Heralding of Lent leading to Easter

Service: Ashes placed on foreheads in the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday are seen as a reminder of mortality and a token of hope.

March 07, 2003|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At Ash Wednesday services this week in Howard County and around the world, worshipers received the sign of the cross marked in ashes on their foreheads and heard their pastors say, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Ash Wednesday, for some branches of Christianity, heralds the start of the Lenten season of repentance, reflection and prayer in preparation for Easter. The ashes are a reminder of each person's mortality, say area clergy, and a token of the hope of resurrection and redemption through Jesus Christ that Easter commemorates.

Lent is the 40-day period (not counting Sundays) that precedes Easter and recalls the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness before the start of his public ministry.

The ashes used for Wednesday's services at St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Roman Catholic Church in Woodstock, as in many other churches, came from the burning of palms from last year's Palm Sunday service, said the Rev. Joseph Lacey, St. Alphonsus' pastor.

In his Ash Wednesday homily, Lacey quoted from one of the Old Testament prophets, "Rend your hearts and not your garments," and reminded his listeners that the Lenten customs of penitence, fasting, almsgiving and abstinence should be lived through authentic actions rather than observed as mere ritual.

Diane Martell of Ellicott City, who attended the St. Alphonsus service, said that Ash Wednesday is "a time to reflect and prepare for Easter," and she echoed Lacey's sermon, saying that Lent is not just about "giving up things."

The custom of using ashes to express sorrow or penitence is as ancient as the Old Testament practice of mourning in "sackcloth and ashes." The introduction of ashes for public worship in preparation for Easter developed in the Roman Catholic Church more than a thousand years ago. Some Protestant churches that are liturgical - ceremonial and ritual-oriented - also observe Ash Wednesday.

Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, the oldest church in Howard County, had three Lenten services Wednesday. The Rev. Susan Hazen, associate rector, said there are two ways of thinking about receiving ashes. Some people "wipe their faces right afterward," she said, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus that no one should make a show of their religious observances.

"The other outlook is ... to keep the ashes on all day as a mark of [demonstrating] to whom they belong," she said.

The Rev. Gigie Sijera-Grant, associate pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ellicott City, said that, as a large church, First Lutheran has "experienced a lot of deaths" and that Ash Wednesday and Lenten observances resonate with people who are grieving.

"They can really relate to the suffering ... and sorrow that Christ felt," she said. But "you're not stuck with just the sorrow and the suffering. There is actually a destination, and that is the resurrection of Christ. ... It's looking to Christ for our hope."

Many Christian churches hold special services during the Lenten period. Wednesday evening services at St. Alphonsus will focus on the meaning of Lenten spirituality. Christ Episcopal will have a Wednesday series on "praying beyond words." And First Lutheran's Wednesdays will feature guest speakers for meditations on the Lord's Prayer.

Traditionally, the solemn season of Lent is often preceded by celebration on the day before Ash Wednesday. Some of the names for this day are "Fat Tuesday" (Mardi Gras in French), Carnival (from the Latin, meaning "the putting away of meat"), and Pancake Tuesday. The names refer to the consumption of rich foods before the austere days of Lent. Another name is Shrove Tuesday; shrove comes from a word that means to be absolved of your sins.

On Tuesday, Christ Episcopal's youth group cooked a pancake dinner for parishioners. The Rev. Glenn E. Ludwig, First Lutheran's senior pastor, prepared a meal of pancakes and sausages for the church's yearly Fat Tuesday "carnival" of games and entertainment.

Many Christians will celebrate Easter on April 20 this year. The Orthodox, or Eastern, churches do not observe Ash Wednesday and, because of a different liturgical calendar, will celebrate Easter on April 27.

Great Lent began Monday in the Coptic Orthodox Church, said the Rev. Guirguis A. Gobrail, rector of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Savage. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins Monday of next week. It is a "time for penance and getting back to the Lord," Gobrail said.

Nonliturgical Christian churches generally do not observe Lent. The Rev. David Anderson, pastor of the nondenominational Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, said that in the two or three weeks before Easter, Sunday services at his church will "prepare people" for the significance of Easter.

But, he said, "We put all of our dollars and our energy and our creative juices into making [Easter] weekend absolutely special as we remember the meaning of the weekend, which is, of course, the death, the burial and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ."

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