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Asking the Clergy: Why are ashes dispensed at the beginning of Lent?

The Rev. Wendy C. Modeste of United Methodist

The Rev. Wendy C. Modeste of United Methodist Church of Bay Shore, the Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer of the Church of St. Jude (Episcopal) in Wantagh, and the Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco of St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in West Hempstead. Credit: Jennifer Mercurio; Kerry M. Brady; CNS / Paul Haring

On Ash Wednesday, March 6, Christians will attend church services during which a priest or minister makes a cross on their foreheads with ashes. This week’s clergy discuss the significance of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent — a period of penitence and fasting leading to Easter.

The Rev. Wendy C. Modeste

Pastor, United Methodist Church of Bay Shore

When I was growing up, my family was staunchly Roman Catholic. We went to Catholic school, catechism classes and Mass, prayed novenas and attended all the events of the church. My Aunt Veronica was a nun. So, the special Christian seasons were always celebrated without question.

Ash Wednesday was special because during that time we not only looked forward to the ashes on our foreheads as children, but we received treats: small bags of ashram, parched corn ground with brown sugar to make it look like ashes. Now that I am an adult and a minister, Ash Wednesday has greater meaning. It is a sacred time in the life of the church. The ashes on our foreheads are an outward sign of repentance. (In the Old Testament, the people of God would clothe themselves in sackcloth and ashes and prostrate at the altar in prayer and fasting.)

The 40 days of Lent are a time of remembering Jesus’ journey to the cross for the sins of humanity. So, we make sacrifices by giving up things that bring us pleasure, and we enter a season of prayer and fasting similar to the 40 days following Moses’ time with God and Jesus’ time fasting and praying in the wilderness. The season of Lent ends in darkness with Jesus in the grave. But the greatest celebration for the Christian church is that Jesus rose triumphantly on Easter Sunday. What a time of rejoicing that is!

The Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer

Rector, The Church of St. Jude (Episcopal), Wantagh

My earliest memory of ashes isn’t from Ash Wednesday; instead, it is from this song: “Ring-a-round the rosy / Pocket full of posies / Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.”At the age of 3, I had no notion that this quaint nursery rhyme might have dark origins that refer to the physical symptoms of the Black Death. In retrospect, this song is a perfect tool for teaching about death. No matter how much we try to fight it, death will one day make us all fall down.

Ash Wednesday, which begins the Church’s 40-day Lenten journey to Easter (note that Sundays in Lent are not counted among the 40 days) is an opportunity to reflect upon our mortality. During the appointed time in the liturgy, ashes (which are burned and sifted palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service) are imposed, in the sign of a cross, upon worshipper’s foreheads with the following words being said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979).

Because I am a priest, Ash Wednesday causes me to pause and reflect upon those who received ashes last year and have since died. Some deaths were not surprising while many still leave me shocked and grieving. Through intentionally reflecting upon life and death on Ash Wednesday, we are given the opportunity to focus upon areas of our lives that are separating us from God and our neighbors and subsequently repent and return to God.

The Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco

Pastor, St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, West Hempstead

Jesus prepared himself for his public ministry by fasting 40 days in the desert. Catholics prepare to celebrate Jesus' resurrection at Easter by our own 40 days in the desert known as Lent. Through fasting from food and works of charity, we spiritually prepare to celebrate the most wonderful event of our faith.

Ashes smeared on the forehead in the shape of a cross as Lent begins proclaim our willingness to cleanse our lives of sin. This is a tradition that goes back to Christianity's origins in Judaism in which covering oneself in ashes was a sign of repentance. Traditionally, the words used to bestow ashes have been, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." See the Book of Genesis (3:19) banishing Adam from the Garden of Eden for his sin. They remind us that our earthly life is transitory. We should value our relationship with God more than the things of this world.

We also read in Genesis that "the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) Ashes also remind the believer that just as God created the first Adam from the dust of the ground, so we become a new creation through Jesus’ resurrection.

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