Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and repentance traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations, will begin Wednesday in preparation for Easter.
Great Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches will begin on Monday.
Catholics often view the six-week Lenten period as a time of reflection and self-sacrifice.
Monsignor Timothy Swope, rector of the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel in Loretto, said Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for Easter. Sacrificing during Lent is one way for the faithful to sacrifice as Jesus did, and to improve self-discipline, he said.
By observing the 40 days of Lent, a Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for 40 days.
Swope said the things on which people concentrate during Lent are the ones they should be doing year-round.
“In the spirit of the modern church, we look at three disciplines that signify Lent,” Swope said. “We can give something up, be more prayerful and extend our generosity.”
He suggested giving up a favorite television show or doing less socializing during Lent. For a Catholic, saying a rosary each day may be something that would carry over beyond Lent. People could increase their prayer life, attend a daily Mass, pray the Stations of the Cross at home or do charitable acts to help the needy.
“God is asking us to be good partners,” Swope said. “By contributing to an area food bank or writing an extra check to a charitable organization, it is a wonderful outward sign of doing God’s work.”
Fasting also is a part of Lent, as Catholics are to abstain from eating meat on Fridays, and the faithful fast by eating only one large meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
As people deliberate past failings or faults, Lent offers them a time to turn those imperfections around to become better followers of Jesus Christ.
Significance of ashes
Though the church doesn’t require the faithful to attend Ash Wednesday services, most Roman Catholics make an effort to receive ashes. The imposition of ashes is a solemn ritual that signals the beginning of the holy season of Lent.
“I would estimate a very high percentage of (practicing) Catholics take part because they see this as an external sign of what’s happening on the inside, such as repenting sins and helping others,” Swope said.
The ashes symbolize man’s mortality, and since no one is going to live forever, also symbolize man’s return to dust.
“All the ashes distributed are the remains of blessed palms from a previous Palm Sunday,” Swope said.
The palms are burned, the ashes collected and then crushed into a fine, sooty powder and placed into containers. The ashes are blessed by the priest during the Ash Wednesday Mass.
The six weeks of Lent lead up to the Easter Triduum, which begins on Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, is continued through Good Friday with the celebration of the passion of the Lord and on Holy Saturday reaches its high point with the Easter vigil.
The word “Lent” means springtime, which translates into a spiritual rebirth and again walking the way of the Cross.
Other Christian faiths observe Ash Wednesday and reflect on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Keith Dunn, pastor of Belmont United Methodist Chuch, said ashes will be dispensed during a service at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“The ashes are a remembrance of our mortality and our need for God’s grace in preparation for Good Friday and Easter Sunday,” he said.
Dunn said Lent involves turning away from sin and toward God. To accomplish that, the initial steps are fasting from something in order to grow through sacrifice or by taking on a spiritual discipline such as Bible reading or prayer.
In preparation for Lent, Dunn has been preaching a sermon series titled “What Jesus Said About ...” It is based on Jesus’ teachings as found in Matthew 5-7.
“This is the portion of Scripture commonly called ‘The Sermon on the Mount,’ ” he said.
The series began Feb. 2 and will run through Palm Sunday, April 13.
“We will be using Jesus' words as a starting point for spiritual growth this Lent,” Dunn said.
“Ash Wednesday’s emphasis will be on the proper use of spiritual practices. Throughout Lent, we will be looking at what Jesus said about things such as wealth, worry and being judgmental.”
Period of purification
The Western and Eastern observances of Easter usually are about five weeks apart. But this year the Lenten seasons coincide, as does Easter, which is April 20.
“This occurs about once every four years,” said the Very Rev. Protopresbyter Robert Buczak of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, 300 Garfield St. in Johnstown’s West End.
Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches will begin on Monday.
Ash Wednesday is not observed.
Buczak said no ashes are dispensed because of an Old Testament reading that says, in part: “Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean.” Instead, he said, the church concentrates on several themes during Lent including charity, fasting and prayer.
“The strict fasting discipline for Lent is the denial of all meat, cheese and dairy products in one’s diet for 40 days plus Holy Week,” Buczak said. “Lent is not a sad time, but a way to purify us.”
The infirm, aged or sick often are exempted from a strict fast and encouraged to fast the best they can.
The Lenten fast is broken with the reception of Communion at the Easter Liturgy.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.