Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin the Lenten journey toward Easter

Woman with glasses standing with eyes closed, hand with white sleeve touching her forehead

A woman receives ashes on her forehead at an Ash Wednesday service. Photo John Ragai, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10: Ashes on-the-go?

As the majority of the world’s Christians enter Lent, fasting and abstinence open the season leading to Christ’s Passion and Easter. Today, many Christians commemorate Ash Wednesday by receiving ashes on their foreheads—a tradition held since the Middle Ages. In today’s busy world, however, more and more people may be unable to attend a weekday mass, and so congregations are heading to the streets or delivering ashes in “drive-thru” style.

For Ash Wednesday services, though it is custom to burn palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to prepare the ashes,  the process can be messy for those not accustomed to the procedure. As a result, the majority of churches these days order ashes in sealed containers prepared by Christan-supply companies. During Lent, Christians reflect, pray and renew their commitment to Christ.

Eastern and Western Dates: Though dates for the Eastern and Western Christian observances of Lent and Easter (Pascha) coincide some years, they fall more than one month part in 2016. This year, the Western Christian Lent begins February 10, with Easter slotted for March 27; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on March 14 and Pascha falls on May 1.

WHO ARE ‘WESTERN’ & ‘EASTERN’ CHRISTIANS?

Our reporting often refers to Western and Eastern branches of Christianity and, especially in Lent 2016, these two huge branches of Christianity around the world are on distinctively different schedules.

How many ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Christians are there? Roughly one third of the world’s population identifies as Christian. That’s 2.2 billion people, according to the worldwide study of religious populations by Pew researchers. The “Eastern” or “Orthodox” branch of Christianity usually is estimated at a little more than 250 million adherents, which means that most Christians around the world follow “Western” customs.

ASHES: DRIVE-THRU AND ‘TO-GO’

Silver bowls of ashes on wood

Bowls of ashes for Ash Wednesday services. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As more people globally have busy schedules and less free time during the week, congregations are coming up with new ideas to bring the Church to the people. In Novi, Mich., the Novi United Methodist Church will be one congregation offering “Drive-Thru Ashes” this Ash Wednesday, from 7 a.m. -11 a.m. Pastors and volunteers will provide ashes and prayers and, according to the church, people do not need to exit their vehicles to receive the services.

In 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations took to the streets with prayer and ashes for people in suburban train stations, with efforts that evolved into the global website AshesToGo.org. Here, people can find lists of participating churches and their locations, in the U.S., UK and more. Though the website has not been updated since last year, the overwhelming news is that more and more congregations are bringing Ash Wednesday services outside of church walls.

Looking for a reflective resource? Check out Our Lent: Things We Carry, a 40-day and 40-chapter inspirational book that connects stories from the life of Jesus with the real things we experience today.

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