Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin Lent

Priest in purple vestments with one hand raised to forehead of woman, other in line behind her

Marking the foreheads of the faithful with ashes at Southwark Cathedral, in England. Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18: Lent commences today for more than a billion Western Christians. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, due to variances in church calendars, will start Lent about a week later following Cheesefare Sunday on February 22 (when Orthodox Christians who plan to observe the fast of Great Lent will have their last taste of cheese until Easter). February 23 is called Clean Monday, the start of that challenging fasting period for Eastern Christians.

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although most churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections. (Learn more from Wikipedia and Catholic.org.)

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan. Lent similar marks 40 days, not counting Sundays.

‘ASHES TO GO’
& CHINESE NEW YEAR EXEMPTIONS

In a nationwide effort to bring ashes to those too busy to attend church services, pastors and laypersons are visiting train stations, malls, public parks, coffee shops and college campuses to mark the foreheads of the faithful. From California to Minneapolis, congregations are reporting excitement for this new approach to an old ritual. Leaders report that “Ashes to Go” allows faith traditions to be carried outside the walls of the church to the places where people are on an average day. (Check out stories from ABC News and the Ashbury Park Press.)

In Manila, the Archdiocese has granted a 2015 episcopal jurisdiction exemption or dispensation from the obligation of fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday to Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics, in regard for the coinciding of Ash Wednesday with the eve of the Chinese New Year. It has been emphasized, however, that those who choose to accept the dispensation are required to engage in other forms of penance and charity.

ACTIVITIES & MORE

Families interested in counting the days of Lent can try a “Lent calendar,” similar to an Advent calendar, in which children can place a sticker on each day as it ends (a calendar can be downloaded here). Alternatively, FishEaters suggests a “Lent chain,” for which children create 40 pieces of paper inscribed with kind acts and prayers. Each day of Lent, the children cut a link and perform the day’s act or prayer.

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