What do you get when you combine a love of sports with a love of saints? Lent Madness, of course. The world's most popular Lenten devotion returns for its fifth year of teaching people about saints in its inimitable, occasionally irreverent, way.
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. But it is more than that: Lent Madness is really an online devotional tool designed to help people learn about saints. The competition begins on Thursday, March 6 and takes place at www.lentmadness.org.
The creator of Lent Madness, the Rev. Tim Schenck, says "Lent Madness is a fun way to get people to connect with and be inspired by a bunch of amazing people. Some are already household names and others are virtually unknown but we can all learn something from the unique ways they followed God. Plus, there's no rule that says Lenten disciplines must be dreary."
The format is straightforward: 32 saints are placed into a tournament-like single elimination bracket. Each pairing remains open for twenty-four 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 surprise 2013 Lent Madness champion was Frances Perkins.
The first round consists of basic biographical information about each of the 32 saints. Subsequent rounds explore quotes and quirks, legends, and even move into the area of saintly kitsch.
Christians around the world mark the Season of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The 40-day period is a traditional time of penitence, self-denial, fasting, and preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. It is modeled on the 40-day period of Jesus' fasting and temptation in the wilderness recorded in Scripture in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Fun during Lent? The Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, which sponsors the competition, says "Lent is meant to be a 'spring cleaning of the soul,' a chance to think about how we can live as God hopes." Gunn added, "Lent is not meant to be a season of misery, but a joyful and introspective season to prepare for our celebration of the Risen Christ at Easter."
Lent Madness began in 2010 as the brainchild of Schenck, an Episcopal priest and rector of St. John's Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. In seeking a fun, engaging way for people to learn about the men and women comprising the Church's Calendar of Saints, Schenck came up with this unique Lenten devotion. Combining his love of sports with his passion for the lives of the saints, Lent Madness was born on his blog "Clergy Family Confidential."
Gunn's involvement with Lent Madness began on his own blog, "Seven whole days," as he advocated for the eventual Golden Halo winner that year, George Herbert. This campaign, which relied on trash talk of Herbert's opponents, helped to set the tone of Lent Madness early on as "Christian discipleship meets cutthroat competition."
Ten "celebrity bloggers" from across the country have been tapped to write for the project including the Rev. Laurie Brock of Lexington, KY; the Rev. Penny Nash of Williamsburg, VA; Dr. David Creech of Morehead, MN; the Rev. Megan Castellan of Kansas City, MO; Canon Heidi Shott of Newcastle, ME; the Rev. David Hendrickson of Denver, CO; the Rev. Amber Belldene of San Francisco, CA; the Rev. David Sibley of Brooklyn, NY; the Rev. Laura Darling of San Francisco, CA; and the Rev. Maria Kane of Houston Texas. Information about each of the celebrity bloggers is available on the Lent Madness website.
This year's heavyweights include Thomas Merton, Catherine of Siena, J.S. Bach, David of Wales, John Wesley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Joseph of Arimathaea.
New this year was the publication of the Saintly Scorecard -- The Definitive Guide to Lent Madness 2014. Available through Forward Movement and popular ebook stores, it contains biographies of all 32 saints to assist those who like to fill out their brackets in advance.
Lent Madness has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Boston Public Radio, and many other media outlets. More importantly, thousands of people have engaged in this fun and entertaining spiritual exercise.
Forward Movement has worked since 1935 to bring vitality and spiritual health to the church. Based in Cincinnati, OH, Forward Movement is widely known for Forward Day by Day. Lent Madness is one of many ways that Forward Movement hopes to encourage people to live faithfully throughout their lives. Forward Movement is a ministry of The Episcopal Church.