PITTSFIELD -- On Ash Wednesday, tweets and Facebook posts from the faithful took on a more religious tone.
As Christians all over the globe marked the beginning of Lent -- the 40-day period of reflection and sacrifice that leads up to Easter Sunday on March 31, Ash Wednesday became a trending topic on social media. People from all walks of life -- from clergy to celebrities and from the faithful to the atheist -- shared and retweeted their thoughts on Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent.
Symbolically retracing Christ's ordeal of 40 days fasting in the desert while avoiding temptations from Satan, Lent requires Roman Catholics to make a personal sacrifice -- something that varies in seriousness from individual to individual. For some, it's giving up chocolate. For others, it's praying more.
It's a personal decision that in recent years has become quite public thanks to social media. For many this year, it's giving up social media -- like Twitter or Facebook.
Since 2009, the website OpenBible.info has aggregated tweets about what people plan to give up during Lent. Of the top 100 Lenten sacrifices between 2009 and 2012, refraining from social media has topped OpenBible.info's list.
One Pittsburgh priest, the Rev. William Curtis, has even asked his congregation to give up sites like Facebook and Twitter for Lent.
So far this year, "being pope" is at OpenBible.info's No. 1 spot -- a humorous reference to the recent news that Pope Benedict XVI will step down from his position on Feb. 28. While the list for this year has only just begun to be compiled, it reveals that social media, no matter how superficial, has been able to connect a wide range of people to one another's faith.
"Ash Wednesday is one of the things that people identify with each calendar year of the Church," said the Rev. Christopher Malatesta, the pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Community in Dalton, which includes both St. Agnes school and parish.
Malatesta said that each year, he finds people who do not normally attend Mass coming to the church and engaging with their faith. He said part of it has to do with tradition, while the other part involves the act of sacrifice itself.
"Lent is such a defined period of time, and lots of people feel good about doing these things," Malatesta said. "They find that these acts can offer something of a recipe for what they can do outside of Lent as well."
Like New Year's resolutions, Malatesta said that it's easy for people to sometimes fail to complete the pledges they had made to themselves and to God. But he added that it is the act of trying that is important.
According to the Rev. James K. Joyce, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Pittsfield, too much emphasis has been placed on the act of "giving something up," which he said sometimes distracts from what Lent actually means.
"Whatever sacrifice they want to make is fine, but we are saying that the main emphasis should be on praying more and maybe helping more with the poor during this time," Joyce said.
Janet Tremblay, principal of St. Stanislaus Kostka School in Adams, had a similar view. She said her school's kindergarten through eighth-grade students spent their Ash Wednesday recognizing the power of observing Lent.
"They experience religion throughout the year, living their faith because it is embedded in the entire curriculum," Tremblay said. "We have an excited joy for this time, but it is always with us as a part of our existance."
It's a concept that is not always apparent when looking at what social media users have to say about their Lenten sacrifices.
By typing in "Lent" in one's Facebook search bar, a wide range of statuses from one's friends immediately appear. From heartfelt statements of intended sacrifices to students declaring that they plan to "give up homework" during the season, social media offers -- for better or worse -- a way for people to offer solidarity with others making sacrifices, and for some tongue-in-cheek fun.
"Really hoping Marco Rubio didn't give up water for Lent," tweeted Buzzfeed Politics Reporter Andrew Kaczynski, in reference to the Florida senator's mid-speech gulp of water while delivering the Republican response to Tuesday's State of the Union. In other instances, individuals offer helpful tips, like Food & Wine Magazine, which tweeted a link to meatless recipes for those observing Lent.
Whether sincere or fun, social media's ability to reach a wide, interconnected global audience plays into the uniting power that the 40 days of observance have for the world's Christians, Joyce said.
"We're just hoping that everyone will take the opportunity to celebrate Lent as a time of reflection and a time of renewing their relationship to God and strengthening their faith," Joyce said.
Top 10 tweeted Lenten sacrifices determined from 197,831 tweets as compiled by OpenBible.info (some are tongue-in-cheek):
1. Being pope, 4,639 tweets
2. Swearing, 3,213
3. Soda, 1,944
4. Social networking, 1,874
5. Alcohol, 1,583
6. Chips, 1,545
7. Giving up things, 918
8. Virginity, 654
9. Cookies, 580
10. Fast food, 546