The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.

On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.

"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."

In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."

The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.

However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.

Time for another rant about Lent

With Ash Wednesday behind them, online friends of Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi braced themselves for what has become a Lenten tradition -- fasting-day manifestos from the witty former nun. "It's a Friday of Lent dear Catholic brethren. And you know what that means," she wrote on Facebook. "Corporate Sacrifice Power Activate! No meat. No braised oxtail. No venison medallions. No veal short ribs. No rabbit sausage. NO MEAT. No Muscovy Duck. No Turkey jerky. No Kangaroo Loin Fillets. nO mEAt. No elk flank steaks. No Wagyu beef. No Chicken Kiev. No MeAt. No meat. No meat. NO MEAT."

In case anyone missed the point, Nicolosi has strong convictions about the tendency these days among Sunday Mass Catholics to assume that centuries of traditions about fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent have been erased from the church's teachings and canon law.

Yes, skipping that Friday cheeseburger may seem like a symbolic gesture for many Americans, she said, reached by telephone. Nevertheless, these kinds of small sacrifices add up and they can help believers focus on bigger questions about this life and the life to come.

"The attitude among way too many people these days is that there's no real sin in anything, anywhere, anymore," said Nicolosi, who leads The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University. "Everyone has taken in the idea that God loves them and then decided that the whole idea of sin and repentance and sacrifice and punishment and hell just doesn't make any sense. ...

"It's like there are no bare minimum membership requirements for being a Catholic and there's no bare minimum requirements for Lent. There's no eternal accountability. Everyone thinks they're basically OK and that everything they want is basically OK."

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, it seems that more Americans are talking about the 40-plus day penitential season before Easter. And Lent isn't just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox anymore. Lent is for bookish evangelicals and all kinds of liberal mainline Protestants, not just Episcopalians. Ministers in a variety of churches are distributing Lenten meditation booklets, planning special retreats and even adding midweek services for truly die-hard worshipers.

But at the heart of this modernized version of Lent is a popular concept that has little or nothing to do with ancient church traditions. This is, of course, the idea of each individual believer choosing to "give up one thing" for Lent and then, apparently, sharing this choice with the world through social media.

A recent glance at the 2014 Twitter Lent Tracker found that the Top 10 items to sacrifice during Lent were school, chocolate, Twitter, swearing, alcohol, soda, online social networking, sweets, fast food and, wait for it, Lent. Giving up meat came in 11th and surrendering coffee was the 14th choice. Those in need of guidance may turn to WhatToGiveUpForLent.com for help.

"To the extent people avoid 'real Lent,' I would suppose it's because of our society's difficulty with the idea of religion making claims on our lives and obligations," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics for the Catholic.com website.

"To the extent people embrace this 'do-it-yourself Lent,' I would think it's because of two factors: first, our innate religious impulse seeking a way to express itself and, second, the therapeutic, self-help current in our culture."

Meanwhile, the updated online resources in what Akin calls his annual "Lenten rant" continue to note that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. He added: "The law of abstinence binds everyone who is 14 years old and up unless they have a medical condition that would interfere significantly with abstinence from meat."

Meanwhile, Nicolosi noted, it may be a good thing that the spiritual curious are at least experimenting with the "give up one thing" Lite Lent concept. The problem is that so many Catholics have settled for this radically individualized take on a crucial season in church life.

"Come on, people! It's Lent," she said. "We are supposed to believe in the power of corporate prayer and sacrifice and we should be hearing about that from our priests and bishops. ... It totally frosts my cookies that I have heard more about Lent this year on Fox News than I have from the pulpit of my own church. That's just not right."

Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering. Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.

Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.

For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.

"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.

"A lot of these people thought that needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others. ... What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."

Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."

The plan, explained the Rev. Chris Seay, was for 10 members to have Erickson's images permanently tattooed onto their bodies shortly before Ash Wednesday. These volunteers would stand in the church's gallery on the first night of Lent, surrounded by photos of their tattoos -- photos that would then remain on display throughout the season.

Instead, at least 60 members of the church have visited one of the dozen or so nearby tattoo studios to mix blood, sweat and ink and another dozen have scheduled appointments. Seay said as many as 150 may end up taking part, out of a flock averaging about 1,500 worshippers in five weekend services.

"I have spent way more time than I ever expected trying to talk some people out of doing this," he said. "People need to give this decision some serious thought. ... It's also good to seek the permission of your spouse."

The pastor decided to cover his right upper arm with an image of a tree growing out of an empty coffin -- Erickson's symbol for Jesus rising from the dead. Seay had a tattoo artist inscribe a tribute on the trunk in honor of his grandfather, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who died this past year.

"I was a bit worried at first," he said, "but my grandmother said she thought it was beautiful."

One church member, who works with cancer patients, had the "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" image -- a rose in a coffin -- tattooed on one foot and plans to add the resurrection image on her other foot. One mother selected the "Jesus Meets His Mother" image, which is a rose surrounded by symbols of suffering. Another member, with his wife's blessing, plans to have all 10 images tattooed onto his body.

The project has already created buzz in the tattooing community, said Erickson.

But the key is not that some members of this church decided get tattoos. The key is that more than half of its members already had tattoos -- like 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25, according to a Pew Forum study.

"Our invitation to do this was not for everybody," said Erickson. "We're not creating a tribe, here. You don't have to have a tattoo to come to this church. ... But we already have so many people here who do have tattoos and those images are part of their stories. We're telling them that it's good for them, that it's normal, to add Christian symbols into that mix. They get it."

Now that's a tough Lent

It was a decade ago during Lent that author Lauren Winner was visited by an angel, unawares. "Actually, it was my priest," said Winner, who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. "I have learned that people in my life often tell me what I need to do during Lent. ... It's kind of like hearing from angels."

Although the voice wasn't miraculous, Winner thought it would take a miracle to follow her spiritual guide's advice. The challenge was deceptively simple: Could she give up reading during Lent?

At the time, Winner was working as book review editor for Beliefnet.com and studying for her doctorate at Columbia University. She was a writer, editor and student and, naturally, was surrounded by books day after day.

How in the name of God was she supposed to stop reading?

Nevertheless, she decided to try.

"This was not your normal 40 days of work," said Winner, author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir" and other works of contemporary spirituality. "What I was doing was attacking my own work obsessions. This forced me to examine the place of work in my life. It made me examine other parts of my life, as well."

Fasting traditions during Lent -- the 40-day penitential season before Easter -- have evolved through the ages, especially in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and liturgical Protestant churches that emphasize the church calendar. Winner is active in the Episcopal Church.

For centuries, Catholics ate only one real meal a day, with no meat or fish. Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In many parishes, the faithful are still urged to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Orthodox Christians strive to fast from meat and dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from "one thing" -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

Winner noted that this practice of "giving up one thing" was supposed to build on the traditional Lenten disciplines linked to food, prayer and almsgiving -- not replace them. The goal was to shine a spotlight into some unexamined corner of one's life.

It didn't take her long, for example, for Winner to realize that she couldn't stop reading -- period. She needed, for example, to reread one book to prepare for an exam. She had to do some reading in order to do her day job, but she asked if she could be relieved from some assignments that she would have accepted, if not for this unique Lenten discipline.

The surprise, said Winner, was how this fast touched her life after the working day. That's when she could almost hear her favorite volumes of history and fiction calling her name (especially the detective novels).

"What this showed me was that I was using reading as an escape. I was reading books as a way to get away from some things," she said, and then laughed. "Fiction is probably a better way to cope with some issues in your life than heroin. But if books are what you're using, then you need to find that out."

In the years since, Winner has repeated this bookish fast several times, while searching for other disciplines that would have a similar impact. This year she is trying to fast from "saying 'yes' all the time," which is harder than it sounds.

"The thing is, Lent isn't a therapeutic self-improvement project," she said. "We're supposed to take a hard look at our sins and then repent. But how do we get to repentance if we have never truly paused to examine our lives? ...

"Most of us are morally and spiritually sleepwalking. We need to wake up and see where we are and what we're doing."

Fasting, for evangelical Protestants?

Elmer Towns had a big problem three decades ago after he moved to Lynchburg, Va., to help a Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell start the school that grew into Liberty University. Month after month, Towns faced two house payments -- a real family crisis. Thus, the veteran Bible professor decided to try something that he considered a radical, "Old Testament thing." In addition to praying that someone would buy the house back in Chicago, Towns and his wife Ruth began fasting on the day that mortgage was due.

Not much happened, but they kept praying and fasting.

After a year, the house sold and Towns has been pondering this question ever since: What role did their fasting play in solving this personal problem?

"What I have learned is that there is much more to fasting than trying to get something from God, because we cannot say what God will do," said Towns, the author of 100-plus books and dean of the School of Religion at Liberty.

"You are really fasting because you want a closer relationship to God. ... There are fasts where you are seeking an end result -- like the deliverance of a person from addiction. But that is not the norm. That's not the main reason God wants us to fast."

These kinds of mysteries have driven Towns to do something that may sound strange for an evangelical Protestant. He has written three books about fasting, including the recent "The Beginner's Guide to Fasting," and has already finished a fourth book on this topic.

Fasting, of course, is a familiar practice for Jews, who observe a strict fast on Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"). Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan and believers in many other religions also practice forms of fasting.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians fast several times during the church year, especially in the pre-Easter season of Lent -- which began this past week. Some modern Catholics continue to fast from meat during Lent, while the Orthodox strive not to eat meat or dairy products.

This practice -- eliminating specific forms of food from the diet -- is one of several different forms of fasting found in the Bible and in religious history, noted Towns. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet and his friends only ate vegetables and water for 10 days. The leader of the Methodist renewal movement, John Wesley, often fasted for 10 days before major conferences, eating only whole-grain breads and drinking water.

Another common practice, which Towns considers a "normal" fast, is to eat nothing, while continuing to drink liquids. The Gospel of Luke observes that during a 40-day fast Jesus "ate nothing and afterward, when he had ended, he was hungry."

An "absolute" fast, said Towns, eliminates both solid food and liquids, as in St. Paul's three-day fast after his conversion on the Damascus road. This strict form of fasting is not for beginners and never should exceed three days, he said. On Mount Sinai, Moses is said to have survived a 40-day fast without food or drink -- which would clearly be miraculous.

Believers who are new to fasting should seek guidance from experienced clergy and even from doctors, stressed Towns. The bottom line: It isn't physically or spiritually wise to "put God to the test by rushing off and doing something irrational," he said.

In the past decade or so, interest in spiritual disciplines such as fasting is on the rise among many Protestants, including evangelicals and those in Pentecostal or "charismatic" movements, said Towns. This is interesting because, at the same time, many Americans seem anxious not to be labeled as religious "fanatics," "nuts" or "extremists."

Yet many Americans seem open to new forms of religious experience.

"I think that there's a growing interest in spirituality among all kinds of people -- people inside the church and people outside the church, as well," said Towns. "Some people are willing to try all kinds of things right now, including some things that I think are very dangerous.

"People may hear about fasting and say, 'That sounds interesting. That sounds powerful. I think I'll give that a try.' ... The issue is whether they have the commitment to stick to it. I'm concerned that most people aren't willing to pay a price to experience the presence of God."

One thing about Lent

Faithful fans of ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" know that former NFL lineman Mike Golic takes great pleasure in skewering his urbane shrimp of a partner, Mike Greenberg.

But in recent weeks, the sarcastic jabs by the University of Notre Dame graduate began drawing an ominous canned response from the producers -- a doomsday choir chanting "Golic's going to hell."

You see, Golic vowed to make a big sacrifice this year for Lent, the 40-day penitential season that precedes Easter. When he was in Catholic school, he told listeners, he was taught to give up one thing during Lent. This time around, Golic elected -- rather than donuts or another great pleasure -- to give up making fun of "Greeny."

When most people think of Lent, this "giving up one thing" concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America's 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.

"There are Catholics who don't practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) website. "But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.

"The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the 'one thing' was supposed to be about."

Lenten traditions have evolved through the ages. For centuries, Catholics kept a strict fast in which they ate only one true meal a day, with no meat or fish. Over time, regulations were eased to allow small meals at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused. Akin tries to cover the basics online in what he calls his "Annual Lent Fight" roundup.

It's impossible to know how or when the idea of "giving up one thing" came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God ... something above his prescribed measure," states the Rule. "Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice. The Rule even tells the monks to seek the approval of their spiritual fathers before taking on an extra discipline, so as not to be tempted by pride.

"It's understandable that when you have a season in which you're supposed to do something -- like penance -- there will always be people who want to do more. They will want to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law," said Akin. "At the same time, you're going to have people who want to go in the opposite direction. They will want to find a way to do the bare minimum, to set the bar as low as possible."

It's also possible, he said, that the "give up one thing" tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children -- who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons -- to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.

But if grownups stop practicing the true Lenten disciplines, then the "one thing" standard is what remains.

"You can have a good example set at home and then undermined at school or it can happen the other way around," said Akin. "Our children need to see the faith lived out at home and the school and in the parish. You need consistency."

Nervous believers in Year 18

Religious folks sure get nervous when public officials talk about "fundamentalist" gunmen invading a school.

Consider what happened recently after a staged emergency at Burlington Township High School in New Jersey. The police script for the drill called for armed men to crash the front doors, shoot several students and barricade themselves in the library with hostages. This document, according to the Burlington County Times, described the intruders as part of "a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who do not believe in the separation of church and state." The two gunmen attacked because a child had been expelled for praying.

For some reason, evangelical pastors became alarmed. Thus, local officials and educators released a statement saying they regretted "any insensitivity that might have been inferred" by this scenario, including any offense taken by those who "inferred" that the mock terrorists were Christians.

I have no idea why pastors "inferred" that organizers of this tax-funded drill had in any way suggested that "right-wing" fundamentalists in a "New Crusaders" army opposed to the "separation of church and state" and angry about a "school prayer" dispute might be conservative Christians.

No way. Why would anyone "infer" something like that?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Boredom is rarely a problem for journalists on the religion beat. That's why I mark this column's anniversary every year -- this is No. 18 -- by offering a grab-bag collection of strange stories that I didn't have the chutzpah or the time to cover during the previous 12 months. So hang on.

* During holiday seasons, I get all kinds of email and often it's hard to tell when people are joking. For example, I received an copy of "The Two-Minute Haggadah: A Passover service for the impatient." It condensed the rite's pivotal four questions to this:

(1) "What's up with the matzoh?" (2) "What's the deal with horseradish?" (3) "What's with the dipping of the herbs?" (4) "What's this whole slouching at the table business?" The answers? "(1) "When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread." (2) "Life was bitter, like horseradish." (3) "It's called symbolism." (4) "Free people get to slouch."

* No joke. The KFC restaurant chain did ask Pope Benedict XVI to bless its new "Fish Snacker" product, which the company said would be "ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles." Apparently, the pope declined.

* Try to imagine the media response if President George W. Bush ended a United Nations address with a call for the second coming of his Messiah and pledged to help this apocalypse happen sooner rather than later.

Would this make headlines? Thus, I was surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew little fire when he ended his fall U.N. speech by saying:

"I emphatically declare that today's world ... above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return."

* Candid religion quote of the year? Asked by Vanity Fair if she is a Christian, columnist Ann Coulter replied: "Yes, sort of a mean Christian."

* Church PR efforts are getting edgier. An Episcopal parish in New Jersey issued a "Message to Disaffected Roman Catholics" proclaiming that many "whose spiritual lives are grounded in the Mass and in the sacraments are, nevertheless, unable to concur with the Vatican's position on issues such as the role of women in the church, contraception, remarriage of divorced person, homosexual relationships, or abortion. ... If you are among them, you may find a comfortable spiritual home at Grace Church in Newark."

* In a list of 100 men and women who are "transforming our world," Time editors included 27 "artists and entertainers," 16 "scientists and thinkers" and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

Lutherans in non-Roman Lent

Eric Phillips really likes soup at lunch.

One of his favorites is baked-potato soup, a filling option that, at first glance, appears to be meat-free. That's important because Phillips isn't eating meat during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter. Alas, baked-potato soup almost always contains chicken fat, as do many vegetable or pasta soups.

"I gave up meat for Lent last year, which was a pain in the neck," said Phillips, who has a Catholic University of America doctorate in Patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers' writings.

"I decided that I didn't want to go through all of that this year, but then I realized this was actually a pretty good reason to try to do it again. ... The whole reason we fast is to do something that gets our attention, something that reminds us that we're sinners in need of redemption."

While all this Lent talk may sound Catholic, Phillips is a convert into the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church. He grew up "low church" evangelical and is still adapting to a denomination that includes both modern multimedia megachurches and congregations that embrace old hymns, "high church" liturgy and some ancient traditions.

Phillips attends Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., a small church near Washington, D.C., that includes many who are striving to embrace fasting, almsgiving, Vespers services and other Lenten disciplines. Some are avoiding meat, while others are surrendering one cherished pleasure -- such as desserts, soft drinks, pizza or candy. Phillips said a friend is "trying to give up sarcasm for Lent."

But Lutherans are Lutherans and these believers are not following a specific set of Lenten rules. They are not Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who, to one degree or another, follow ancient traditions that ask them to fast from meat or even from meat and all dairy products.

For traditional Lutherans the words of Augsburg Confession, article XXVI, are clear: "In former times men taught, preached, and wrote that distinctions among foods and similar traditions which had been instituted by men serve to earn grace and make satisfaction for sin. For this reason new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders, and the like were invented daily, and were ardently and urgently promoted, as if these were a necessary service of God by means of which grace would be earned if they were observed and a great sin committed if they were omitted."

The writings of Martin Luther make it clear that he was rebelling against practices common in the medieval Catholic churches and monasteries of his day, said Immanuel Pastor C.S. Esget.

Thus, it's easy to conclude that Luther rejected fasting and similar disciplines altogether, when what he rejected were mandatory rules. Instead, the Protestant reformer embraced voluntary fasting and almsgiving and argued that these disciplines were like weight lifting and running -- part of a spiritual exercise regime.

"The key is that anything that smacks of legalism will raise all kinds of red flags for Lutherans," stressed Esget, who has promoted Lenten disciplines in his own kitchen as well as his pulpit. "We want to be able to say that fasting, for example, is a good thing. But the minute it becomes a requirement, then there's going to be trouble."

For centuries, Lutherans in Europe chose to follow many fasting traditions found in Catholicism and other Western churches, such as the Church of England. But this gradually evolved into a minimalist tradition that Esget said he has never been able to find in Luther or any other church traditions -- the popular modern practice of giving up "one thing" during Lent.

"What has happened over the centuries is that many Lutherans -- especially after the move to America -- have tried to blend in with all of the Protestants that surround us in this culture," he said. "So most of our traditions have faded over time into a kind of vague idea that it's Lent, but we're not really sure what that is supposed to mean."

The pastor paused, struggling to define the safe middle ground between laziness and legalism, between apathy and dead ritualism.

"I wouldn't want to see my people doing all of these things during Lent just because I laid down the law," said Esget. "Yet, I have to admit that really wish they would do them. Does that make sense?"

A short test for Lent 2006

Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, the world's 1 billion or more Roman Catholics have entered the season of Lent. It's time for a short test.

During this holy season of penitence and reflection, America's 62 million Catholics are required to:

(a) Go to confession.

(b) Abstain from meat and fast by eating only one full meal on Fridays.

(c) Pray and meditate on biblical accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, including attending weekly Stations of the Cross rites or an extra Mass.

(d) Increase their efforts to help the needy through volunteer work and donations.

(e) Make a unique personal sacrifice, such as giving up sweets, coffee, soap operas or SportsCenter on ESPN.

(e) All of the above or some combination of the above, depending on the conscience of the individual Catholic.

(f) None of the above.

Yes, this is a trick question and the key is the phrase "required to."

Modern Catholic leaders have steered away from dogmatic pronouncements about practical details in the spiritual lives of the faithful. The end result is that Catholics are gently encouraged to practice many spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season, including all of the above and more. However, they are required to do few things in particular and millions of Catholics ignore those regulations, as well.

"What is the reality? The reality is that most Catholics do not think much about the meaning of Lent," said Father William H. Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House. "Most Catholics have little or no idea what they're supposed to be doing during this season, although they all want to go get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday."

Lenten traditions have changed dramatically through the centuries, with some form of pre-Easter fast beginning in the early church. This evolved into a penitential season of 40 days, a number rich in biblical symbolism-- including the 40 days of prayer and fasting that Jesus spent in the wilderness.

For centuries, Roman Catholics observed a strict fast in which they ate only one meal a day, with no meat or fish allowed. Over time, regulations were softened to allow small amounts of food at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are asked to observe the strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent and Good Friday at the end. They are urged to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent, but the U.S. Catholic bishops now allow other acts of penance to substitute for this.

These Lenten regulations are usually published in parish newsletters and explained by priests during services.

According to canon law, noted Stetson, Catholics are supposed to take Holy Communion at least once a year, a tradition that millions of church members have grown up hearing described as their "Easter duty." The assumption is that this would require Catholics to go to confession during Lent before fulfilling that duty.

However, few priests and bishops would assume that to be true in American pews today. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active Catholics never go to confession at all and another 35 percent may go once a year. No one believes that those numbers are rising.

This points to a problem, said Stetson, a problem larger than any confusion that exists about the myriad layers of church laws, regulations and traditions that govern the holy season of Lent in America and the rest of the Catholic world.

The biggest problem, he said, is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.

"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."