Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent

By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal

Many, but not all, Christians in Northeast Mississippi begin an ancient liturgical season, Lent, next week with an observance dating from about the 8th century called Ash Wednesday.
Lent is the 40-day period before Easter when the focus turns to reflection, confession, prayer and scriptural studies, and in some traditions, fasting.
Ash Wednesday originally was called in Latin dies Keenum (day of ashes). An early reference is mentioned in the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century.
One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday comes from the Abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his “Lives of the Saints” he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material, is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. An early reference is found at the very end of the book of Job. Job, rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3.
In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Services in churches that follow closely the liturgical practices of Western Christianity (Eastern Orthodox Christians generally do not have Ash Wednesday in their calendars) will invite believers to begin Lenten observance with the “imposition” of ashes on their foreheads in the sign of a cross.
In some traditions Ash Wednesday is a day of obligation; in some participation is not required but strongly encouraged.
The practice is universally used by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans and widely used among United Methodists and Presbyterians.
An ordained minister usually imposes the ashes on the heads of lay persons, giving the rite two perspectives.
The Rev. Carson Overstreet, associate minister at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, has spent most of her life participating as a member of the laity, receiving ashes. She was ordained in 2011 in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and finds herself on the other side of the service this year.
“I think anytime we can make God’s grace tangible it can make God’s grace even more powerful,” Overstreet said.
Overstreet said her first-ever Ash Wednesday service became “a way for me to begin to reflect on Lent, the journey of Lent, to the hope of the Resurrection on Easter – to genuinely reflect on Christ’s love for us.”
As a minister, Overstreet said imposing ashes on the forehead of a child will be a moving experience.
Dick Hill, a retired businessman, has been a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church for 53 years. Hill said he has been a regular participant in Ash Wednesday services since he was a high school student in another state.
“It is the beginning of a journey,” Hill said. Hill said he especially values the words “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” used in the ritual.
His minister, Pastor David MacKain, said Lutherans consider Ash Wednesday strongly connected to Easter, with the notion that “we are partakers in faith, and that we take it seriously through repentance, and humbling ourselves before the Lord.”
It is a reminder of redemption, MacKain said, and “we consider that it would be helpful if all would observe it.”
Nettie Davis of Tupelo, who is a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church, said she finds the service enriching because it focuses on everything Jesus Christ went through before there was resurrection.
“I think of it as directly related to the crucifixion,” Davis said.
Davis’ minister, the Rev. Gloria McKinney, said she incorporates imposing ashes in the context of Bible study on Ash Wednesday, offering it to “whosoever would come” and respecting those who decline participation.
McKinney said she uses a brief United Methodist ritual which, she says, places emphasis on “our coming from dust and returning to dust as we approach the cross and Easter.”
McKinney noted the United Methodist observance has its roots in Roman Catholic liturgy and that there has been “lots of crossover” among the churches.
joe.rutherford@journalinc.com

Community Lenten Services
The Tupelo Ministerial Association’s series of Lenten lunches and brief mid-day services begins at noon Thursday at First Presbyterian Church, and follows each week at a participating church, concluding March 29.
The Rev. Paul Stephens, priest at All Saints’
Episcopal Church, said the series is designed
as a “launching point” for all Christians in the community to participate together in Lenten.
The other services will follow:
• March 1, Calvary Baptist Church

• March 8, St. Luke United Methodist Church

• March 15, St. James Catholic Church

• March 22,, All Saints’ Episcopal Church

• March 29, Lucedale Presbyterian Church

“Everyone is welcome. Donations will be accepted for the light lunches,” Stephens said.
He said services will conclude shortly before 1
p.m.