The season of Lent: Penance, forgiveness and renewal

The penitential season of Lent begins each year on Ash Wednesday and runs until Holy Week. This period is traditionally viewed as a time of personal spiritual reflection for Christians marked by an effort to repent for sins. But how do people forgive each other, and themselves? How do we deal with guilt?

Linking themes of sacrifice, atonement and reconciliation is common in many religious traditions, and in the Christian period of Lent today those themes manifest themselves in different ways. For some the focus is on personal sacrifice and renewal; for others it is about doing for others and helping to create a more just world.

This edition of ReligionLink highlights various avenues for reporters to explore as they craft stories to mark the Lenten season and the public focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Reimagining Lent

For many Christians, the idea of Lent as all self-denial and sacrifice is outdated and needs to be reworked.

Lent in bad times

Focusing on social justice remains a Lenten priority for some believers who feel that the ongoing economic difficulties require Christians to try to do more for their neighbor.

  • “How Evangelicals Give”

    Read a Jan. 31, 2011, story from Christianity Today about how Christians are responding to decreased giving to churches.

  • “Churches Find End Is Nigh”

    Read a Jan. 25, 2011, story from The Wall Street Journal about how Christians responded to decreased giving and economic hardship during the recession.

Dealing with guilt

Guilt is the five-letter word often associated with Lent, and one that many churches would prefer to de-emphasize. But guilt remains a fact of life — and often a motivation for repentance. New research offers insights into how we process feelings of guilt.

Background on Lent

  • “Ashes to Ashes”

    Read an essay from ChristianHistory.net on how the early tradition of pre-Lenten repentance developed into our modern practice of Ash Wednesday.

  • “Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2011”

    Pope Benedict XVI focused on the the traditional themes of fasting, almsgiving and prayer in his Lenten message for 2011. “The practice of almsgiving is a reminder of God’s primacy and turns our attention towards others,” Benedict writes.

  • “Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2010”

    Justice was the central theme of the pontiff’s Lenten message for 2010. Read the text of the message at the Vatican’s website.

  • “Conversion breaks bonds of selfishness, pope says in Lenten message”

    Read the  a Feb. 2010 story on the pope’s 2010 message for Lent from Catholic News Service.

  • “Lenten Season”

    A Feb. 12, 2010, broadcast by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has a reflection on Lent by Pastor Steve Buechler of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Md.

  • “Lent–Why Bother?”

    A February 2010 feature from Christianity Today, “Lent: Why Bother?” features essays by three writers: Steven R. Harmon, a Baptist pastor and associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., writes about why Baptists can observe Lent; author Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is founder with her husband of Baltimore’s Holy Cross Orthodox Church, writes that Lent is like a spiritual exercise akin to an athlete training for competition; and Michael Horton, an author and professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, writes that Lent is above all aspiritual pilgrimage.

National sources

  • David Dollahite

    David Dollahite is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is a co-author of “Giving Up Something Good for Something Better,” a study of the sacrifices youth make in the name of religious beliefs. The article ran in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.

  • Ali Eastburn

    Ali Eastburn is the founder of With This Ring, a Christian organization that asks people to give up their wedding rings to buy clean water for villages in underdeveloped nations.

  • William Enright

    William Enright is a Presbyterian pastor and director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University. He can discuss the center’s report on religious giving and the recession.

  • Dan Hotchkiss

    Dan Hotchkiss is a Unitarian Universalist pastor and a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. In July 2009, he wrote an article for Church Executive magazine about how churches are making do with less from donors in the current economy.

  • Kristen Monroe

    Kristen Monroe is a professor of philosophy and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and director of its Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. She is the author of The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity.

  • empty tomb, inc.

    empty tomb inc. is a nonprofit that tracks religious giving in the United States.

  • Ron Sider

    Ron Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which promotes Christian engagement, analysis and understanding of major social, cultural and public policy issues. He is also Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, Pa. He is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

  • Christian Smith

    Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He was co-principal investigator for the Youth and Religion Project. He is the author, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, of a book summarizing major findings from that study called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He has written widely on religious giving and is co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (2008).

  • Cru

    Cru (the Campus Crusade for Christ) is an interdenominational Christian organization that promotes evangelism and discipleship in more than 190 countries around the world.

    Contact: 888-278-7233.
  • Melissa Brown

    Melissa Brown is a part-time instructor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Her research focuses on fundraising and charitable giving.

    She has said that when the economy goes bad, people still give to their church or religious group.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Paul G. Schervish

    Paul G. Schervish is a director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and a sociology professor at the college in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He directed the studies “The Moral Biography of Wealth: Philosophical Reflections on the Foundation of Philanthropy,” “The Contradictions of Christmas: Troubles and Traditions in Culture, Home, and Heart,” and “The Emerging Material and Spiritual Determinants of Charitable Giving by Wealth Holders.”

  • Bruce Chilton

    The Rev. Bruce Chilton is an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Chilton is the author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography and other books aimed at popularizing the latest historical research on the Bible. Chilton is also rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, N.Y. He is an expert on altruism and Christianity.

  • Boyce Watkins

    Boyce Watkins is a scholar, author and leader in the African-American community. He writes frequently about money issues and the African-American community.

  • Paula Wesley Gomez

    Pamela Wesley Gomez is director of development and external church affairs at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

    She participated in an Alban Institute webinar on the subject of church stewardship in lean times.

In the South

  • Ben Witherington III

    Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination, in the wake of the recession, of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

  • Edith Turner

    Edith Turner is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

    She participated in a 2006 roundtable discussion for Zygon magazine on the subject of altruism and spiritually merging with another’s suffering.

In the Midwest

  • Mark Allan Powell

    Mark Allan Powell is a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and the author of Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News About Living a Generous Life.

In the West

  • Howard Bahr

    Howard Bahr is a sociology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and was a co-author of “Giving Up Something Good for Something Better,” a study of the sacrifices made by religious young people.

  • Michael Durall

    Michael Durall is principal of the CommonWealth Consulting Group in Boulder, Colo. He is the author of Creating Congregations of Generous People.

  • Michael O. Emerson

    Michael O. Emerson is co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and is a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston. He has written several books on race and religion, including People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States and Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. He is also the co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (2008).

  • Michael McBride

    Michael McBride is an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in religion and the economy and writes the blog The Religious Marketplace.

  • Dr. Tim White

    Dr. Tim White is the senior and founding pastor at Washington Cathedral in Redmond, Wash. He has led the creation of five non-profit foundations that are primary outreaches into neighboring communities and that now extend worldwide.

    One Christmas, he and his wife gave all their Christmas savings to a couple in danger of losing their home.

Related source guides