By Robin GOLDSWORTHY
The Lenten season began this week with the observance of Ash Wednesday by local religious organizations. Lent is the 40-day period stretching from Ash Wednesday (this year occurring on Feb. 10) and ending on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
Many Christian churches hold services on Ash Wednesday. It is not uncommon during some services for the faithful to approach the celebrant and have ashes in the sign of the cross applied to the forehead. The ashes typically are from the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service.
The custom of ashes being administered dates back to the 11th century and traditionally is accompanied by the words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust” or “Turn from sin and live the Gospel.”
“The significance of Ash Wednesday begins historically with the time of preparation that catechumens (those entering the Catholic Christian faith) participated in prior to their baptism,” said Fr. Ed Dover of St. James the Less and Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. “It was a time of deep prayer and reflection on what their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus would mean for them and the commitment they were making to live the Gospel in union with the whole Church founded by Jesus and His Apostles.”
The Rev. Fr. Kirby Smith of St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church acknowledged that, on the surface, seeing the ashes is a sobering reminder of death – the death of those loved and of one’s own impending death. However, hope can be found.
“[The ashes] are a stark reminder that our physical lives will eventually come to an end,” Smith said. “Even during this dark time, though, there is hope, because we see black crosses on the foreheads of others who have received them. Black crosses pop up in the market, at work, at the gym, virtually everywhere. We’re not alone! Yes, God is always with us, but so are lots of people around us.”
And strength can be found from those who are going through the same Lenten experience.
“It’s this community of the faithful that can sustain us during times of anxiety, despair, and sadness,” Smith said. “If you haven’t experienced the imposition of ashes before, it’s something that should be tried at least once. You really feel different. Sometimes helpful people will whisper to you, ‘You have a smudge on your forehead,’ and you can offer a smile, and reply back, ‘Yes, I know.’ You and lots of other people with smudges know that you’re not alone. Ash Wednesday is a time for us to take stock of where we are with God. Many people, even those who normally don’t go to church, often seek out a place where the sign of the cross is made on their foreheads.”
Molly Shelton, 22, is a member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in La Cañada who is attending Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
“As a kid, Ash Wednesday meant I got to go to school late but I had to wear ashes on my forehead all day. Literally every five seconds someone would say, ‘Molly did you know you have something on your forehead?”
She said church at college is different. Church at home meant going with your family, she added.
“At school you don’t want to go to church alone,” she said. “Ash Wednesday and Easter is when everyone goes to church, at least at Allegheny.”
For many, the 40 days of Lent is a time when the faithful either give up something to remember what Jesus sacrificed or do something in service to others.
La Crescenta resident Danette Erickson said that the Lenten season is when she asks, “What can I do different?”
“As a Catholic, I always give up candy so Easter candy is extra special,” Erickson said. “But is that enough? Lent is also a time to do something positive. I try to call or send greetings to others to cheer up someone who is lonely. This year our pastor asked us to choose someone who has fallen away from their faith and silently, daily pray for them.”
Daily prayer and reflection are common themes heard among those observing Lent. Erickson said that for her Lent is a time of reconciliation and nightly readings either from the Bible or from the book “Rediscovering Christ” she’s reading in hopes of renewing her faith. But with life’s day-to-day demands, it’s sometimes difficult to fulfill these commitments.
“Hopefully I will keep these Lenten resolutions better than my New Year’s resolutions,” she joked.
For Shelton, Ash Wednesday and Lent have taken on a different meaning now that she is in college.
“It carries a heavier weight. It is a season of reflection not just about giving up candy but determining the direction of your life,” Shelton said. “Following Christ’s teachings is not about what you can get out of it but what you can do for other people.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40-day journey, but one not traveled alone.
“This period prior to Easter became a journey the whole community would make together, inasmuch as the process of conversion is never finished, but ongoing,” said Dover. “The traditional elements of Lent are: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Though Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, it is hoped that all will take advantage of the Church at prayer and the grace that flows from her centuries old wisdom and practice.”
Pastor Rick Savage of Montrose Church added, “In the 21st century those who believe in Christ take these days to pay careful attention to our own journey with Christ. It is a time of reflection, introspection, examination, and self-denial – not to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace (for we can never be worthy and grace is free and unconditional) – but to slow down a bit as we make our way to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.”