We're deep into Lent, the season when Christians prepare themselves for Easter. For those of you who have been preparing by giving up something — chocolate, or driving, or yelling at the kids — it can feel like a pretty long time.
But, some folks are looking to reframe Lent, with a little madness.
"A lot of people see Lent as the church's season of doom, and gloom, and guilt, and depression, and eating dirt," says Tim Schenck, an Episcopalian priest in Massachusetts.
He acknowledges that repentance and self-denial are a part of Lent. People can also use it as a time to take on positive practices, which is kind of the point.
"What could be more joyful than a season in the church year specifically set aside to grow your faith, to be closer to God?" Schenck asks.
So, four years ago, he started Lent Madness.
"We put 32 saints in a basketball-type bracket and they go at it," Schenck says.
Lent Madness pits saints against each other for the coveted Golden Halo. There is a website with weekly video updates and regular blog posts. Every day, thousands of people read about and vote for their favorite saints. Some churches, like Saint Gabriel's, in Portland, Ore., even take it a little further, with a little saintly role playing.
"I'm Catherine of Siena," says 12-year-old Maddie Reifsteck. "She's like some sort of nun or something that gets the job done, apparently."
Reifsteck was one of 32 volunteers who helped parishioners get in the spirit of Lent Madness. Her competition includes John of the Cross and Basil the Great, as well as more recent saintly figures, such as abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and theologian John Wesley. Don McMahon portrayed the theologian.
"John Wesley wrote something like 6,000 hymns," McMahon says. "Many of which we still sing today. Vote for John, he's the man."
LouAnn Pickering, the vicar at St. Gabriel's, says the point is to listen with their whole selves, especially during Lent.
"That's the case here," Pickering says. "It's an opportunity for people to listen with their whole being, including their funny bone, which is an important part of who we are, after all."
St. Gabriel's, like many churches, also has a somewhat somber feel during Lent. The crosses are veiled and the silver bells are put away. But Pickering says the fun of Lent Madness does tie into the work of preparing for the coming Easter.
"You need to read the biography, you need to read the prayer, and you need to spend some time in some sort of contemplation as to how you're going to vote," Pickering says. "That's a spiritual discipline."
This discipline can help people live out their faith. As Lent Madness founder Tim Schenck says, by virtue of baptism, even flawed people are saints — and saints, when you learn about them, are flawed people.
"So often we stick saints in stained glass and we put them in statues, or trap them into oil paintings," Schenck says. "But these were real people with blood coursing through their veins. And so as people learn about these different saints, they are really drawing some inspiration from their lives."
As for which inspirational figure will win this year's Golden Halo? Lent Madness will reveal the final vote on April 16th.