From left, the Rev. Douglas R. Arcoleo of St. Catherine...

From left, the Rev. Douglas R. Arcoleo of St. Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Barbara L. Whitlow of First United Methodist Church of Central Islip and Hauppauge United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Joann Heaney-Hunter of St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church. Credit: Dianne Ryan; Morgan Campbell; St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church

On Feb. 22 many Christians will be going to church to receive ashes in observance of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This week’s clergy discuss how the midweek holy day helps prepare believers for a season of penitence, fasting and prayer ending with the April 9 celebration of Easter.

The Rev. Douglas R. Arcoleo

Pastor, St. Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Church, Franklin Square

The football season ended on Super Bowl Sunday, and the season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Both rituals draw millions every year, but it’s the opening ceremony of Lent and its 40 days of reflection, prayer and repentance that we tune into now.

Neither Ash Wednesday nor ashes do anything automatically to prepare a person for Lenten self-sacrifice and discipline. Lenten self-sacrifice and discipline, however, do prepare a person for their return to the dust from which they were made. Aware of that return and confident of God’s grace and mercy, our game plan changes, and with help from Ash Wednesday and ashes, we promise to repent and believe in the Gospel. Prompted by the Lord’s command to pray, fast and give alms, Lent is a turning point in the game of life. Ash recipients embrace Lenten discipline, and manifest their love for God and neighbor by producing actions of self-sacrifice as signs of our repentance. We sacrifice our hunger for food, and we feed the hungry. We sacrifice our desire for riches, and we give to the poor. These ashes put into actions help us fly like an eagle when we hail the chief to whom we all must make a return.

The Rev. Joann Heaney-Hunter

Pastor, St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hicksville, and associate professor, St. John’s University, Jamaica, Queens

On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we promise to turn away from sin and change our hearts. Receiving ashes is an ancient sign of this promise. In early Christianity, adults were baptized after a period of extensive preparation. Accepting baptism presumed that a person had turned from sin. From historical writings, we know that if, after baptism, someone did something seriously wrong they spent months or even years seeking forgiveness. They attended church in scratchy sackcloth and placed ashes on their heads to show their repentance. They did not receive Holy Communion. Each Easter, those who completed their penance received Holy Communion and took off their sackcloth and ashes.

In time, public penance disappeared from church practice. Instead, Christians participated in Lent, a 40-day season of preparation for Easter. Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday reminds us to be sorry for our sins so we can change our hearts. Like making a New Year’s resolution, it helps us renew our commitment to Christian life. Ashes are distributed in many churches on Long Island. May Ash Wednesday help us remember what Lent means and where it leads.

The Rev. Barbara L. Whitlow

Pastor, First United Methodist Church of Central Islip and Hauppauge United Methodist Church

On Ash Wednesday believers around the world focus on the sins of humanity and on our restoration through faith in Jesus Christ. Ash Wednesday demonstrates a public witness of our faith as believers’ foreheads are marked with ashes by the priest or pastor who says, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and follow Christ.”

The 40 days of Lent symbolize other biblical examples of self-discipline, repentance and renewal. The Great Flood lasted for 40 days, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Elijah wandered through the desert for 40 days, and Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.

Ash Wednesday prepares our hearts and minds to be strengthened by God to live out the same virtues that Christ demonstrated for us. Jesus called his disciples to a life of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Jesus told his disciples, "Anyone who wishes to follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." (Matthew 16:24) Ash Wednesday prepares believers to set aside their own worldly understanding and endure whatever may happen to them because of their commitment to follow the ways of Jesus Christ.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. 

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