For about 80 Roman Catholics who gather today in Timonium, the Ash Wednesday service will start with the opening of a large, gift-wrapped box.
Inside, a calendar showing the 40 days of Lenten prayer and fasting has been marked in purple, the color for the liturgical season.
Like many other Christians around the world, the worshipers will begin their observation of Lent by wearing ashes on their forehead. Rather than form a line up the aisle to wait for the imposition of the ashes by a priest, however, the people will smudge the dark sign of the cross on each other's foreheads.
The unusual service is the idea of a Catholic nun trying to reach a special group of worshipers -- the mentally retarded people who come to Francis X. Gallagher Services in Timonium.
The concept came to Sister Ellen Carr last year as she was walking the grounds of the center thinking, "How can I communicate the idea of a gift to our folks, who are somewhat limited in intellectual ability?"
Sister Carr thought about Lent as a gift of time, as marked on the calendar, that is set aside for preparing to receive the gift of salvation. "Most of our folks can respond to the concept of a gift," she said, especially if one of them is invited up from the pews to unwrap the gift box in front of the congregation.
To convey a religious mystery to people who range from moderately to profoundly retarded and incapable of speech, Sister Carr says, she tries to be "as concrete and tactile as possible."
Sister Carr is the Franciscan nun in charge of spiritual development for 184 retarded adults who live in small homes around the metropolitan area sponsored by Gallagher Services, an Associated Catholic Charities agency serving mentally retarded people.
Some live at the main residence on Pot Springs Road in Timonium or commute there by day for training in job skills and physical exercise.
The 80 people she is expecting at the chapel of Gallagher Services today will be joining Christians all over the world entering into a season of preparation for Good Friday and Easter.
And, if they mark one another with the ashes, they might get the sense that "we are a community, we call one another, we remind one another" of the significance of Lent, she said.
"They're more involved, they're more tuned in, and I think it's more significant."
Sister Carr will accompany her talk to the congregation with appropriate motions from the American Indian gestural code.
One sign she plans to make frequently is the rubbing of the thumb against the inside tips of the fingers, a gesture that gives the sense ofsomething being special or precious.
"Have you ever had the experience of understanding something that you can't put into words?" Sister Carr asked. That's how she imagines that spiritual recognition comes to the most severely retarded.
"One doesn't always know what's getting through," she said, but she is confident that "God is not hampered by our intellect."
Sister Carr has come by this assurance through experience, such as preparing a profoundly retarded, non-verbal woman for first communion. Among other teaching devices she has employed, she took the woman out to dinner to create a special occasion for the partaking of food. And she put on a birthday party to place food within the context of celebration.
During the woman's first communion mass, as the priest consecrated the bread into the body of Christ, Sister Carr said, the woman made the Indian gestural sign with her thumb and fingertips.
"That, for me, was an incredible affirmation," she said.
Another time, the chaplain to Gallagher Services inadvertently overlooked a severely retarded, physically handicapped man who remained in the pews during communion. The man began to thump his chest and kick his legs until the priest noticed him and served him communion.
Sister Carr respects the receptive attitude and lack of inhibition in retarded people. "They communicate who God is much more to me than I do to them," she says.