It’s not a cheerful thing to ponder, the ultimate fate of your physical body. But that’s what many Christians will contemplate March 1, when they observe Ash Wednesday at local churches. In Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and some Protestant faith traditions, observers will stand or kneel to receive a mark made by ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. This accompanies words the scriptures record God saying to Adam after his fall: “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you will return.”
Holy Comforter Roman Catholic Church
“It’s the opening of Lent, the 40 days of preparation for Easter,” explained Father Joseph Mary Lukyamuzi of Holy Comforter, the Charlottesville Roman Catholic Church administering the Crozet Catholic mission. “It’s required for us to offer the ashes.”
For Catholic adults, Ash Wednesday is a fast day, and no meat is served during the day.
Some fast every Wednesday and Friday, but that’s completely optional, Lukyamuzi said. Since Easter is always on a Sunday, the first of the 40 days preceding it will always be on a Wednesday. The ceremony (it’s called the “imposition of the ashes”) is always accompanied by a mass.
Ashes as a symbol date back to the Old Testament, when people marked themselves with ashes as a sign of repentance, guilt, or mourning. The period of 40 days and nights as the chosen period of repentance may be even more ancient, possibly even from pagan times. And in the Bible, “The 40-day time period is symbolic and comes up over and over,” Lukyamuzi said.
He explained other symbols associated with Lent. Most Catholic churches have the 14 stations of the cross, visual markers of Christ’s last hours, permanently installed. “In the early days of Christianity, everyone was encouraged to go to the Holy Land and follow in the footsteps of Christ,” he said. “As the church grew and Jerusalem changed hands, that became impractical, so people could use these images instead.”
As sad as any reflection on death can be, especially coming at the coldest and darkest period of the year, Lukyamuzi encourages his congregation to use the time to find inspiration as well. “It’s a good time to reflect on your life and to be conscious of what is expected of you,” he said.
Ashes will be imposed at Holy Comforter at 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. masses.
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
Lent is observed in the Orthodox tradition, said V. Rev. Fr. Robert Holet of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Greenwood. There’s Easter (called “Pascha”) that is set differently from the West, although Holet says this year they happen to be the same day. “We do not have an Ash Wednesday per se,” he said, “since Lent begins the previous Monday.” The tradition is to mark a couple of the Sundays preceding Lent as the last chance to eat meat and the last chance to eat cheese before the fast, so that no food will be wasted.
There are plenty of venerable rituals in this tradition as well: “The services actually begin with special vespers prayers on Sunday evening before the first day, when there is a special service of mutual forgiveness.” The rest of the first week, he says, is a time of prayer and penance with services every night, including prostrations asking God for forgiveness of sins. The Church also encourages charitable works during this time. On Saturdays, there are special prayer remembrances for the dead.
“Great Lent” at St. Nicholas includes observances almost every day. To find times, go to the website: stnicholasorthodoxchurch.com.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy, Rev. Dr. Eric Liles will prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday the Sunday before from the palm fronds handed out on Palm Sunday. “We ask those who can to return them,” he said. “You can also get them from a special religious supply house.” In both cases, there’s a ceremony involved in the burning.
Without Ash Wednesday, there would be no Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), he explained. Traditionally, congregations would clean out their larders in preparation for the fasting of Lent, so in those pre-refrigeration days, feasting was called for to consume the rich foods forbidden for 40 days.
Liles will display a set of stations of the cross in frames, woodcuts made by artists at New City Arts, who printed a set for two Charlottesville churches as well as St. Paul’s. “We keep the church open during the day so anyone can come in and make the stations,” he said.
There’s some argument between people of faith traditions in whether to wear the ashes all day or to wipe them off. “Some say not to advertise penance,” he said. Supporters of wearing the ashes point out that you are already in public when you receive them. “And some people want to give witness to their faith,” Liles said.
There’s another interesting dichotomy he sees: “It’s fascinating that religions that stripped all ritual out of their services are adding them back in. It’s a global trend. People just crave rites of passage.”
Imposition of the ashes at St. Paul’s will be at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Crozet United Methodist Church
Pastor Sarah Evancho of Crozet United Methodist Church agrees: Millennials and young adults in this digital age want tangible encounters that they can document in some form. “They’ll take photos to bear witness,” she said. “This is the emergent movement.”
Children in the preschool will have a chance to bear witness in an age-appropriate way.They’ll receive ashes, along with a card that explains the symbol and a prayer, she said. And those on their way to work can receive ashes in the open area near the parking lot, beginning at 7 a.m. A more traditional service will be at 7 p.m. at the church.
As for the stations, Evancho says the stained glass windows in the church depict the whole life of Christ, not just the passion. She hopes to identify the ones documenting the journey to Calvary for those wanting to use them as a focus of meditation during the season.
All services, including the imposition of the ashes, are available to all, she said: “You don’t have to be a church member.”
Informal imposition of the ashes will begin Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. outside the church; the evening church service will be at 7 p.m.