Photo of a hand holding a rosary with a cross.

A rosary cross. courtesy Shutterstock

Lent began yesterday and with it a series of introspective commentaries on the meaning of the 40-day penitential period.

My favorite was Will Willimon’s. The United Methodist bishop and theologian wrote:

“In our lamenting of our sins, there is also room for joy…Jesus tells us that we are to prepare ourselves as if for a party. We are to rejoice that the God whom we presumed to be our enemy is really our best friend.”

Even the pope fessed up: He took the rosary cross of his late confessor from his casket and wears it to this day in a fabric pouch under his cassock. He said he did so telling the late priest, “Give me half your mercy.”

Jana Riess offers five books to reflect on in your Lenten journey.

But from the looks of it, lots of people were turning outward Wednesday posting selfies with ashes.

In other news:

Pope Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage on Wednesday, but suggested in a newspaper interview that the church could support some types of civil unions.

Meanwhile, a new poll shows Americans are huge fans of Pope Francis but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a “Francis effect” that has brought Catholics back to church or the confessional.

Finally, if you really want to understand Francis’ true ambitions, you must read this article.

From the Protestant sphere:

World magazine reports that Seattle’s Mars Hill Church paid a marketing company at least $210,000 in 2011 and 2012 to ensure that a book written by Mark Driscoll, the church’s pastor, and his wife, Grace, made the New York Times best-seller list. Essentially, the marketing company buys books under a dummy account to look like individual sales from a range of retailers.

Members of San Francisco’s Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, one of the largest congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA), have voted to leave the denomination.

In church and state news:

The U.S. government sued Philadelphia’s school district for religious discrimination on Wednesday for demanding that a veteran Muslim police officer trim his beard.

Linda Greenhouse at The New York Times doesn’t see how the U.S. Supreme Court can rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, which is asking for a religious-conscience exemption from covering all forms of birth control in their employee health plans. The court will hear arguments on March 25.

On the atheist front:

Atheists, agnostics, humanists and others have a thing for the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and his “Cosmos” TV show instilled in them skepticism of the supernatural and a sense of wonder about the universe, which, encouraged their rejection of institutional religion. Now Fox TV is recreating the series. But can it live up to expectations without Sagan at the helm?

Our own Chris Stedman offers this interview with Sagan’s first doctoral student.

On the international front:

A group of Christian youth activists that came together in the tumultuous aftermath of the Egyptian revolution is looking to the future and hoping to build on the gains wrought in Tahrir Square by mobilizing young people to better advocate for themselves. Yesterday, they celebrated the organization’s third anniversary.

On the statistics front:

Sometimes a statistic is worth a thousand words. Eighty-two percent of white evangelicals believe God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, compared with 40 percent of American Jews who believe the same. Discuss.

Finally:

Wendy Doniger, whose book about Hindus was withdrawn by Penguin India after a group sued claiming it offended religious sensibilities, writes that she is in high spirits. The e-book version is selling like gangbusters. And she would like to correct a misconception. Her book is not about sex. “It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.”

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