Cultural Touchstones in Lent

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


I hear in the niche world of young, homeschooling, Catholic families, a new buzzword: liturgical living. Liturgical living is a way of bringing traditions of the liturgy into the home with the goal of furthering ones cultural and religious heritage.

Societies were once overflowing with cultural touchstones, those sensory or narrative moments handed down and continued generation after generation. It is formed by history, climate, agriculture, immigration, and religion.

The almost ancient film “Queen Christina” (1933) explains, “It’s all a question of climate. You can’t serenade a woman in a snowstorm…Love, as we understand it, is a technique that must be developed in hot countries.”

Some touchstones have the power to travel, uniting a common people in the midst of diaspora. The people recognize each other as they identify evidence of those touchstones. Admit one’s culture and the interlocutors feel invited to speak in the hidden language using the terms and references of their shared heritage. These touchstones become a sort of code, informing those who might otherwise feel alone, to know they are not.

Ash Wednesday, the opening to the liturgical season of Lent, is one such day. In school, in business, at the store, Catholics can be identified by the strange black smudge on their forehead (if they went to mass that morning).

In America, the degree of assimilation varies. Give it the right elements, like the chill of a northern climate, and cultures begin to change. Touchstones fade as new ones take their place. Unfortunately, the popular virtues of our culture tend towards individualism, rather than a shared heritage or experience. In generations past, many made great efforts to hide their heritage, trying to Americanize and assimilate. A piece was lost. Now, some cultures fear the repercussions of fully expressing the depth and breadth of their cultural and religious practices.

Having worked in the world, I am accustomed to adapting my language to fit the setting. But today is a day I cannot conform. We are Catholic; the sign on my forehead tells me so.




Thus begins the Lent for “high church” Christians. There was a time in America when the Friday meal special included fish and the soup du jour was meatless. Now Meatless Mondays are an internet trend. Fasting occurred on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for Catholics. Muslims and Jews observe other days and seasons for fasting. Now, Intermittent Fasting (IF) trends the blogosphere.

Health, gluten-gree, organic, vegan, fair trade movements become new cultural touchstones. They are the way many modern-day Americans relate to each other. They recognize the bag from Everlane, the shoes from Tom’s, the reusable grocery bag made in Ecuador. A left-over Obama sticker, a red Trump hat signals other cultures. Even if religion has largely exited the public square, cultural touchstones remain, but perhaps of a different culture than the ones our parents intended to raise us in.

How do these cultures develop? They must be handed down. They are handed down by Babushkas, by internet gurus, by religious hierarchy.

Ash Wednesday takes place forty days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. The liturgical season changes on Holy Thursday, a day drawn from the traditions of the Jewish Passover. Passover is celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the 15th day of Nissan, based on a lunar calendar. Easter, a moveable feast in our Gregorian calendar, falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

If we are willing to see it, even disparate cultures may share touchstones. Christ’s Last Supper was a seder. To enter into that tradition, Christians can learn from Jews what the seder is, what it means, and why it matters. It has endured over three thousand years, a trifle longer than Meatless Mondays.

At the seder, the question is asked four times: What makes this night different from all nights?

The traditions are treasures of our heritage. Some will be abandoned, some will evolve, some ought to continue. But without asking the question, we let them fall aside, we change the culture, without ever meaning to do so.

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