Ash Wednesday services
Grace Episcopal Church
When: 12:10 and 7 p.m.
Where: Corner of Washington Street and Boulevard, Gainesville
Gainesville First United Methodist Church
When: Noon and 6 p.m.
Where: 2780 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville
More info: www.gfumc.com
St. Michael Catholic Church
When: 9 a.m., 12:15 and 6:30 p.m.
Where: 1440 Pearce Circle, Gainesville
More info: www.saintmichael.cc
When more than 2 billion Christians around the world begin observing Lent next week, they will do so in a variety of ways.
Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 18 this year, will mark the beginning of the Lenten season, which consists of the 40 days leading up to Easter.
Traditionally, Lent is seen as a time of reflection in the Christian community. Those who observe the season must alter themselves and their habits to reflect on the true meaning of Easter and the promise of Christ’s rebirth.
In the Episcopal denomination, Lent actually begins the day before Ash Wednesday, with the observance of Shrove Tuesday.
“The word ‘Shrove’ comes from an old English word, shriven, and to be shriven of your sins is to be shed of them,” said the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park, associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. “We enter the season of Lent by beginning with a full private or group confession of our sins, so that we start with a clean slate.”
On Ash Wednesday, Grace Episcopal will offer two services — at 12:10 and 7 p.m. — which will include the Imposition of Ashes.
The Imposition of Ashes is observed across several denominations of Christianity and has its roots in Genesis 3:19. It reminds mankind “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
“That’s a very solemn service where we take the palm fronds that we waved the previous year on Palm Sunday and we burn them and use their ashes to mark each person with the sign of the cross,” Park said.
After Ash Wednesday, Episcopalians, similar to many other Christians, may embark on a series of tasks or patterns of altered behavior intended to help them better contemplate the meaning of Easter.
In the Catholic church, abstinence from meat is observed on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) by all Catholics ages 14 and older.
“Lent is a season for prayer, fasting and almsgiving,” said Patricia DeJarnett, an official in charge of ceremonies with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, in a bulletin to priests and deacons. “In order to see that our preparation for Easter has a communal, and not just an individual dimension, the church gives us certain norms for a common Lenten observance.”
In 2011, more than 50 percent of the world’s Christian population identified as Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.
According to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Catholics between 18 and 59 years of age, except for those who are “sick, pregnant, or nursing, or whose health would be adversely affected by fasting or abstinence.”
In the Episcopal church, parishioners aren’t required to fast, but they are encouraged to either remove something from their lives or take something on in Lent’s 40-day course.
“Other people take an opposite view about how to observe the season and that is rather than doing without things, they will take on something,” Park said. “This is a very Episcopalian twist on Lent. And that is some people will set out during these 40 days to read everything C.S. Lewis has written, do extra Scripture readings, do an affirmatively positive practice that ennobles them.”
Dr. Richard Puckett, lead associate pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, says while modern times may make a season of contemplation more difficult to pursue, it may also actually make it more desirable.
The Methodist church recommends “introspection, meditation” and “disciplines like fasting and prayer” to help people prepare spiritually for Easter Sunday.
“I think you can tell from the recommendations themselves, it’s harder to slow down and do some thoughtful reflection on where you are as an individual in terms of positive and negative behaviors and practices,” Puckett said. “I think our culture doesn’t encourage that, but I think there’s a hunger for that in individuals and a lot of times in groups.”
When the pace of life feels overwhelming, focusing on the meaning of Lent may help individuals relearn their place in the universe.
“We feel somehow that there’s something missing, or that the pace is driving us forward without having any time to think about where we’re going,” Puckett said. “I think if people can connect that kind of hunger to just stop and think about who we are and where we are with the specific practices themselves, I think that is very attractive to folks.”
Whether it is observed through meditation, fasting or contemplation, the Lenten season is a time to get back to the true basics of life.
Park said Lent is ultimately an opportunity “to remind us this is serious stuff, this life we have been given, and it is intended to be seriously engaged,” she said. “Lent is an excellent opportunity to be serious about life.”