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Asking the Clergy: Why is Ash Wednesday so meaningful?

Denis Brunelle

Denis Brunelle Credit: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

Christians across Long Island will be celebrating Ash Wednesday on March 1. Many will mark the day by heading to church for the imposition of ashes, which often are made from burned palm leaves from the previous year’s Holy Week. This week’s clergy discuss the meaning behind the traditions of a holy day that begins the Lenten season leading up to Easter, April 16.

The Very Rev. Denis Brunelle

Rector, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, East Hampton

Ash Wednesday begins that period of time we call Lent, which is 40 days long, before Holy Week and Easter. It’s a time the church gives us to reflect on our lives. So, we begin Ash Wednesday with two formulas as the clergy impose ashes on the foreheads of the congregation. The first is, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is a reminder that our life is finite, that we were made of the earth at Creation, and we return as part of Creation to the earth. The second formula is, “Turn away from sin and believe the gospel.” This reminds us that we are imperfect creatures who at times tend to do things that are harmful and hurtful to others, and at times we forget to do things that are helpful to others.

The challenge of belief in the gospel is to be conscious of both. So Lent is the time to fulfill the gospel mandate to love thy neighbor, to give alms to the poor, to pray for those who are oppressed, and to amend our lives to do better, so that on Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, our lives will have changed so that we can participate more fully in the Resurrection event each year.

The Rev. Emily Trubey-Weller

Pastor, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, Hicksville

In many ways, Ash Wednesday isn’t so different from something my tradition practices each Sunday morning. Each week, as a community, we repent: we confess the things we’ve done wrong and receive God’s forgiveness. We repent to reconcile with our neighbor, to know the grace of God, and to go out into the world refreshed, ready to love and serve others. There is a power to this weekly pattern meant to care for us and sustain us in daily living.

Ash Wednesday is meaningful because it’s an entire day devoted to the powerful act of repentance. Together we repent and recognize the reality of human mortality. As an act of penitence, we put on ashes as ancient peoples did. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, a confession that gives life more meaning. Receiving words of reassurance and comfort, we begin a Lenten journey toward the cross.

As the entire church is invited to participate in Ash Wednesday, it’s also an appropriate time for the church as a whole to consider for what it needs to repent: for harm we do when we exclude our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for too often ignoring the least in our society, for times we let racial privilege separate us from others and become deaf to their pain. That sort of radical humility — perhaps especially among Christians and Christian churches — can be a powerful voice for change in our nation, calling us all to greater compassion and oneness.

The Rev. Laurel E. Scott

Pastor, The United Methodist Church of Port Washington

Ash Wednesday is special because of its position at the beginning of the highest and holiest season in Christendom. Specifically, it is the beginning of the season of Lent — a 40-day period preceding the grandest celebration of all — Resurrection Day, commonly known as Easter.

During Lent, believers prepare for Easter by fasting and feasting. It has been traditional in the West to fast from physical pleasures — mostly food. (Some of my girlfriends refrain from buying clothing during Lent, especially shoes and handbags, the purchase and the wearing of which provide a certain emotional pleasure). The 40 days of Lent are all the days other than Sunday, which is always a feast day, or a “little Easter.” So, we do not fast on Sundays. In fact, observers fast from Monday to Saturday and then feast on Sundays.

In recent years, there has been a deeper understanding of fasting to be other than physical/material, and that is fasting from destructive attitudes, approaches, addictions, and such. For practicing Christians, Ash Wednesday is traditionally symbolized by the imposition of ashes on the forehead, and more recently on the palm of the hands. The former placement is for others to see; the latter, for the self to be reminded of the symbol of repentance, which is the ash made from the palms of the previous Palm Sunday.

The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday actually call for a fast, to announce that the time has come for repentance and fasting, to prepare for the astounding event that is about to happen.

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