American Christians find renewal during Lent

Praying Asian woman with forehead marked with cross (© Scott Olson/Getty Images)
In a year when social distancing was not necessary, Catholics celebrated Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent, at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. (© Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When the Most Reverend Michael Curry was a boy, he gave up Bazooka bubble gum for Lent, just as many Christian children give up chocolate or some other candy.

Now, as presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, Curry sees more clearly what Lent means.

“It’s bigger than a Hershey bar,” he said. The 40 days of prayer, fasting and giving to others started as preparation for people joining the church at Easter. But the season has been broadened to include all Christians seeking a deeper connection to their faith.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 70 percent of Americans are Christians. And for them, Lent “can be a time for real spiritual renewal,” Curry said.

The period leading up to Easter mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness praying, fasting and getting ready for his ministry. American Christians echo those efforts with various approaches. They may give up bad habits, abstain from some foods or forms of entertainment, take Bible study classes, serve others or make charitable donations.

Lent is “spring cleaning for the soul,” and the abstinence — whether from candy, social media or whatever a person chooses to give up — is a way of getting rid of distractions that take away from spiritual awareness, said Ryan Dunn, minister of online engagement for the United Methodist Church, which has 30,000 churches in the U.S.

Bishop Michael Curry at microphone with upraised hands and flag behind him (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)
Bishop Michael Curry speaks after being elected The Episcopal Church’s first African American presiding bishop in 2015. (© Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

Curry says practicing willpower helps one “become aware of how selfishness can lead us astray and how it rises up within us.”

Connecting despite coronavirus

Many Catholic parishes in America traditionally have offered meatless Friday dinners in their gathering halls and a devotional exercise called Stations of the Cross, a way to reflect on the last events of Jesus’ life. Those dinners would normally buzz with the activity of parishioners volunteering, kids darting around and adults chatting. But churches canceled such events this year due to health concerns.

Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia — whose older parishioners would prepare soup to serve 250 people each Friday during Lent — got a strong reaction to the cancellations. A group of girls between 3rd and 12th grades made their voices heard.

“They called and said, ‘We’re mad. We can’t just not do anything,’” said Renee “Lambie” Renner, director of parish activities. With a motto of “COVID can’t stop the love,” the girls hatched a plan to safely collect and redistribute containers of corn chowder, Asian ramen shrimp and other soups. Using health protocols and social distancing, they distributed the soup, often working in the cold, rain and dark.

“What people are missing in this season is being in community and in contact with people,” said Dunn of the United Methodist Church.

The determination of the Holy Spirit girls is proof. As senior citizens dropped off soup donations, many said: “I know we’re not together, but boy does it feel good to do something normal,” Renner reports.

Holy Week’s lessons

Lenten activities culminate with Holy Week, which this year begins with Palm Sunday on March 28 and leads up to Easter on April 4. Usually, Holy Week is packed with extra services, and church pews are filled with people.

Woman carrying staff with flowers and palm leaves among group of people (© Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Parishioners leave after 2017 Palm Sunday Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. (© Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Soon, many Methodist churches in the U.S. will offer “Holy Week in a Box” kits that include prayers, crafts and recipes so families can observe the week from their own homes.

Curry said that the combination of the novel coronavirus and the racial reckoning that rocked the country in the past year has caused changes in hearts too. “People are focusing their giving on social causes that help us become a more just society,” he said.

Lenten observations can refocus Christians, Curry said, relating the New Testament story of Jesus walking on water toward his disciples, who were in a boat and struggling against dangerous winds. “That’s what Lent is trying to teach you to do — walk on the water in a storm, which life often is,” he said.