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More are participating in the outward witness of faith on Ash Wednesday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2010 - If you notice a friend's forehead smudged with black, on any of the other 364 days of the year, you likely would mention it so that he or she might face the world with a clean brow.

Skip it today.

Today Christians observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which is the preparation for Easter. Without Lent there would be no Mardi Gras. The shiny beads, parades, boozing and wink-wink self-indulgences of Mardi Gras are supposed to stop on the stroke of midnight when Lent begins.

The outward sign of all this prayerful Lenten refocusing begins with ashes. Clergy anoint the heads of the faithful with ashes at prayer services today. Attendance at some Christian churches will be the year’s third highest -– after Easter and Christmas, or perhaps tying with the turnout for Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter Sunday).

From St. Louis’ City Hall to corner executive offices to local restaurants to Metro buses, you can see thousands of St. Louisans’ foreheads with black smudge of ashes -– a mixture of burnt blessed palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and blessed oil.

It would be hard to miss that it is Ash Wednesday at Beffa's restaurant. Mike Beffa owner of the restaurant at 2700 Olive, at Beaumont, downtown said Wednesday morning, “Every Ash Wednesday there are quite a lot of (ash-smudged foreheads). They come here after Mass at the (St. Louis) Cathedral or St. John’s.”

Ours is a visual age, and ashes remain a strong symbolic reminder of the teaching that all are sinners and that all will die and their bodies will return to the earth. For the first 800 or so years of Christianity, only public sinners who had caused major scandal did public penance by wearing ashes. Then, around 900 or so all Christians were given the ashes on the first day of Lent.

The Catholic Student Center on Forsyth Boulevard across from Washington University not only has a regular Catholic Mass this evening at which the Rev. Gary Braun will anoint the faithful’s foreheads with black ashes but a 12:10 p.m. ecumenical service during which all can receive the blessed ashes to begin Lent.

Tonight, Second Presbyterian Church in the Central West End will mark Ash Wednesday by burning dried, pale palms blessed last Palm Sunday. The service will include placing the palm ashes on congregation members’ foreheads, followed by Communion.

“It’s always well attended,” said Elder James Willock, chairman tof he church’s worship committee. “Each member will decide if he or she wants ashes. Some might choose not to. Lent calls us to a period of reflection. Some members give something up, some take on an act of service. “

On Ash Wednesday Lutherans who work in the Kirkwood area but are members of other Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod churches pray at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood on their lunch hours, executive pastor the Rev. Monte Haun said.

“Most just slip in and don’t say anything. They are very welcome,” he said. Newer Concordia members may have attended other Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod churches that marked Ash Wednesday but never included an imposition of ashes in the services. It is very popular at the Kirkwood church.

Distribution of ashes is “very hit and miss with Lutherans,” Haun said. “A generation ago more Lutherans felt a need to keep distinct from Catholics and didn’t do ashes.” In recent decades, more and more have returned to the medieval practice.

Ashes: Only The Beginning

Many Christians make Lenten resolutions on how they can strengthen their relationship with God before Easter Sunday, which is April 4 this year.

For many that means time for extra prayer and spiritual reading. Pastors and spiritual directors often suggest that people use Lent’s momentum to read the Bible daily or to study the Bible more deeply with a group once or twice a week.

Others vow to visit church for silent prayer during Lent or to attend a midweek service.

Catholic Archbishop Robert Carlson smiled widely when comparing Lent to baseball's spring training in his Ash Wednesday Mass homily at the crowded St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. If they are honest with themselves, many Christians have to admit that they have made scant progress on their spiritual journeys since last Palm Sunday, he said. Lent, with its disciplines, fasting, prayer practices and charity work, gives Christians a "second chance," an opportunity to “fall out of control and into the arms of Christ." They can become ambassadors for Christ, he said. By Lent's end, just like spring training, some will “make it into the majors, some go to the minors and others go home,” he said.

Most Catholic priests suggest that Catholics attend Mass daily for the 40 days as one of their special Lenten practices and that they make time for a weekend or longer religious retreat. About 100 Concordia Lutheran parishioners attend one extra service each week on Wednesdays of Lent. The services includes Lenten hymns, Bible readings, prayers and a Lenten-focused sermon. Lutheran Church Missouri Synod leadership suggest that Lent serves not only as a time to meditate on the suffering that Christ endured on mankind’s behalf but also as an opportunity for Lutherans to reflect upon their own baptism and what it means to live as a child of God.

It gets harder to draw a good number of worshippers on these Wednesday nights, Concordia's Haun said. Schools and the civic community used to avoid scheduling events on Lenten Wednesday evenings, he said. No more.

“They just don’t consider it, and now they don’t even avoid scheduling (sports and events) on Sunday mornings,” Haun said.

At Second Presbyterian, Lenten Wednesday evenings will see a good number of the congregation having a light soup dinner followed by a group study of stewardship. Last year the congregation’s Lenten Wednesday night groups read the Bible using the Lectio Divina prayer practice.

“We hope that they will endeavor through Lent and look forward to ending with Holy Week's service and a beautiful Easter vigil,” Willock said.

The Rev. Gregory Mohrman, the prior of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Louis in Creve Coeur, suggests that people read the Bible using the Lectio Divina practice privately or in a prayer group and that they might start the year round practice in Lent.

In this prayer practice, one begins with a prayer to put oneself in the presence of God, then reads slowly one line at a time pausing for silence frequently. The purpose is not to read the way a scholar would read the Bible or even to finish a few verses but to listen to every word for relevance to the reader’s own life, to understand what God wants to say, Father Gregory said. The aim is to encounter Jesus directly as if the readers could see him with their own eyes.

This millennium-old prayer practice begun by Mohrman’s Catholic religious order, the Benedictines, is rooted in Matthew’s Gospel 4:4: "It is not on bread alone that man lives but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Fasting Linked to Feeding the Poor

While Christians feed their spirits during Lent, from early Christian times fasting was part of Lent. For many Lent was a vegan thing. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians still abstain from eggs, butter and meat. Catholics and some other Christians abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Lenten Fridays.

Before these 40 days of fast, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in English, was the day thrifty families used up the household butter, eggs, sausages and other meat. Somewhere along the way thriftiness turned into the excessive eating and drinking of the Carnival season.

Some churches observe the tradition of using up butter and eggs with buttery pancake suppers. Tuesday night, members of the Second Presbyterian Church revived the custom with a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper. At the other end of the Lenten fast in former times, people with farm or backyard chickens boiled all those eggs freshly laid over 40 days and then painted them pretty colors on Easter Sunday. That is how we got the custom of Easter eggs. Many give up special foods like candy or desserts or they give up other pleasures such as video games or favorite television programs.

Not only do Christians “give up” foods for Lent, but their sacrifice allows them to give to the needy. Alms-giving is part of Lent for many. With high unemployment and housing foreclosures, many people have less money to share. But Lenten gifts are often not from one’s excess but sacrifices from regular food. Some Christians keep a “rice bowl.” One or two nights a week, families eat a very basic dish and abstain from meat, pizza, French fries, ice cream or some other accustomed food, then take the money they would have spent for that food and donate it to the poor.

In his annual Lenten message to the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide, Pope Benedict XVI said: "In these words -- charity, solidarity, fraternity -- lies the key to a true understanding of the responsibility of Christians in the world. Solidarity or charity implies the responsibility to defend and protect the universal dignity of any human being anywhere in the world under any circumstances."

The obligation to promote solidarity and fraternity is too often ignored. Diminishing world hunger is a favorite cause of this pope. More than a billion people live on less than $1.50 a day. AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are devastating the world's poorest nations, and pollution is destroying the air, water and farmable land.

The Vatican, on the pope’s behalf, suggested one example of how people could help beyond their individual donations to the poor. They might get all nations and all airlines to join the UNIT AID project, a fund begun in the last decade by Brazil and France and now backed by 29 countries. Working with the World Health Organization, these nations levy a $1 solidarity charge on airline tickets to buy bulk quantities of anti-AIDS, malaria and TB drugs for distribution in the poor nations.

Many Christians observe Lent by giving time in solidarity with those on society’s margins. Often they use Lent as just a kick off time for year-round charity efforts. Some “feed” minds by teaching an adult or child to read or to do math. Or they may use Lenten resolve to give their talent and time to pass along the gift of making music, painting or simply friendship. They may help the homeless, the unemployed, the housebound, the elderly and those with physical and mental disabilities by talking and, most of all, listening. Other Christians use Lent to help with the earth’s stewardship by selective purchasing and recycling.

This Lent, many are offering gifts to Haitian earthquake survivors either of cash from anyone or the gifts of time and talent.

Religious organization are this nation’s main source of volunteers, a study released this month showed. Between September 2008 and September 2009, 26.8 percent of U.S. citizens volunteered their time. Of those, 34 percent worked through religious organizations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. The second largest source was civic and community groups, which drew about one-third of the number of volunteers helping through relgious groups.

Tuesday evening, Justin Haun, 16, a member of Concordia Lutheran in Kirkwood and son of its executive pastor, was weighing what to “give up for Lent.” He successfully gave up chocolate one year, sodas another year and popcorn a third year. Every time he reached for those treats, then, held back, he’d be reminded what Jesus did for him on Good Friday.

“It’s good to think more about what Jesus did for me," the teen said. "The rest of the year we sometimes don’t think about that enough. I like Lent.”

Patricia Rice is a longtime religion reporter.