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Ash Wednesday, Lent help connect believers to God

Whether Tuesday brings with it noshing on pancakes or doughnuts, the next day, Ash Wednesday, begins Lent, the 40-day period of meditation and self-examination leading up to Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Even the ashes that are usually placed on the forehead of the worshipper on Ash Wednesday are representative of passages from scripture.

“The ashes that we use for Ash Wednesday come from the palms from Palm Sunday, from the year before. We collect all the used palms over the past year and then we burn them and that creates ashes. The reason why we use them on Ash Wednesday goes back to the Old Testament. For a long time, ashes were always a sign of repentance and what is known as mortification,” Father Brian Van Fossen, of St. Joseph the Worker, said.

He explained that mortification is a spiritual practice where something uncomfortable, like ashes or burlap, is worn or sat on to show humility or that the person has done something wrong. The practice is commonly portrayed in the Old Testament.

“The reason why we use the palms is all about ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ We have joy that Christ is coming into our lives,” he said, referring to the account of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

“He is in our lives and it’s beautiful, but the question comes into play, how have we lived up to that. When we look back on the year, we realize we may not have allowed that hosannas or that way of living to really reflect our lives. We have fallen short of our promises to the Lord and to living a life of holiness,” he continued.

“Because of that, the palms from Palm Sunday are that which reminds us for the ashes of Ash Wednesday, that we need to turn more to the Lord…like the other people throughout the Old Testament, to turn to the Lord and ask for His strength and His help,” he added.

Ashes are usually placed on the forehead of the worshipper, representing the cross of Christ. This year because of COVID, those who come to St. Joseph the Worker will have ashes sprinkled on the head instead which is an ancient practice.

“Most of Europe and most of the ancient practices of Ash Wednesday is for the person to bow before the Lord and have ashes sprinkled on the crown of their head,” Van Fossen explained.

“It’s already itchy enough when it’s on your forehead. You find yourself scratching your head a little bit. But it’s even more itchy when it’s all over your head,” he added.

The ashes are left on the head for the entire day, which is uncomfortable, signifying the mortification Van Fossen mentioned.

Ash Wednesday is also a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence.

Van Fossen said that all are called to abstain from meat that day but because not everybody can afford it, other foods that even the “poorest of the poor” can afford, such as bread, can be abstained from.

“We are all in this together. Whoever you are. No matter where you’re coming from. We’re all in this together,” he said.

Fasting is reserved for people who have no underlying health conditions.

“Again, it creates that hunger, but it also creates a hunger for God and our relationship with God. It mirrors a spiritual reality that we’re striving for through Lent,” he stated.

Van Fossen admitted that Ash Wednesday is often misunderstood.

“People have looked at it as something I’ve got to get done, something to cross off the list. But, it’s much more than that,” he said.

“It’s not just crossing God off the list and saying, well I did that for you God, I’m done. It is that introspection. It is that sense of how do I live my life. How can I make living my life better in the next 40 days,” he added.

St. Joseph the Worker will be offering ashes at services throughout the day on Wednesday.

At Christ Episcopal Church, people can stop in to receive ashes from noon until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. What is known as a finger cup will be used to place the ashes on the person’s forehead, according to the Rev. Kyle Murphy, pastor of the church. The cups are then thrown away between people.

“I’m not having full skin-on-skin contact with people who don’t desire it,” he said.

The ashes Murphy uses have been mixed with oil that has been blessed by the Bishop and then they are used for Ash Wednesday.

“The ashes remind us of our need for repentance,” Murphy said. ‘To return to God. To repent of any of the evil and sin that enslaves us and to return to the Lord our God as scripture tells us.”

Murphy said that the ashes can also remind us of our mortality. He referenced a phrase often used at burial services, which states, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

“All of us go down to the dust. But even at the grave we make our song, alleluia,” he added.

For Lent, Murphy has put together what he calls “Lent in a Box.” The box contains prayer prompts, meditations and scripture, as well as what he describes as “tangible items to engage the senses, inviting us to use our whole body, mind and spirit to connect with God through the five weeks of Lent.”

Admitting that he did not create the concept, he said that it is often done with children.

“There were two reasons I wanted to do it. First, because we’re so connected digitally. So much of our life now is constantly on the computer…that I wanted to get back to the simple basics of ways to connect to God that didn’t involve technology, that was engaging all of our sense,” Murphy explained.

“It is also a way to invite those who can’t connect for various reasons, or who don’t want to connect. Perhaps the elderly or those without internet connections or computers. It gives them a way to participate in Lenten practices,” he added.

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