Lent was a season of penitence and token sacrifices for Pat Gerkin when she was a child. Each year she and her friends faithfully promised to give up things such as movies or candy. By Palm Sunday the promises were long forgotten, along with the spirit of Lent.
Today, as a mother of two young sons, Gerkin sees those observances of the 40-day Lenten season as "trivial." So now, she takes her time to teach her 6- and 10-year-old boys about social issues such as world hunger and human kindness.
As a gentle reminder to be especially thoughtful during Lent, the Gerkins partake in a daily symbolic ritual using raisins and pinto beans.
"For every unkind word we speak, every time one of us snickers at another's shortcomings or when we take the Lord's name in vain, we put a bean in the bowl," said Gerkin. "And for every good deed we do we put a raisin in another bowl."
In addition, like many concerned Christians, the Gerkins eat a meager meatless meal one night a week after praying for the world's hungry, and each family member puts the amount of money saved in a cardboard bowl in the center of the table.
After Lent, the Gerkins, members of St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Alexandria, will cook the beans "and so to speak eat our own unkind words," said Gerkin. The raisins will be a treat afterward.
They will continue the bowl of accumulated small bills and change toward a Catholic world hunger drive, "Operation Rice Bowl."
Traditionally, most Christian churches have set aside the six weeks before the joyous feast of Easter for some type of spiritual renewal in the form of extra charity, prayer, religious study, fasting and introspection.
By focusing their Lenten preparations on social problems, the Gerkins join the shift of Catholics away from the rigid Lenten practices of fasting, penance and self-denial that were the norm before Vatican II, the 1962-65 meeting of the hierarchy to modernize the Catholic Church.
"What I especially like about this," said Gerkins, "is it makes us stop and think not only of our failures but our good deeds, and I think that's important. Catholics sometimes tend to focus too much on the negative."
Although the notion that Lent should be a period of increased social concern instead of mortification arose following Vatican II, the practice did not become widely popular until the last few years, according to the Rev. William McFadden, a Georgetown University theologian.
"People just don't change that fast," said McFadden."There are some people who are quite pleased to continue with the Lenten devotions as they remember them."
Like Gerkin, McFadden remembers pre-Vatican II Lenten observances as trivial. "I hardly see the significance of eating imported salmon or lobster on [meatless] days of abstience," he said.
"Some people waited until Lent to start a diet that they should have started a long time ago for totally nonreligious reasons," McFadden added. "There was a kind of corruption in the whole thing.
"We used to have Holy Week observances that were terribly sad. On Good Fridays there would be a three-hour ceremony that was pretty gloomy. We'd try to be present at Calvary and feel emotions that were felt there too. I think it led people to pretend emotions that were not their own.
"Now the emphasis is on opening ourselves to the kind of love that was being shown," he said. "We say, 'what does this mean for me here and now' -- a completely different conception -- not a pseudo guilt trip.
"When we fast," McFadden said, "they object isn't self-discipline or to feel hungry but to make the money available to someone else who is."
Many area congregations, such as Westmoreland Congregational Church and National City Chrisitan Church in Northwest Washington, plus 23 churches in the Mount Vernon area, are sponsoring hunger awareness programs this Lent.
Seven Bethesda area churches are holding joint ecumenical Lenten courses featuring topics such as "Anointing the Sick," "Teach Us to Pray" and Bible study.
And longstanding Lenten lecture series are continuing at the Community for Creative Non-Violence and at such Northwest Washington churches as National Presbyterian, Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, First Baptist and St. John's Episcopal, Lafayette Square.