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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Ash Wednesday illustration. - Photo by Kirk Montgomery

The season of Lent for Christians of the West begins next week with the penitential day of Ash Wednesday.

Those observing the 40-day period of reflection and repentance leading up to Easter will receive the mark of ashes on their foreheads -- most often in the form of the cross -- from a pastor or priest as a sign of repentance and as a reminder of their mortality.

It's a common tradition in the Western church, but not so in Orthodox Christian congregations of the Eastern church, including Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock. The Rev. Nicholas Verdaris said for his congregation, Lent begins Monday. There is no "Ash Wednesday" in the church calendar.

But Verdaris said the themes in the two traditions are similar.

"We don't use ashes," Verdaris said. "For us, Lent starts on Monday -- we call it Clean Monday -- and on Sunday, we do a service of forgiveness, asking for God's forgiveness and one another's forgiveness so we enter Lent with clear hearts and minds. The idea is it's a day we clear our slate and reorganize spiritually our daily life, so more of our focus is on prayer and alms-giving to draw closer to Christ."

What the East and West will share this year is the celebration of Easter on April 16.

Some years, the two celebrations are weeks apart. The difference in dates happens because Orthodox Christians base the date of Easter -- or Pascha as they call it -- on the old Julian calendar.

Differences between the Julian and the Gregorian (modern) calendars mean Easter only falls on the same Sunday some years, while other years it can be as many as five weeks apart. That was the case last year, when Easter in the West fell on March 27 and Pascha wasn't celebrated until May 1.

"Simply put, Lent is about deepening our relationship with Christ, " said the Rev. Britt Skarda, senior pastor of Pulaski Heights Methodist Church in Little Rock.

The season is often associated with fasting, and in modern times it's become common for people to "fast" from a favorite thing, such as chocolate or Facebook. Skarda said Lent is much more than that.

"It's not a self-improvement plan to make us stronger, healthier or thinner by giving up alcohol, sweets or swear words," he said. "Lent is about recognizing our weaknesses as we let go of those things that draw our attention away from God. Personally, I prefer to focus on positive actions during Lent like mentoring at-risk youth, supporting a local charity or working with organizations like Habitat for Humanity."

Skarda said the church has a long tradition of observing the 40 days of Lent through prayer, study, worship and alms-giving.

"The liturgical cycle of Lent and Easter is the richest time of the year for us," he said.

Some churches and denominations observe the Lenten season and focus solely on the celebration of the Resurrection. For Skarda, the journey of Lent is important, all the way from Ash Wednesday through the days of Holy Week, he said.

"It's impossible to know the ecstasy of the Resurrection without first experiencing the agony of Christ's betrayal and death," Skarda said.

In addition to the focus on prayer, study, worship and alms-giving, this year, his congregation will undertake a project to create a child-care center for economically challenged families at the church's new St. Luke campus.

"Our nation is losing an entire generation of children who do not have access to quality early childhood education and care. Our goal is to begin construction and renovations around Easter in order to open the center in the fall," Skarda said.

Parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Rogers also will receive the mark of ashes as they begin their Lenten journey.

The Rev. Stephen Gadberry, associate pastor, said the palm fronds used during last year's Palm Sunday services are burned to create the ashes that will be used Ash Wednesday.

"Sometimes, they are mixed with a little olive oil," so the ashes will stick together to be smudged on parishioners' foreheads, he said.

As the ashes are smudged on, Gadberry said the priest will say a prayer as a reminder, "That from dirt you came, and to dirt you will return."

"It's a reminder for us, that first day of Lent, to focus on the things that do not pass away," Gadberry said. "We're focusing on the true thing that never dies -- God's love for us. Our body will pass away, our soul will not."

Gadberry said Lent offers a time for intensified prayer and preparation.

"It helps us to be aware of the greatness of what we're about to celebrate," he said.

Each Friday during Lent, St. Vincent parishioners also will participate in the Stations of the Cross, following Christ on his path to the crucifixion.

Gadberry said regular worship services are also different during Lent.

"Our regular worship is simplified a lot, so that we're going to that desert experience," he said. "There's less singing. The colors are purple to remind us of penitence."

At Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, parishioners will fast from meat and dairy products throughout the days of Lent until the celebration of the Resurrection on Pascha.

"People sometimes want to reduce it to a diet, but fasting is done to free up our day and time to do more praying and alms-giving," Verdaris said. "Without prayer, it's meaningless."

Through the act of giving up meat and diary products, Verdaris said, Orthodox Christians are giving primacy to their spiritual lives over the "wants and needs of the material world." The goal is to spend time focusing on prayer and on Christ.

During the season, two services are added to the normal weekly schedule. Each Wednesday, parishioners will participate in what's known as the "Pre-sanctification Liturgy."

"Because Lent is such a deep spiritual exercise, we have the opportunity to receive Communion in the middle of the week to see us through -- to help us be aware of the season we are in," Verdaris said.

He said the Wednesday services are more solemn and subdued than the Sunday services.

"We are contemplating Christ's sacrifice and seeking his grace," Verdaris said.

Each Friday during Lent, parishioners participate in the "Salutation Service."

"It's ancient and poetic," Verdaris said of the service that focuses on Mary for her example of obedience to God.

"We look to Mary and how she responded," he said.

Verdaris said the days of Lent offer parishioners time to prepare for the Resurrection.

"If you focus only on Easter, it passes quickly and you lose sight of the depth and meaning," he said. "By altering our routine, it really helps us appreciate the magnitude of Christ having risen from the dead and we are there following him.

"If we skip that, the meaning can be lost in the noise of life."

Religion on 02/25/2017

Print Headline: Reflect, Repent, Renew

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