Now that Bourbon Street has been hosed down after another raucous Mardi Gras celebration, Christians throughout the world turn their attention to the penitential season of Lent. Let’s face it, Lent gets a pretty bad rap. Most people either think of monks walking around in sackcloth and ashes engaged in self-flagellation or a bunch of chocolate-deprived church goers looking dour and depressed. But grim is not a spiritual virtue and here’s a little secret: joy is allowed even during this season of repentance and self-reflection. After all, what could be more joyful than a season specifically set aside to grow closer to God?
It was in this spirit that I began a little online devotion called Lent Madness on my blog four years ago. Based loosely on the wildly popular NCAA basketball tournament, Lent Madness pits 32 saints against one another in a single-elimination bracket as they compete for the coveted Golden Halo. Yes, you heard that right -- saints doing virtual battle with one another throughout the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent. But it’s more than that; Lent Madness is really a tool designed to help people learn about saints in a fun, engaging way.
Here’s how it works: on the weekdays of Lent, information is posted about two different saints at www.lentmadness.org and then participants vote to determine who goes on to the next round. Each pairing remains open for 24 hours – and people vote for their favorite saint. 16 saints make it to the Round of the Saintly Sixteen; eight advance to the Round of the Elate Eight; four make it to the Faithful Four; two to the Championship; and the winner is awarded the Golden Halo. The first round consists of basic biographical information about each of the 32 saints. Things get a bit more interesting in the subsequent rounds as we offer quotes and quirks, explore legends, and even move into the area of saintly kitsch. It’s fun, it’s informative, it’s the saintly smack down!
Last year things went a bit viral -- with articles in the Washington Post and Huffington Post, among various media outlets, and even a mention in Sports Illustrated. In all over 50,000 people participated in the voting and with a recent article in USA Today, the numbers are already three times as large as last year.
To win in 2013 will take grit, determination, holiness, and perhaps some good old-fashioned luck. This year Lent Madness features a slate of saints ancient and modern, Biblical and ecclesiastical including John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Hilda of Whitby, Luke, Dorothy Day, Benedict of Nursia, Martin Luther, and Harriet Tubman as they vie to fill the shoes of 2012 winner Mary Magdalene.
This all kicks off on February 14, and will continue throughout the 40-day season of Lent. To participate, log onto www.lentmadness.org, where you can also print out a bracket and fill it out to see how you fare or “compete” against friends and family members. Like that other March tournament, there will be drama and intrigue, upsets and thrashings, last-minute victories and Cinderellas.
If you’re looking for a Lenten discipline that is fun, educational, occasionally goofy, and always joyful, join the Lent Madness journey. You’ll find some inspiration and, don’t tell anybody this, but you can even sneak some chocolate while you log on. I promise not to tell.
The Rev. Tim Schenck is Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Mass. Visit him on the Web at www.frtim.com, where you can access his blog Clergy Family Confidential.