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Ash Wednesday marks season of Lent

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of Christian self-denial that ends Palm Sunday.

Outside the Roman Catholic Church, these religious holidays are mostly observed by Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations.

“Other churches, I know, do celebrate Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season, and it seems like it’s more and more each year,” said the Rev. John Dowling, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut.

“The Catholic Church has been celebrating it for centuries, and it goes back to the 40 day period that Jesus spent in the desert right after he was baptized,” he added. In the Bible, 40 days is a period of education and preparation, Dowling said, citing the 40 days of rain during Noah’s flood, the 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai with God and the 40 days Jesus spent on earth between his resurrection and ascent into Heaven.

In the tradition of Christ’s time in the desert, Lent is a period of self-denial that includes fasting, prayer and alms giving, or charitable works.

Fasting or giving up something that one enjoys is one of the most recognized characteristics of celebrating Lent. “You’re always trying to give up sin, but in Lent, you focus on your weaknesses, so you try to give up something positive or something that can be considered good so that you can die to yourself,” said Dowling, adding with a laugh that giving up brussels sprouts because you already don’t like them isn’t the proper practice.

“Ultimately, it’s grace that saves, but in order for us to be more open to the grace that God gives us on a daily basis through his son, in order for us to be more open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we need to continue to die to self, and fasting is part of that,” he added.

The day that Lent begins, Catholic celebrants of Ash Wednesday have crosses of ash applied to their foreheads by a priest. According to Dowling, the reason for the ashes is so that each penitent remembers his or her mortality.

Priests may say two phrases as they apply the ashes to a penitent’s forehead: “Remember man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” and “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” These phrases suggest recognition of man’s mortality while acknowledging that death is also the beginning of eternity.

Although it is not required, many people leave the ashes on their foreheads all day or until they shower.

Dowling tells the story of one such woman in his parish: “There was a person in our parish several years ago, who, on Ash Wednesday, went to the early mass. Afterwards she went to the bank. When she went to the bank, she still had the cross on her forehead. The teller was being real nice and she said “Ma’am, you’ve got dirt on your forehead.” The woman replied, “No, that’s Lent.” The teller said, “No, it’s dirt.””

The ashes come from the palms that are used at services on Palm Sunday the year before. They are blessed on Palm Sunday, burnt, and distributed for Ash Wednesday.

Fat Tuesday (and its accompanying Mardi Gras parties) is not part of Catholic dogma. It is instead a secular tradition that has become attached to Lent and its tradition of denying self. In this view, Fat Tuesday is the last day to indulge.

According to Dowling, Lent evolved from the practice of penance in the early church. When people had sinned publicly and caused disharmony in the community (by sins such as murder, adultery, or apostasy, which is denying the faith), they were not allowed to immediately rejoin the church after repentance.

After confession, these people were required by the bishop to do penance. “There are still negative consequences to sin even after Jesus has redeemed us. We take seriously those negative effects and so we have to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the church,” Dowling said.

“We aren’t undermining him [Christ], we’re participating in him,” he added, also saying that Christ has given his followers the ability to participate with him in healing, forgiving, and sacrificing.

This penance would last until Holy Thursday, or the Thursday before Easter, when the penitent would be allowed to rejoin the church, along with any other non-Catholics who wished to join.

Today, the tradition of joining the church on Holy Thursday has become known as “Easter Vigil.” The night before Easter, at astronomical twilight, or when the sun no longer lightens the sky, the service to bring prospective members into the church is begun. This year, astronomical twilight starts at 8:16 p.m.

However, this is not the only time of year that people can be inducted into the Catholic Church. Induction is now often a process, called the RCIA, or Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, in which the potential inductee goes through a class in which he shares his faith and learns about Catholicism. It is not a requirement, but has become a common practice.

But, Dowling says, Ash Wednesday and Lent are really about setting aside time to follow Christ and deny self: “We are told to pick up our cross. Even though he has saved us through his blood and his cross, he tells us to pick up our cross, and this is not to undermine his all-sufficient sacrifice, but it’s to recognize that we participate in his cross.

In order for us to overcome the temptation to be selfish, to be lazy, and to avoid the pain that is associated with sacrifice, we have to take periods to reflect on the many blessings the Lord has given us and to imitate Jesus.”


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