Different perspective: Lent not just about giving something up|Period between Fat Tuesday and Easter begins Wednesday in Western churches

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ask the Rev. D.L. “Raggy” Ragsdale about Lent, and he will launch into a happy discourse that includes pizza, arrows, ashes and Bible verses — just a few of the components of Ragsdale’s enthusiastic theology.

The pastor of Porters Chapel United Methodist Church sees Lent as positive, rather than negative, actions.

“Lent is not giving anything up; it’s taking something on.”

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The “something,” Ragsdale said, is each individual’s unabashed acceptance of his own humanity.

Lent begins Wednesday in Western churches, many of which participate in the Ash Wednesday custom of marking the foreheads of parishioners with ashes, traditionally from the burned palm branches of the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year.

Says the Web site Catholic Online, “While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts.”

Eastern Christian churches, including St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church on Washington Street, call the period Great Lent and begin not with Ash Wednesday but with Clean Monday, signifying the beginning of a cleansing period of repentance. Because the Orthodox Church dates Easter differently than western churches — always after the Jewish Passover — and begins on a Monday, its Lenten period also differs. This year, Orthodox Great Lent begins March 2.

Traditionally, Lent has been seen as a time of fasting from certain foods or abstaining from bad habits. In recent years, positive works have begun to be encouraged as well — volunteering, helping neighbors, giving additional money to churches or charities, working to become a better person.

“To be a witness means we don’t stop being who we are,” Ragsdale said. “Take on the image that God intended you to have. Who you are is enough, it’s sufficient. Yes, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, but what Jesus adds makes up that difference and finishes the equation.”

The original meaning of the word “sin” was “to miss the mark,” Ragsdale said. “All we have to do is just live. We shoot, we miss, we go to where we missed the mark and just shoot again. We’re always in progress. We’re not judged as failures until we stop shooting.”

For retired Episcopal priest the Rev. Denny Allman, “Lent, to me, has always been a time not of breast beating and sackcloth but of introspection: who am I and how do I improve on who I am?” Allman pastored Christ Church on Main Street for many years and now serves in retirement on a supply basis at St. Mary’s Episcopal on First North.

“It’s a time to think about what we can do to improve our lives in the service of our Lord,” he said. “If giving up something helps you to do that, then you should give up something.”

Lent is a time of discipline and spiritual deepening and introspection in order to prepare for Easter, said the Rev. Michael Nation of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Episcopal, on South Street. “We certainly encourage the traditional fasting, particularly in a society like ours. That can be a positive witness,” he said. “Fasting also opens us up to God’s presence.”

But Nation said he also sees spiritual value in stressing positive actions. “I do encourage folks to realize that there are multiple ways to get involved with the discipline of Lent in preparation to celebrate Easter.”

That can include serving others. At Vicksburg Catholic School, both elementary and high schoolers will mark the Lenten season with special Masses, classroom activities and student service, said Michele Townsend, principal of St. Aloysius High School.

The sophomore retreat team has planned and will lead half-day retreats for third- through sixth-graders. Fourth- and sixth-grade retreats were Thursday, while third- and fifth-graders will have a retreat Monday.

“Lent is a time set aside to give people the opportunity to grow and change,” Townsend said, and the retreats have been planned around those goals — growing and changing in mind, body and spirit. They will include both small and large group discussion as well as physical activity.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com.