Changing seasons

Published 12:35 am Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent — the 40 days of fasting and reflection that many Christians participate in to prepare for Easter Sunday.

The Rev. Antony Pullukattu Xavier, parish priest of Christ the King Catholic Church in Andalusia, said Christians receive ashes today as a way to remember their frail human natures.

“It symbolizes the repentance of our sins,” he said. “We do this because we know we are human beings; we are sinful and we need to get forgiveness from God.”

He said the use of ashes as a sign of repentance is based on the Old Testament account of the prophet Jonah. When Jonah went to the city of Nineveh and preached that God would rebuke the city for its sins, the people of Nineveh put on sackcloth, fasted and wore ashes as a sign of their repentance.

At today’s Mass, the priest will impart ashes to the congregation and tell them, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Blessed palm branches used in last year’s Palm Sunday procession were burned to create the ashes.

“It shows our mortality on earth,” he said. “It also shows we are children of God, because He created us from the dust.”

The Rev. Tim Trent, pastor at First United Methodist Church, said his congregation will use ashes made with a personal touch.

“At our church, we do a special observance around All Saints Day,” he said. “In the bulletin for that Sunday, there is a place for church members to write in the names of those who helped on their personal faith journey — whether living or dead. Then, when they come up for communion, I collect those bulletins.

“We burned those bulletins, as well as our Christmas tree, to create the ashes that will be used in (today’s) service. It’s a little different than what most churches do, but it is meaningful for me and for our church.”

Lent originally started in the first century as a period of 40 hours, as that was considered the amount of time Christ’s body was in the tomb. By 731 A.D., in the time of Emperor Charlemagne, Lent had blossomed to its current length of 40 days, not counting Sundays.

Forty is a symbolic number in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christ was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness; Moses fasted for 40 days on Mt. Sinai; Elijah fasted for 40 days on the way to the mountain of God; and the Israelites spent 40 days in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.

“This is a season of repentance,” the Rev. Trent said. “And therefore, it is also a season of renewal.”

Local churches that plan services for Ash Wednesday include: First United Methodist Church, 6:30 p.m.; St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 6 p.m.; First Presbyterian Church, 7 p.m.; and Christ the King Catholic Church, 12:10 p.m. and 7 p.m.