Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, has traditionally been observed by mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. Other churches have now begun to observe this ancient practice. Many scholars and biblical historians trace Ash Wednesday and Lent to the 10th century. While it is not biblically designated, neither are Easter and Christmas, though most Christian traditions observe those holidays.
On Ash Wednesday — which falls on Feb. 18 this year — clergy apply ashes in the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, intoning “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” from Genesis 3:19, or something similar. This reminds us of man’s ultimate fate without forgiveness. The 40-day period of Lent then begins, ending on Holy Saturday (April 4 this year). Lent is observed as a time for reflecting on our spiritual condition, foreshadowing Easter, which signifies forgiveness.
Many local churches offer Ash Wednesday services to observe the beginning of Lent. ADN’s Matters of Faith notices (below) mention some, while a simple Google search reveals many others. Use search terms “2015 Anchorage Ash Wednesday.”
Ash Wednesday innovations
Some local pastors have begun a wonderful practice of taking the ashes to the people. Several Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park to apply ashes to the foreheads of those who desire them. Other clergy take ashes to the people, notably the Rev. Sara Miles, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, whose experiences are described in her book “City of God.” (You can see an interview here at tinyurl.com/mwdgx2y.)
Christ United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, offers drive-thru ashes with “Ashes to Go,” moving an activity of the church to where the people are. This is a most basic Christian concept. Didn’t Christ minister to the people where they were? I encourage this concept for Anchorage.
I was intrigued by an account by Richard Beck, chair of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology Department, of an initial celebration of Ash Wednesday last year. ACU is a conservative school of the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist denomination. In response to my amazement, Beck said, “There are a lot of CoC congregations that are exploring Lent and the liturgical calendar. It’s an increasingly common thing in our denomination.”
Rabbit Creek Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, will celebrate Ash Wednesday for the first time with services at 6:30 p.m. They join a growing number of Baptist churches embracing this meaningful practice.
Muldoon Community Assembly, an Assemblies of God Church, will be imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Pastor Kent Redfearn said, “Very few AG churches give Ash Wednesday and Lent any consideration. I like the symbolism and practice of repentance, abstinence, fasting and prayer, so we dabble in both Ash Wednesday and Lent.”
Traditionally, Lent has been seen as a time of giving up certain things. Some pastors now encourage congregations to adopt something new during this period of reflection, such as volunteering, spending more time with family, or renewing prayer life.
Orthodox Lenten practices differ from Western Christianity
The three Orthodox traditions in Alaska follow Eastern Christianity practices. For example, the Rev. Vasili of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox advises they do not observe Ash Wednesday but that Great Lent begins on Monday, Feb. 23 or Sunday evening with “Vespers of Forgiveness — in which all the members of the parish greet each other to ask, and to grant, forgiveness for all the ways that we have ‘missed the mark’ (Greek word for ‘sin’ means to miss the mark) in the previous year. We ask for forgiveness not only for the things that have directly affected others, but also for our sins that indirectly affect the entire cosmos.”
Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey said, “Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition has six weeks and five Sundays, and Holy Week is in addition to this fast and is considered a separate fast of its own. Since there are 42 days in the six weeks, we drop off the first Sunday, which is called forgiveness Sunday and all the faithful gather to begin Lent in the afternoon by asking each other for mutual forgiveness. We greet each other with the phrase, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ and we reply, ‘God forgives, and so do I.’ Or something similar. (Actually the phrase ‘God forgives’ is sufficient). We also drop off the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which is observed as ‘Lazarus Saturday’ in the Orthodox Church, a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, and the fasting is relaxed on this day.”
The Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River says they follow the same basic practices described above.
Local Catholic practices support the faith
Archbishop Roger Schwietz offered his insights about Ash Wednesday. “The imposition of ashes on the forehead seems to speak powerfully to people today and is very popular. It reminds all of the temporary nature of our life on this earth and is perhaps more relevant in a world filled with insecurity. This is true even for young adults. We have a group of students at UAA who are organizing a service on campus, at which I will preside at 2 p.m. on Ash Wednesday.”
The Rev. Leo Walsh, of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, says his parish has embraced the “New Evangelization” movement by focusing on “whole community catechesis” “to evangelize and form disciples for witness in the community.” He further notes Ash Wednesday and Lent provide opportunities “to educate and celebrate this holy season of 40 days so that we will be prepared for the celebration of the Resurrection.”
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book “Remember You Are Dust,” writes, “Our life is a gift from God. We are dust, we are creatures. And God remembers that. We need to be humble, and yet at the same time remember that God remembers our creatureliness and gives us grace and love and forgiveness. We are dust, our lives are not our own, we serve a greater power.”
I strongly believe Ash Wednesday and Lent can help to focus our minds on a deeper understanding of the riches that culminate in Easter’s celebration.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.