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Harford churches to mark Ash Wednesday with 'Ashes to Go,' service projects, programs

The Rev. Christine Parker, of Lord of Life Lutheran Church, and Rev. Shannon Sullivan, of Presbury United Methodist Church, offer "Ashes to Go" at the Edgewood MARC train station for Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18. (Bryna Zumer/BSMG video)

The Rev. Christine Parker, of Edgewood's Lord of Life Lutheran Church, plans to kick off Christianity's holiest season by leaving her Willoughby Beach Road church this morning (Wednesday).

Parker will embark on the journey of Lent, the 40 days Christians observe leading to Easter, at a place where some residents embark on their daily commute: the Edgewood MARC train station.

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Parker is joining Presbury United Methodist Church on Ash Wednesday morning in "Ashes to Go," originally launched several years ago by Episcopal churches in the Midwest to offer ashes to passersby, not just parishioners.

"This really brings worship to people. It takes a lot for someone to take the step into a worship space, especially if they have not been there for a long time," Parker said about the novel spin on Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, most prominently by the ritual of imposing a cross of ashes on believers' foreheads.

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Lord of Life and Presbury will also be at Edgewood's Food Lion supermarket at about 10 a.m., she said.

"One of the main reasons that people really like Ashes to Go is so they can probably wear their ashes all day," she said, explaining it is tricky to encourage the display of piety on a day when, ironically, the Bible discourages such public displays.

"This has been a way that has been socially acceptable" to express one's faith, Parker said about the ashes, adding the key is "to be authentic about it, that it's not just a mask."

Fallston's St. Mark Catholic Church is using Ash Wednesday to launch a service project, urging parishioners to give money toward bags of rice for St. Mark's sister congregation, St. Joseph Parish in Lalomas, Haiti.

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St. Mark helps provide a hot lunch for the school's students, which is usually the only daily meal the children get, the Rev. Gerard Francik said.

St. Mark will also decorate its altar with pictures of the students and bags of rice, Francik said.

The activity offers parishioners a "much more concrete project" as Lent sets in, he said.

"The Gospel reading [for Ash Wednesday] has Jesus saying, 'Don't let anybody know you are fasting,'" Francik explained, adding he always comments on the irony that people use Ash Wednesday to mark themselves with "a big cross of ashes on our forehead."

But, he added, "if it's only the outside sign, then we are being hypocrites."

The Rev. A. Henry Kunkel III, pastor of Pylesville's St. Mary of the Assumption since 1993, also said Ash Wednesday and Lent are about focusing on a more meaningful fast, as did Jesus in the 40 days he spent fasting in the desert following his Baptism.

"You always hear of people giving up chocolate and things like that, but it's really more how we fit into the fullness of our life in Christ," Kunkel said. "The question is not so much what should I give up for Lent but what do I need for Lent or what is missing from my life."

The church, off of St. Mary's Road, has two Ash Wednesday Masses planned, at 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and follows a traditional format, he said.

"Ashes were a Jewish sign of penitence and they were accepted by Christians, and, of course, we use them now primarily on Ash Wednesday," Kunkel said. "We get the ashes from burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. The ashes are blessed and imposed on the congregation."

"It's an outward popular sign of private or public sadness or sorrow, penitence for sin... also a reminder of mortality," he said.

St. Mark, meanwhile, has added two 20-minute Ash Wednesday services, one at 12:10 p.m. and one at 5:30 p.m., to its three standard Masses, since Francik came on board four years ago.

"I figured out that some people come to that because of work schedules," Francik said about the shortened services, which include a scripture reading and the imposition of ashes.

"We have had great crowds," Francik said. "It's amazing to me, because, in the Catholic Church, we have holy days of obligation."

Ash Wednesday is not an obligatory day, but people nevertheless want to be part of it, he said.

"There is something very fascinating to people about the ashes," he said, noting he has noticed more Protestant churches join in observing Ash Wednesday as well.

Aberdeen's St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church is launching a five-week series of Lenten meals and talks on various topics.'

"We try to be more thoughtful during the time of Lent, to what we are and what being a Christian is, and try to be better people, people that God can smile about," Eileen McVey, a St. Joan of Arc member for about 40 years and leader of the church's prayer line for the past decade.

St. Mark's Francik called the interest in the day "ironic, because the first reading is from the Old Testament prophet Joel, [saying] 'Proclaim a fast'... This is an Old Testament prophet calling people to repentance."

Repentance does not sound like it would be a popular concept, Francik said, but as people see evil and terrorism in the world, they are looking for ways to start making a better world.

"I think people feel this is one thing they can do, is come together and pray," he said about repentance. "I think that draws people to say, 'How can I be a better person?'"

Ash Wednesday is about the inner conversion, the idea "the world cannot change unless we change first," he said.

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