Ash Wednesday a time for renewed interest in spirituality

For the Rev. Blaise Sedney at Bel Air's St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Ash Wednesday is a unique opportunity to connect with people by placing ashes on their foreheads while reading the verse, "You were made from dust, and to dust you will return."

"Being a pastor and having done that to people, it really does something to you when you talk like that," Sedney said. "Ultimately we all end up being dust, so that is the focus of this Ash Wednesday."

Many Christians throughout Harford County will mark the beginning of the Lenten season today (Wednesday) by observing Ash Wednesday, known for the ritual called "imposition of ashes."

While Ash Wednesday is perhaps most commonly associated with the Catholic Church, other Christian denominations also observe the day and may be seeing some renewed interest in it.

The Rev. Dr. Karin Walker, Harford County district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, said all 35 Methodist congregations in Harford observe Ash Wednesday with imposition of ashes.

She said some, like those in Street and Dublin, join together for a mutual service.

"Some of our larger churches, like Mt. Zion and Bel Air, have several services during the day," she said.

"I think more and more churches have begun to use once again the imposition of ashes," Walker said. "People are hungry for that liturgical and long-standing tradition because it does remind us of our connectedness to Christ."

Although the United Methodist Church has long observed the ash ritual, Walker said more people may be interested in it.

"Some of the ancient rituals have new power and new meaning for people today, particularly for Ash Wednesday," Walker said. "The whole season of Lent is for people to change their pace and think about things differently. I think it's much more of a part of our culture than it was 10 or 15 years ago."

Sedney, at St. Matthew Lutheran, said the church is holding a program for Lent this year called "By My Hand, For My Sake," featuring monologues from different Biblical figures.

The Ash Wednesday service will have someone speaking as Eve from the Garden of Eden.

The verse "You were made from dust, and to dust you will return" is from the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

"For Ash Wednesday, there's quite a few people that continue to come," Sedney said.

Liturgical churches in Harford County, namely parishes of the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, also see an influx of spiritual interest during this time.

The Rev. Thomas W. Allen, rector at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon, said the Ash Wednesday service started in the 10th century and "really galvanized" in the 11th century.

"It's definitely a medieval innovation," Allen said. "It's to remind us that, A, we are created by God, and, B, we are created from the ground. Once we are created from the ground, and the scriptures tell us basically that all things pass away, it reminds us of our mortality."

Allen said the background, with the Garden of Eden story, has major spiritual implications.

"People tend to make jokes about that, but there's a very serious theological ramification that's built in with that," he said. "We find ourselves organically and spiritually separated from God."

But the story also promises that salvation will come, and Jesus is presented as the second Adam, Allen said.

"As Christians, we know that hope trumps despair," he said.

Nevertheless, Ash Wednesday remains a very serious day, Allen reflected.

"It is kind of doom and gloom. It's the church year's downer," he said with a laugh. "It really focuses on, 'the wages of sin is death,' and it's also a promise ... It's the pointer to something that is greater but it points to serious problems we have as human beings, that we are flawed."

Allen said he has not seen Ash Wednesday observance wane any.

"I am hoping there will be lots of people walking around Bel Air with crosses on their forehead," he said. "I think it's a great outward reminder, for Christians at least, of our hope in Christ."

Sr. Susanne Bunn, MHSH, of The Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Edgewood, said the church offers multiple services so people who work can have time to come.

Bunn said the ashes used in the service are made from palms burned from previous Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, in turn, marks the end of Lent, as it is the final Sunday in the season of repenting prior to Easter Sunday.

"We come to Mass as a sign that we are entering into Lent," she said. "We encourage people to think about the wonderful baptism of Easter ... and we remember that we are baptized people and we are walking with him [Jesus] through our lives."

Bunn also recommended the following video for Lent:

Charlotte Henderson, pastoral associate at St. Mark Catholic Church in Fallston, said her parish has added more Ash Wednesday services so people can come at different times.

"It's one of those times that a lot of people come," she said. "It's always been very popular, but [a new pastor] wanted to add a noontime [service]."

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