Lent, to me, always seems to come so soon after the excitement of Christmas and celebration of the new year. No sooner than we’ve gotten all of the decorations and wrapping paper put away when suddenly, Lent arrives. Two days from now, Ash Wednesday is here.
Christians observe the day as the beginning a Lent, a 46-day period characterized with reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and fasting, leading to Easter Sunday and its celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Many churches conduct Ash Wednesday services during which a priest or pastor marks the foreheads of the faithful with ashes in the shape of a cross, speaking the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes symbolize death and repentance.
Many churches use ashes created by the burning of palm fronds that were used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, referring to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when his followers strew palm branches in his path.
As a Protestant kid growing up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in Baltimore, I was made keenly aware of Lent and Ash Wednesday when I saw many of my friends walking around with gray smudges on their foreheads. “What are you giving up for Lent?” was the popular question then. Some sort of personal sacrifice was called for, and most everyone I knew chose to lay off of such self indulgences as chocolate or sugary drinks, or a bad habit such as gambling.
We joked about the difficulty of sticking with it for 46 days. Others made fun of the practice by vowing to lay off trips to the dentist or taking out the trash.
But Ash Wednesday is serious to believers. It calls on the faithful to concentrate on self reflection and repentance. The services take on a solemn tone and often conclude with the worshipers exiting in prayerful silence.
The Methodist church of my childhood didn’t hold Ash Wednesday services, but the church I now attend, a congregation of the United Church of Christ, has done so for many years, and will again conduct such a service on this Wednesday evening. The Chamber Singers, a 12-voice, a cappella ensemble in which I sing, will provide music.
For me, this service and the period of Lent has always richly nourished me and refreshed my spirit. May it do the same for you, whatever your beliefs.