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Ash Wednesday: Lent a time to reflect, repent

By by Charlotte Stewart
Feb. 17, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Once the party hats and beads are put away from Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten Season.

It isn't just the Catholic Church that observes Ash Wednesday - most liturgical denominations, including Episcopal, Disciples of Christ (Christian), Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran, also have a ceremony in which ashes are drawn into the participant's forehead in the shape of a cross.

The Rev. Kevin Wittmayer, senior pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, said Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Penitential Season, commonly called Lent, during which time the church is called to reflect and repent.

"This is a time of concentrated reflection on your life ... with a focus on your spiritual life," Wittmayer said. "Our liturgy asks for forgiveness for what we have done and what we have left undone ... we're reflecting on sings of both commission and omission."

He said many people think of sin as an act - something the person has done - when in fact many times the sin is a time when we failed to take action.

"In my life, I reflect on my sins of omission," Wittmayer said.

Lent lasts for 40 days, ending on Easter. The time from Ash Wednesday until Easter is 46 days; however, Wittmayer said Sundays are not considered a day of Lent, but instead a feast day.

Many people who observe Lent choose to sacrifice something during that period - anything from meat to chocolate to television to texting. He said people who do give up something for Lent are free to enjoy it on Sundays.

The Rev. Richard Emerson, senior pastor of First Christian Church, said the season of Lent "isn't a fun one. For me, personally, it is one of the most painful seasons of the church year, but I cannot celebrate Easter without it."

Like most liturgical Protestant denominations, Emerson uses the ashes made from the previous year's Palm Sunday service.

"Ashes have been integral to what we believe from the time of Genesis," Emerson said, citing Gen. 3:19: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

Ashes were used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example is found in Job 42:3–6: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

Many denominations use the words, "dust thou art to dust you will return," as the ashes are placed on the forehead.

"It is no accident that the ashes are not in a random pattern, but in the shape of the cross," Emerson said.

"You will die, you cannot change that. But, you can die in Christ rather than apart from Christ, whose death transforms your own demise," he said.

It also is no accident that Lent continues for 40 days, he said, as the gospels say it was the number of days Jesus fasted in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan.

"Forty is scripturally a significant number," Emerson said, "coming up repeatedly. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Jews wondered in the desert for 40 years. It rained for 40 days and nights (when Noah was on the ark)."

Emerson invites anyone, regardless of their denomination, to attend either the 7 a.m. imposition of ashes or noon service at his church.

Many other churches will also observe Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes. Some will also include worship services and Holy Communion.



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