Re­flect, Re­pent, Re­new

Lent be­gins this week as Chris­tians look for­ward to Easter

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - CHRISTIE STORM

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 that Easter only falls on the same Sun­day on 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 United 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. Skarda said for him, the jour­ney of Lent is im­por­tant, all the way from Ash Wed­nes­day through the days of Holy Week.

“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 the 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/ 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 on 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, “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, 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. On Wed­nes­days, 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 ser­vices on Wed­nes­days are more solemn and sub­dued than the Sun­day ser­vices.

“We are con­tem­plat­ing Christ’s sac­ri­fice and seek­ing his grace,” Ver­daris said.

On Fri­days 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.”

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