Ashes-to-ashes: Lent starts today

Shown are the hands of Reverend Claire Nevin-Field with container of ashes. Saint Peter's Church at 313 Pine St in center city Philadelphia sent two priests to Market St. East on Ash Wednesday to provide ashes for morning commuters as they make their way to work on Wednesday morning February 22, 2012. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
Shown are the hands of Reverend Claire Nevin-Field with container of ashes. Saint Peter's Church at 313 Pine St in center city Philadelphia sent two priests to Market St. East on Ash Wednesday to provide ashes for morning commuters as they make their way to work on Wednesday morning February 22, 2012. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer (Philadelphia Daily News)
Posted: February 22, 2012

Western Christian churches today mark Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the traditional 40-day period of fasting, prayer and penitence before Easter.

To observe the day, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans hold services during which the foreheads of the faithful are marked with the sign of the cross with ashes made from last year's Palm Sunday palms as a sign of repentance and reminder of mortality.

A clergy person or, in some cases, a lay person, applies the ashes with variations of the phrase: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

The Reverends Ledlie I. Laughlin and Claire Nevin-Field, from St. Peter's Church on Pine Street, took to Market East Station this morning to greet pedestrians who could not make it to church.

The reverends were taking part in the Ashes to Go program run by Episcopal parishes.

At Market East, they applied ashes to heads of passersby such as Susan Wyche, a public health worker who was commuting to work, and Maureen O'Hara, a probation officer, also on her way to work.

For Roman Catholics, the Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, was distributing ashes at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

And, in Schwenksville, it was an especially memorable Ash Wednesday as workers placed steeples on the planned Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church.

The Rev. Paul C. Brandt rode the construction lift to help place a 10-foot-tall cross on the bell tower's steeple, about 100 feet above the ground. Children from the parish watched as he did.

The 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays. Easter falls on April 8 this year.

Lent spawned pre-seasonal celebrations such as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnival as a last chance to eat, drink and be merry before the 40 days of self denial began.

Tradition holds that a Philadelphia staple - the soft pretzel - was created by a monk as a Lenten food at a time when the faithful abstained from meat and animal products, such as milk and eggs. Another Lenten staple bestowed to us by German monks is bock beer.

While Lent has traditionally been observed by giving up pleasures, such as sweets, churches now encourage the faithful to do something during the season that will help others or enrich their spiritual lives.

The Eastern Orthodox Church will mark the start of the Great Lent on Monday and it will celebrate Easter on April 15.

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