Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons, Lent, and the Cross of Jesus

shutterstock_176038391Today during my lunch hour, I received ashes on my forehead.

Millions of people are doing this ancient Christian ritual today, so I’m hardly alone. But not millions of my people, the Mormons.

Why Mormons don’t observe Ash Wednesday—or Lent, or Holy Thursday, or Good Friday—is a question with only complex answers. Historically, Mormonism arose within a hotbed of revivalist strains of Protestantism in the 1820s and 1830s. The first Mormons converted from Presbyterianism, Methodism, and the restorationist/Campbellist tradition. Of those strains, only Methodism gave even a passing nod to liturgical feast and fast days.*

That revivalist Protestant foundation, coupled with a decided anti-Catholic bias that tainted Mormonism through the mid-twentieth century, have meant that Mormons today don’t observe Lent.

Sometimes this results in odd or even comical incidents. One year in my ward we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” during sacrament meeting—several weeks before Easter Sunday.

The poor guy hadn’t even died yet and we were already springing him from the tomb.

This points to a third reason I would add to the two historical explanations above. Mormons persist in a stubborn optimism that rarely dwells on pain or suffering. Sometimes, this relentless cheer is one of the things I like most about my religion; we are a people who look on the bright side and are not cowed by difficult circumstances.

At other times it makes me crazy. It is ironic that Mormonism—the same religion that says Christ’s atonement was accomplished not only on the cross, but also in the Garden of Gethsemane—is averse to any depiction of the reality of Christ’s pain. In our churches you will not only never see a crucifix depicting the actual crucifixion of Jesus, but rarely even an empty cross to represent his resurrection.

Recent historical work has discovered that the Mormon aversion to the cross was actually a twentieth-century development. For more than a century, Mormons wore crosses as jewelry and had them in funeral floral arrangements, and early Mormon architecture was done in a traditional cruciform pattern.

Today, you’d never know that, since the cross has been all but banned since the 1950s. Mormons want skip blithely ahead to the triumph of Easter without marking the via dolorosa along the way.

And so, Ash Wednesday.

Today I will remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. I want to mark this day as holy, set apart; for the next six weeks I will be praying more, repenting more, and abstaining more. I gave up shopping and dining out—totally minor “First World” sacrifices in the grand scheme of things, but small ways for me to die to self, just a little, every day.

When Easter comes, I want to be both prepared and surprised. The gospel is not a constant source of triumph and happiness and victory. It first requires passage through suffering and death.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.


* For more on the anti-liturgical strains in American Methodism in the early nineteenth century, see American Methodist Worship and Christine Heyrman’s outstanding Southern Cross. American Methodism today is far more integrated with the church calendar.


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • I don’t think Mormonism is anti-Catholic. Just because Bruce R. McConkie was doesn’t make the whole religion anti-Catholic.

  • Just curious, but where does a practicing Latter-day Saint go to receive ashes on the forehead? I understand the significance to faithful Roman Catholics, but am a bit puzzled by any LDS interest in following suit. As much as I may harbor a measure of “holy envy” regarding certain practices of other faiths (one of my all-time favorite worship services was a midnight mass in Austria during my mission), I would generally stop short of direct participation in rituals which might suggest I recognize an outside priesthood authority.

    On a completely jovial note, I came across this little cartoon today and thought some might appreciate it:

  • As I said in a comment to one of your previous posts, I can’t tell if you are serious, or if you are somehow attempting to insert some amount of wit into your posts. Poking fun at idiosyncrasies of LDS people is one thing, but please be careful when it comes to deeply held beliefs. That said, worship of the Savior, not a “poor guy” as you irreverently refer to him, is deeply personal as well as unique to each individual. You paint the entirety of LDS people with a broad brush based on shallow observations and anecdotes as well as “church policy”.
    You say that “Mormons persist in a stubborn optimism that rarely dwells on pain or suffering”. There are certainly those who prescribe to this optimism, but those who truly understand the Savior and his atonement do not. If you have ears to hear, and eyes to see, you will notice references to the suffering of the Savior in sacrament hymns as well as the testimonies of those who are special witnesses of the Savior. We can’t just look at the resurrected Christ and understand him. We need to see the opposition of death and suffering to life and eternal happiness. We really can’t feel the joy of his triumph without also considering his suffering.
    I personally have no aversion to the cross itself. I do, however, prefer an image of the glorified resurrected Christ. My favorite is the Christus by Bertel Thorvaldsen. That image brings to my remembrance all of the thoughts feelings and emotions I have experienced about the Savior. Again, this is something personal and evokes my personal feelings in a way unique to my life experiences. I don’t “want to skip blithely ahead to the triumph of Easter…”, I just turn to the image that has the most meaning to me.
    Jana, your body is from the dust and it will return to the dust, but you are so much more than that. We must accept our mortality, but we must also accept our divine nature. Paul taught “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” I like to look at it the way Moroni did and so beautifully expressed in the final verse of the Book of Mormon. “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen.”
    Give your whole life to Christ. Again, I really like the way Moroni said it: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” It is not just six weeks. It is a lifelong process. We need to be prepared always to stand before the Savior. Let your outward actions and words be a reflection of your inner commitment to Christ.

  • Mormonism is anti-everything but mormon. Even in a loving, non-confrontional way. ” Our church is the only church that is true”.

  • “The gospel is not a constant source of triumph and happiness and victory.”

    Yes it is. In the Gospel of Christ that Paul the Apostle preached, for those who trust in Christ alone for salvation, our sins were paid for and taken out of the way and Jesus credits His righteousness, His performance, to our account. He becomes the righteousness of God in us that God demands. A righteousness we cannot obtain through works. To me that is a constant source of triumph, happiness and victory.

  • Presbyterians have long followed the liturgical calendar and do indeed and always have given “a passing nod to liturgical feast and fast days.” While they are not viewed with the sacramental fervor of the Roman Catholics they are embraced and celebrated.

  • I have come across your online writing before and found the same problems. If you write to promote other written works or speaking–a shallow post like this with contrived irony does not help. Sadly your post adds nothing to the topic.

  • John — that is very true today, but not on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. Today, the PC(USA) follows the revised common lectionary and observes all of the major liturgical events. That was not at all the case in upstate New York in the 1820s and 1830s, which was the point I was trying to make. I apologize if that was not clear.

  • Jim, this post was entirely sincere. I’m not sure how you could have taken it otherwise.

    I find from your comments that we agree on more points than we diverge. The whole point of the imposition of ashes is to remind us that we are not only our bodies, and that eternal life is our blessing through Christ.

  • Tom, my husband and daughter are Episcopalian, so I went to the Ash Wednesday service at their church. I do not take communion (the sacrament or Eucharist) there, but I do go forward when I attend to hear a blessing from the priest.

    On that note, there is a beautiful scene in David O. McKay’s biography of his being blessed by an Episcopal priest and bishop who was a friend and colleague. President McKay reciprocated by giving Rev. Moulton a blessing too. Lovely.

  • Jana, you stated that “The gospel is not a constant source of triumph and happiness and victory. It first requires passage through suffering and death.” I couldn’t disagree more. The Savior suffered in agony, died on the cross, and was resurrected from the tomb so that I don’t have to suffer for my sins. I can repent (which granted may be a sore repentance), be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost with then allows me to find great happiness. It is not called the Great Plan of Happiness or the Plan of Salvation for no reason.

    And we sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today often in the Church, not because it is Easter or something to look forward to, but because it is a historical event that has already happened.

    I am not afraid of Lent, but I do not celebrate Lent because I make an effort everyday of the year to give away my sins and weaknesses; for me it is not a once-a-year event. Having said this, I have a peer at work who came in yesterday with an ash cross on her forehead, and I thought it good for her to have firm beliefs and celebrate her religion.

  • Jana, I take your point – in reply to Jim – that there is more agreement than disagreement between the two of you. Those agreements deserve emphasis, thank you. And it makes perfect sense to me – now that you’ve explained this in another reply – that you participate in Ash Wednesday with your Episcopalian husband and daughter both in respect to their faith and to lend focus to your own spiritual reflection and growth. All very fine.

    But there were a couple of remarks in your essay at which I winced, and I question why you thought to include them. The first was where you found it comical – comical! – that any Mormon ward (congregation) would sing, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on any day other than Easter. Especially since the exact date of the Resurrection isn’t exactly nailed down historically, the word “today” in that hymn is notional no matter when it happens to be sung. And fundamentally, the hymn should be regarded as appropriate on any occasion in which there is a desire to celebrate Christ’s resurrection in song. To call that “comical” – even coupling that word with a joke about Jesus’ death – is horribly inappropriate.

    It also seems weirdly inconsistent with your suggestion that Mormons are somehow less concerned with “via dolorosa” than other Christian faiths. That was the other wince-worthy sentence: “Mormons want skip blithely ahead to the triumph of Easter without marking the via dolorosa along the way.” This was right after the little joke about the hymn: “The poor guy hadn’t even died yet and we were already springing him from the tomb.” (Har har har. A Mormon ward sings a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the Savior’s victory over death, and you think its funny.) Mormons are NOT less concerned with via dolorosa than others, and you know it.

    If anything, Mormons are subject to criticism from others for the belief that Christ’s atonement for our sins began in Gethsemane. The chapel in my local temple is adorned with a painting of Christ brought before Pilate. Innumerable talks (sermons) by leaders in General Conference and by members in local wards emphasize one or more aspects of the Lord’s torment and suffering at the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Romans. This is all an important part of the Mormon, as well as other Christians’, understanding of the life, ministry, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    So, forgive me, but what I think your essay is mostly about is … iconography and symbology. I mean, that’s fine I guess, but I’d rather think about substance? You’re perfectly right to observe that Mormons don’t use cruciform iconography the way others do, and I agree that the Mormon custom is to some extent a reaction to traditional Catholic iconography. Mormon worship service (sacrament meeting) avoids genuflection and other symbolic references to images, and avoids ritual altogether except as to the sacrament (communion) itself. Maybe you think that’s a loss compared to “high church” services that you attend, but I’ve attended my share of Catholic masses and have had difficulty appreciating the value of the iconography, formality and repetition seen there. That’s probably just a cultural thing – if I’d grown up there, I’d appreciate it more – but by the same token, I don’t find a basis for unfavorable comparison to our own services or style. And I certainly don’t think that we are at all insensitive to the suffering of the Savior on the way to Calvary.

  • Kelly, all of us must suffer through the pains of life. The Atonement does not protect us from the impact of our own sins or the sins of others. Agency is the key component to the gospel (it is the reason for the Atonement under LDS doctrine) and a key component of agency is that our journey is not always filled with triumph, happiness, and victory.

    Also, you imply that someone who participates in lent is making a “once-a-year” event out of acknowledging sin. That is wholly incorrect for many people. You can observe lent and still “make an effort every day of the year” to overcome your weaknesses.

  • Thanks for your reply, Jana. In hindsight I became concerned that my post could have been taken as slightly combative, and I’m glad you didn’t necessarily respond that way. Your story of President McKay reminds me of the reaction I sometimes see in non-LDS when it comes to our offers to provide a priesthood blessing in times of illness. While there are occasions that people refuse, often they adopt the attitude of embracing anyone’s prayers on their behalf. As one who believes that our Father hears and answers prayers of faith from all of His children regardless of the denomination to which they may adhere, or their relative stage of spiritual development or understanding, I appreciate the idea of joining with members of one’s family across denominational lines to participate in an activity such as this which provides a shared religious experience for all.

  • Jana, thank you for encouraging us to put on our thinking caps.
    I’m reminded of an object lesson I saw by a young missionary. He held up a light bulb and said, “This is the complete gospel”. Then he dropped it into a paper bag sitting on a tile floor. As he picked up a few pieces of the broken bulb, he said, “Many pieces of the gospel can be found in many places throughout the world, but the only place where you can find the entire bulb is in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
    While I feel gratitude everyday for being able to benefit from the complete bulb, I also love to enjoy the elucidation of the “pieces” that others around us do so eloquently. I have learned much from the spiritual thoughts and allegories of our brothers and sisters in other religions as well as those in the scientific community.

  • Jana, how beautifully simple is your response.

    Ashes are the reminder that our Life is so much more than body, which will return quickly to dust!

    I like to think that our Life is lived ‘primarily within our Spiritual Soul’…..
    and the material body represents an outward expression of this Soul to the world around us?

  • I thought this was a good read although I think the view of Mormons being anti-Catholic (or at least averse to Catholic things) is a fairly “Utah Mormon” thing (at least based on my experience). Personally, I am a Midwesterner from and still live in one of the most Catholic states in the country and almost all of my friends growing up were Catholic. I have a deep love and respect for the Catholic Church and I have always loved Lent and have even taken part in it a few times. I guess my point is that I think how we Mormons view other churches/faiths tends to be affected by where we grew up.

  • I’m Mormon, I live in Salt Lake – I observe Lent every year.

    It’s always dangerous to paint with a broad brush.

  • This is ridiculous- I saw the headline as “why Mormons hate Lent”. Just this week I was talking with a group of Mormons, and they all liked Lent, and wanted to participate- they were asking to make sure that it’s not offensive to Catholics if a non-believer participates. All the Mormons I know like both Catholics and Lent, this is another one of those navel-gaze-to-manufacture-drama pieces.

  • McDonalds made the “Golden Arches” synonymous with a hamburger. When I drive down the road and see them I know where to go to get some awesome fries and a milkshake. Burger King and Wendy’s don’t have the golden arches, but they still sell hamburgers.

    Catholics picked the cross to represent them, why is everyone trying to be like Catholics?

    Get your own symbol!

  • Jana, surfing the net and came across your blog and really liked it. I wonder why when asked about religion, people say “I am catholic or I am LDS or I am Methodist”. Why not “I am a Christian who puts my faith in the grace of Jesus who died for me”. I guess every denomination want to the be “TRUE” one and will go to great lengths to “prove” they are.

  • Or perhaps her intent is merely lost on you…how ironic….contrived or otherwise…

  • Great article, Jana, and thanks for citing my research on the cross. I note in my book, Moses Thatcher identified the lent cross as the “mark of the Beast.” He wrote in his journal,

    “March 2nd {1881}. This morning we see men and women{,} mostly the latter{,} returning from the great cathedral and the fashionable churches with a huge black cross mark on their foreheads…. The priests have listened to the vile confessions and… have ‘absolved’ them of their iniquities {,} and as a seal of the fact have placed the ‘mark of the Beast on their foreheads.'”

    Interestingly, in Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie identified the “sign of the cross” as the Mark of the Beast, and although most of the anti-Catholic rhetoric was edited out for the second edition, following editions continued to cite Revelations 13. In case anyone is interested, the book (an expanded revision of my MA thesis) was published by John Whitmer Books, titled “Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo” (2012).

  • Not true. Mormonism is pro everything that is true. No matter where it is found.

    Mormon PEOPLE are not always that way. We are limping along figuring it out. 🙂

  • Jana – that’s AWESOME that you went to an ash wed. service! 🙂

    I have recently been battling it out with my of my LDS friends who are snobby about Lent- on my facebook page. I LOVE lent. There is NOTHING bad about it. I have made myself a lent missionary to the mormons this lent period.

    Joining in the traditions with others that are good and appreciating the things that are special to them brings everyone so much happiness! 🙂

  • I do find that the Utah Mormon culture especially does very much like to skip over the suffering. 🙂 We are often ashamed of the struggle, of the Gethsemene and very eager to pretend we are in the garden of Eden instead.

    This is something we can teach people- that it’s OK to suffer and share that with others. The best thing to do with suffering is to consecreate it and sometimes that means keeping it sacred in own hears and sometimes that means sharing it so we can bless others. is an amazing example of an LDS sister who took a horrIFIC experience- she found out her husband was murdered and cheating on her the same night leaving her with 5 kids, the youngest only weeks old- and is using it to bring beautiful light into this world.

    People like her- Ashlee Birk- are a shining light as to the beauty of the Gethsemenes of our lives. We are slowly learning not to pretend it doesn’t exist but to allow the Lord to “sanctify to us our deepest distress.”

  • But LIFE gives us pain. It is real and we must go through it. The only way out is through. He does lift our burdens but we still get to have burdens.

    How else can we feel compassion for others or appreciate Christ’s suffering if we never get our own little tiny taste?

  • THIS is what I feel I MUST share about LENT with my mormon friends. 🙂

    It is about SACRIFICE. Not sin. It is preparing for the triumph of the ULTIMATE sacrifice and it is exactly the same as a fast.

    Would you say- why should I fast I try to give up my sins every day?

    Lent is choosing something to let go of in a way that prepares us to celebrate Easter. It is a beautiful thing that no one is obligated to do – but I just can’t STAND when LDS people respond:

    Well- I choose not to sin every DAY so what’s the point of Lent? AHHHH!! It makes me crazy. First- we ALL sin every single day. You could give up gossip. Or complaining. My senior year I gave up cutting class.

    People often choose vices- but the point of it is the same as a fast.

  • I wholeheartedly disagree. I have spent the past few weeks in constant debates with my LDS friends who have not been ashamed at all to disparage Catholics on my facebook page- in plain vew of my Catholic friends (I grew up Catholic.)

    You may not be exposed to it but it’s definitely there in some circles. And these were Utah and CA mormons.

  • Oh my gosh I’m so sorry!!! I totally posted this in the wrong place. I’ll repost it where it goes.

  • I wholeheartedly disagree. I have spent the past few weeks in constant debates with my LDS friends who have not been ashamed at all to disparage Catholics on my facebook page- in plain vew of my Catholic friends (I grew up Catholic.)

    You may not be exposed to it but it’s definitely there in some circles. And these were Utah and CA mormons.

  • The discussion were in regard to Lent. One friend called it a mystical superstition, another said- I’m Mormon, I pretty much never sin, I have no use for Lent, and it went on and on.

    It was a HUGE eye opener and sparked a very educational conversation for everyone.

  • That’s really quite sad. Faithful Roman Catholics are among the greatest allies the LDS church has worldwide. What a disgrace to their professed religion.

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