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Christians practice Lenten traditions
Believers spend 40 days fasting, praying and reflecting on their lives
Palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to create the ashes for Ash Wednesday. Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville uses dry ashes while other churches use a little oil with the ashes.

Growing up in the United Methodist church, Nancy Page always knew about Lent but rarely observed the reflective Christian season. Her sister, on the other hand, always participated in a unique way.

“My sister thought you should do something for someone,” the Gainesville woman said, noting the common practice of Lent involved giving up something for 40 days.

As an adult, Page tries to do both — give up an item or food she really covets and do something for others.

“Giving up something makes me a better person,” said the 39-year member of First Baptist Church in Gainesville. “But I need to do something that makes me a better person.”

First Baptist Church senior pastor Bill Coates explained Page’s practice of giving up certain foods is a common tradition during Lent.

“Sometimes we eat too much and sometimes we drink too much,” Coates said, noting food is not the only item Christians learn to let go of during Lent. “There may be hatred. Or we say 'I need to let go of a grudge.' Or 'I need to let go of the excess in my life.'”

The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, described the Lenten season as a time for Christians to let go of the life’s distractions.

“Some friends of mine are going to give up Facebook, which I think is pretty remarkable,” he said, with a laugh. “Others are going give up chocolate. Chocolate is a common one. Others give up wine. Several give up alcohol.”

With distractions out of the way, Christians can focus on themselves and their walk with God.

“It is when we look at ourselves and say ‘what kind of life am I living?’” Coates said. “And is it obedience to God?

“(Lent) is a season of meditation, reflection and examination.”

The First Baptist Church pastor said during the 40 days of Lent — which symbolizes the 40 days of temptation of Christ in the desert — Christians can also start good habits. He said some read the Bible more or help others.

Page agrees. In previous years when she gave up sweets or chocolate, she said she reached for the Bible when her cravings arose.

“When I am craving chocolate, I pick up the Bible and read it,” she said. “And I always read the Gospels, because they are all about Jesus and his final days. To me, that’s a lot more of setting the mood I should have.”

Setting the mood for Lent begins with Ash Wednesday.

Higginbotham explained the early church started it as a way for Christians to prepare for Easter.

“You can’t jump into Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter without taking time to prepare,” he said, adding Holy Week is the time between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. “And we need to get our minds and hearts in the right place.”

Many North Georgia churches had an Ash Wednesday service March 5 to mark the beginning of the season, with “mark” being the operative word. During the service, Christians are marked with ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads. The ashes are from the palms used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. While some churches such as Grace Episcopal use dry ashes, others use a little oil with them. But the meaning is the same.

“We say ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,’” Higginbotham said. “It is the reality that we live every day that we are mortal ... and lack so much control we think we have over life.”

Churches also adorn their sanctuaries or chapels in the color of purple.

“Purple represents suffering and royalty,” Coates said.

Royalty refers to the son of God and the king of Christians’ lives, the pastor explained. Suffering symbolizes Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Both encompass the reason for the season.

“Lent is important because of the emphasis of God’s willingness to suffer,” Coates said. “Sometimes the greatest comfort ... is God entering into our suffering with us and that makes it bearable.”

Page, a self-proclaimed chocoholic, said she knows God is with her, especially during Lent.

“I can look at a box of chocolate and I don’t feel” any need to eat it, she said. “I know I’m turning myself over to God.”