In their preparation for the upcoming feast of Easter, members of many mainstream Protestant denominations, as well as Catholics, will take part in Lenten observances, a season signified with a smudge of ashes on worshipers' foreheads.
It's a practice whose beginnings are found in the Old Testament, in which “sackcloth and ashes are a sign of repentence,” said Father Rob Godwin, priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
“The whole Lenten season is a penitential season, in that we think of what is going to happen at Easter,” he said, explaining how the focus is not only on Christ's resurrection from the dead, but that he was also put to death for being who he was.
“So, we have a period of introspection and repentance for coming crucifixion of Christ. It's a strange thought, theologically: The death of Christ was (in) atonement for our sins, but the resurrection is indicative of his overcoming death, so it was his death that paid the penalty. The sorrow we feel for being responsible for Christ's death is what we reflect upon,” he said.
Ashes, according to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, are “a sign of penitence and a reminder of mortality.”
They are the burnt remainders of palm leaves used during the previous year's Palm Sunday services, said Rev. Barbara Hugghins, associate pastor of Jacksonville's First United Methodist Church, though they may be created locally or purchased from suppliers.
Her church will host an Ash Wednesday service Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. To mark the beginning of Lent, and following tradition, ashes will be imposed on church members' foreheads as ministers pray quietly over the penitent.
“We say various things: 'From dust you came and to dust you shall return,' or sometimes we'll say, 'Re-member your baptism,' or 'You belong to God,' – it just depends on who is (distributing the ashes),” she said. “And sometimes, we'll say, 'In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.'”
In contrast, the people receiving the ashes “are usually very quiet, because it's a holy moment, a sacred mo-ment, a serious, reflective, meaningful (time) for them,” she added.
Even the blessing of the ashes during the Wednesday service reflects this sense of sacred, said Father Godwin, as he recited the Blessing of Ashes from The Book of Common Prayer used by his church.
“… you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life …”
Throughout the 40-day season, there are a variety of ways one can deepen his or her spiritual journey.
First United Methodist operates a blog, “growingat-fumc.blogspot.com,” which includes a Lenten devotion series to help guide those who choose to devote their time to prayer.
At Jacksonville's Our Lady of Sorrows Cath-olic Church, the community is invited to participate in a weekly holy hour, from 4-5 p.m. Sundays, followed by the praying of Stations of the Cross, a devotion that focuses the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death.
Stations are also prayed after the 6 p.m. Mass Wednesdays of Lent, and will be followed by a soup supper.
Perhaps the best-known Lenten activity, though, is the parish fish fry, traditionally held Fridays during Lent as a way of encouraging Catholics to abstain from eating meat on those days as a form of penance.
(Other days of abstinence are Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, according to the general law of the Catholic Church.)
While these devotions seem social in nature, they “help Lent become more personal when someone participates,” said OLOS secretary Anna Torres.
“And we get a lot of people who participate every year,” she added.
Fasting, which the Catholic News Service Stylebook describes as “not taking nourishment at all during a particular time, or limiting one's food consumption during a given day to one main meal and two smaller meals,” tends to be more “an individual matter” among her congregation, Rev. Hugg-hins said.
“It's not new to me, but it might be to some” who are considering forms of penance or a Lenten sacrifice.
“It's definitely a way that can help them to focus on the sacrifices that Jesus made on our behalf, and therefore, makes their (spiritual) journey more meaningful,” she said.
“Traditionally, Lent is a time of fasting and giving up eating dairy products, of rather strict fast,” Father Godwin added.
“Nowadays, people give up deserts and chocolates and say it's 'fasting,' but what I tell my people is that instead of giving up something, why not take up something to help others less fortunate?
“Christ's commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves, so if we can say we're going to give up something and give our money to H.O.P.E., it's a way of helping others,” he said, adding that the possibilities are endless, and one simply needs to listen to his or her heart to discover how to help.
“We really should not consider Lent a method of dieting, or consider Christ's death a way of losing weight, but as a way to do something to help others less fortunate, which is really what his ministry is all about,” the priest added.
Trinity Episcopal Church's Ash Wednes-day service begins at 6 p.m. Feb. 13.
At Our Lady of Sorrows Church, ashes will be distributed during the Feb. 13 liturgies at 7:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 6 p.m., as well as in Spanish at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.