Once a year, some Christians start preparing for Easter by having priests mark their foreheads with ashes. The ashes physically remind them of their mortality.
The holy day of Ash Wednesday, which arrives Feb. 18 this year, begins the annual 40-day period called Lent, which leads to and ends with Easter. In some churches, Ash Wednesday services include having ashes placed on worshippers’ foreheads in the sign of the cross.
The Rev. Michael Sullivan of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs described Lent is a spiritual journey.
“By adding a daily practice of denying myself something, I bring greater intentionality to my life with God,” Sullivan said. “For me, Lent is not so much a time to beat myself up and feel bad about myself as it is a time to go within; to take God more deeply into my spiritual journey.”
Sullivan said the ashes used to mark parishioner’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday are prepared from the palm fronds of the previous year’s Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter.
“Ashes remind us that we are made of dust, and that one day, our bodies will return to the earth,” Sullivan said. “Yet at the same time, our dust awaits resurrection at Easter, God’s promise of new life in all things.”
Rev. Samuel Candler of the Cathedral of St. Philip said making the congregation stop and take note of the reason for Ash Wednesday can be tough.
Episcopalians should celebrate the holy day purposefully, not out of habit, he said. “It is a totally voluntary, devotional act, and one should take part only if he or she wants to,” he said.
Sullivan said that in today’s world, marked by instantaneous everything, it is more important than ever to take the Lenten journey. “We don’t naturally practice patience and presence in our daily lives so much anymore,” he said. “Attention, real attention, to others and to our own lives is, well, strained at best.”
Craig Wilson attends a variety of services at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs. He admits he has fallen into the “rut” of making Lent the “season of ‘shoulds,” but this year he said he looks forward to welcoming God into everything he does.
“Held in this light, I am anticipating Ash Wednesday as the ‘beginning of the beginning,’ with Lent being a season of ‘doing with’ instead of ‘doing without’; a season of ‘cans’ instead of a season of ‘shoulds,’” Wilson said. “I can be more intentional and more prayerful in all of my activities, and I can be more aware of God’s presence in my daily life.”
Sullivan said he believes Lent grants people an opportunity to slow down, look within, and nurture the soul that is so often neglected. “It’s also a time to restore relationships with those we love and have hurt, a time to get intentional about being present and with others,” Sullivan said.
“Fat Tuesday,” or Mardi Gras, has its basis in the Catholic calendar, too, according to AmericanCatholic.org. That’s why the enormous parties in New Orleans and other cities end abruptly at midnight, when Ash Wednesday begins.
“I think it’s the last hurrah before getting back on track,” said Monsignor Frank McNamee of Christ the King Catholic Church in Buckhead. “My thing is, we’re always called to holiness, and that’s a great call for each and every one of us. If we get off-track, we have the grace of reconciliation (through confession).”
Though many people associate Lent as a time to give something up, many also take on something extra, like Bible study or attending daily mass, McNamee said. “It’s entering the experience Christ had in the desert,” McNamee said.
Alice Ball of Sandy Springs said Ash Wednesday solemnly reminds her that she lives and dies like all creation. “It’s a day for reflection and reminding me that I’m a part of all that is,” she said. “I have a beginning, middle and end.”
Candler said the connection of Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday comes from the tradition, in the past, of Christian communities wanting to use up all their fat or leavening before Lent—a season of fasting—started.
People refrained from using fat in their foods during Lent, he said. On the night before Ash Wednesday, they used up all their remaining leavening and fat to make cakes.
Many churches still host pancake suppers on Fat Tuesday, Candler said.
“Of course, since Lent was meant to be a penitential season, a somber season, many people also used the Tuesday before to get all the partying out of their system,” Candler said.