Observers of Ash Wednesday call the rite 'a new beginning'

February 17, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

Patrick Perez of Ellicott City stood in line yesterday to have himself marked with ashes for the world to see.

"I do it based on respect more than anything else," he said outside St. Paul's Catholic Church shortly after noon, an ashen cross smudged on his forehead. "Following the path of God is supposed to be a better way of life."

Mr. Perez was among about 50 Catholics observing Ash Wednesday at St. Paul's in historic Ellicott City yesterday, joining Christians throughout the western world in the somber observance.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the 40-day Lenten season, the Christian time of fasting, prayers, alms-giving and repentance leading up to Easter.

Catholics, Lutherans and some Methodists observe Ash Wednesday to symbolize mourning and penitence.

"It's a sign of death and also a sign of life," Father Thomas J. Donaghy, pastor of the 950-family church, said of the ashen cross. "The ashes put on the head is a sign of Christ and a sign of hope. It reminds us that Christ died for us."

Said Mr. Perez, "The whole point is to turn it [your life] over to God."

During the 30-minute noon service at St. Paul's yesterday, parishioners prayed and listened to visiting Deacon James Reusing, of the nearby Church of the Resurrection, discuss the history and importance of Ash Wednesday.

Wearing a purple sash, the color of the liturgical season, Mr. Reusing said that the custom of ashes stems from the days when public sinners had their foreheads marked with ash by a bishop and were told not to return to church until they had changed their lives.

Over time, that practice evolved to include all sinners.

In his sermon, the deacon also read from the Bible, telling the worshipers to pray secretly and not to look glum when they fast as did the Biblical hypocrites.

"When you fast, see to it that . . . you wash your face so no one can see that you're fasting," he said. "You're supposed to live an ordinary life and not make it appear that Lent is a great hardship."

When he had finished, adults and children lined up to be marked with ashes, as the sun shone through the stained-glass windows.

Using his thumb, the deacon smudged the cross of ashes on the parishioners' forehead.

The ashes come from the blessed palms that were used the previous Easter.

"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel," Mr. Reusing told each parishioner in turn.

After the service, Marlene Macek, a 60-year-old part-time secretary from Ellicott City, commented on the importance of the Ash Wednesday observance.

"I feel it's a new beginning," she said.

In a separate interview, Father Frank Brauer, associate pastor at the Church of the Resurrection, said that devout Christians are as willing to be marked with the ashes today as they were centuries ago.

"I think people are willing [to be marked] because I think people are longing for something today," he said.

During Lent, more parishioners attend church, he noted.

"We have a big crowd," Mr. Brauers said. "People come out for Lent."

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