After yet another snowstorm this week, spring seems a long way off, but theologically speaking, it could be just around the corner.
"Starting this Wednesday, that is kind of a hopeful sign there," McLaughlin pointed out about the possibility that winter might finally be drawing to a close.
Snow or not, Christians from around Harford County will be observing the start of the Lenten season in a number of ways.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the solemn season that traditionally spans 40 days leading up to Easter, a time Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels.
"Lent is a special time for Catholics and Christians in general," Monsignor James Barker, at Hickory's St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, said Monday.
His parish will hold five services on Ash Wednesday, three Masses and two prayer services.
He expects them to be as popular as always.
"They usually are pretty full," Barker said.
Ash Wednesday and Lent, he said, are "a call to look at our lives and reform them, to open our hearts to God, to give up certain things as a way of identifying more with our own neediness... and also to do works of charity."
St. Ignatius parishioners will participate in the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, Barker said.
On the charity end, they will also take part in a collection for Care Night Food Ministry and help the Welcome One homeless shelter and Birthright Pregnancy Resource Center at Anna's House.
"Like every Lent, we try to focus on sharing with the parishioners that our lives are short," Barker said. "Our hope as Christians is to share eternity with the Lord."
Barker said he has seen greater interest in spirituality during this season, with small groups becoming "more popular than ever."
"I think there is a real yearning for understanding the Lord and being close to the Lord," he said. "People want help and support on their spiritual journey."
From ashes to keys
The most popular sign of Ash Wednesday observance continues to be the practice of having cross-shaped ashes placed on one's forehead.
"It's a sign that we are a Christian and we are striving to live life as a Christian, as Jesus did," Barker said.
McLaughlin, who has been at the Methodist Mt. Zion Church for 26 years, said his church began doing an ash service quite a while ago.
"They didn't have an ash service when I came here years ago," he noted.
"I think I have seen, actually, more interest through the years... kind of focusing more overall on ancient traditions," he said about Ash Wednesday and Lenten rituals, which are traditionally associated more with Catholic churches.
"I think it's to remember this great sacrifice, this bond of love that God has made for us, and it inspires us to sacrificially love others," he said.
He wants to focus on the hope that the cross is "the anchor of our soul," as the Bible states, McLaughlin said.
"I think that a lot of people are very uneasy about where life is heading, a lot of uncertainty, and just where things are going," he said, adding that he sees Lent as being about "the love of God shown to us there on the cross."
Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bel Air will hold three services on Ash Wednesday, and is also offering Ashes To Go, a "by-appointment" ash service that has been taken up by Episcopal churches around the country.
The Rev. Mark Gatza said Emmanuel is "following a very ancient and traditional pattern" with the ash ceremony.
Gatza, however, likes to tell people that the ceremony is actually revolutionary because it technically contradicts the day's message, in which Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces."
"We do this even in full recognition that it is contradictory to the message of the Gospel that day," Gatza said.
He believes that shows the contradictory nature of people's actual lives, and God's love for them despite the discrepancy.
"We know what we are supposed to do but we usually do the opposite," Gatza said. "It's kind of like real life. If God accepts us to the altar when we are doing the opposite of what we should be doing, what a cool thing that is, that we are still invited."
Instead of the usual focus on self-discipline, "for us, Lent is about learning," Gatza explained.
His congregants will be reading a book this year called "Lent Is Not Rocket Science," by Bishop Nicholas Knisely, a former scientist.
"This is all about God and creation, and how to reconcile what scripture says about creation with what science says about creation," Gatza said, adding that Lent has always been associated with people preparing for baptism and conscientiously studying.
The non-denominational Restore Church will hold two Ash Wednesday services for the third year at its Havre de Grace location.
Pastor Jess Bousa said he hopes to put a new twist on the tradition, including a creative take on the Stations of the Cross, associated with Lent and primarily Good Friday.
The church, which also meets in Perryville and Abingdon, focuses on Ash Wednesday and Lent differently than a Catholic church, "but we value some of the timeless traditions," Bousa said.
Restore Church wants to "create a journey to the Resurrection" of Jesus during Easter, including having a people take a key and turn it in a lock after the communal part of the service.
"One of our themes is to break free," Bousa explained.
Other stations will include, for example, a wooden cross where people can nail sins they have written anonymously.
"This service is more introspective, it's more contemplative, it's more reflective, it's more somber," Bousa said about Ash Wednesday. "Our main message is to give people permission to experience God. We want to give everyone a key, so we want to give them permission to open up their lives to experience the blessings [of God]."
Another station will be based on a church campaign called "Do For One," where people can sign up for seven days of "extravagant acts of kindness."
The church is also kicking off a 40-day Lenten experience that people can take part in, using a devotional booklet, he said.
"We actually found that these services that we have created and these spiritual journeys have grown people spiritually," Bousa said.
"I feel like people are looking for more meaningful spiritual experiences as they move into the future, because the world is so busy and so high-energy that people are looking for more somber and reflective experiences," he added.