reading of the] Gospels appointed for that season," Luther urged.
Despite his plea, Protestant denominations more and more ignored traditional Lent observations, especially in the United States. The downward spiral did not reverse until the 1980s.
"Lent is definitely coming back. In America right now, there is a real yearning for things of spiritual substance," said Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publishers Weekly and author of "Rediscovering the Sacred."
"We are going through a period which most sociologists and scholars regard as a different kind of reformation, a move back to the vigor and faith of first-century Christianity," Mrs. Tickle said.
She said the popularity of Mardi Gras, the annual carnival held in New Orleans and throughout South America to feast and celebrate in the week before Ash Wednesday, has also enhanced awareness of Lent among Protestants.
But the growing popularity of Lent does not mean an exact adherence to Catholic customs. Mr. Bratcher said few, if any, in his congregation will fast this year.
"We are not anti-Catholic, of course. But we are not willing to take on those obligations," Mr. Bratcher said.
There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to Lent. Among them are a site operated by Mr. Bucher at www.mtallan.com/~tlclcms and a collection of Lent-related links at www.textweek.com/lent.htm .

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