From dawn until evening today, at churches across Columbia and Boone County, hundreds of residents will have their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross. The ashes, an age-old sign of repentance, are derived from the celebratory branches handed out at the last year’s Palm Sunday service.
Ash Wednesday begins a 40-day period of repentance from sin known as Lent. The Lenten season — the word comes from an Old English term meaning lengthening of light or spring — began in the church’s infancy as a period to prepare believers to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
Today, different denominations celebrate Lent in different ways, all with the goal of drawing closer to God.
Catholics focus on denying oneself by giving up something for the 40-day period. Many fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Friday before Easter; others abstain from meat, except seafood, on Fridays during the Lenten season.
“The Scriptures stress that I need to die to myself in order to rise,” said Monsignor Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. “One better experiences the resurrection of the Lord by denying oneself up to Easter.”
However, denying oneself in the wrong spirit misses the point.
“If you give up your favorite soda, but are a grouch to live with, you’re defeating the purpose,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan encourages his congregation to give money to the needy during Lent and to strengthen other spiritual habits such as prayer and reading the Scriptures.
Episcopalians also give up luxuries during the Lenten season to create more space for godly pursuits.
“Lent is a time for moving toward the resurrection,” said Fred Thayer, minister of Calvary Episcopal Church.
At Calvary Episcopal, Thayer further encourages his congregation to keep a holy season by holding to three classic traditions: prayer, fasting and alms.
“Prayer, at the fundamental level, is opening ourselves up to God,” Thayer said. “Fasting is eliminating things or activities in our lives to allow more time and energy for God. Alms are giving money to people in need.”
Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Church of Christ members focus on strengthening spiritual disciplines during Lent as well. Raymond Massey, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian, encourages people to give to others.
“When we give, we don’t begrudge the fact as we do when we give up,” Massey said. “It’s an attitudinal thing.”
Gary DeWitt, pastor of Community United Methodist, said his church emphasizes taking up spiritual practices and “understanding ourselves as disciples.” Many churches intentionally make their services less celebratory and more somber during Lent. Removing flowers or other decorations, refraining from singing or saying “hallelujah” during services and focusing on particular Scripture make for a more repentant atmosphere. The arrival of Easter marks the end of Lent and culminates in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Until Easter, Christians should use the Lenten season to strengthen their commitment to a spiritual life, Flanagan said.
“Normally we have crowds on Ash Wednesday,” he said. “But like New Year’s resolutions, many soon forget. We can support each other in this Lenten journey.”