The significance of Lent and Ash Wednesday, is now even easier to observe with the Ashes to Go services and more attractive as an act of faith that can save money. For Christians, Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of the season of Lent which extends over 40 days and culminates with Easter. Services are held in churches of most Christian denominations and a key ritual is the smearing of ash on a person’s forehead, in the shape of a cross. This practice is largely followed by the Catholic and Anglican Church.
The significance of using ash to create the symbol of the cross is explained in the phrases uttered by the person who performs the act. One of the common phrases used is:
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return
Turn away from your sins and believe in the Gospel”
The reference here is to the fact that everyone no matter how great and powerful or how poor and lowly is reduced to the same dust when they die. The only true exaltation exists for those who have heard and accepted the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.
In addition to wearing their faith on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, for the entire period of Lent the faithful are required to observe fasting and abstinence and do penance. Christians (mainly Catholics) who are 14 years and above are not supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday and on any of the Fridays after that till Easter. This is meant to commemorate Good Friday the day on which Jesus was crucified. This requirement does not include eggs and milk products, soup, butter, margarine and lard. Some people also choose to abstain from other things that bring pleasure such as alcohol, chocolates, unnecessary spending and even sexual intimacy, to focus on the suffering and death of Jesus.
As specified in the Code of Canon Law followed by the Catholic Church, anyone between 18-59 years of age is expected to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Fasting during Lent is defined as eating only one meal a day in addition to light snacks. People who are ill, frail, pregnant or nursing are not expected to fast during Lent. According to Pope Paul IV Lent is about much more than just fasting and abstinence. Penance for sins and wrongdoings is an important element and can be accomplished by being more patient, doing kind deeds, forgiving, going to Mass daily or several times a day, praying with the rosary and volunteering at charitable organizations.
Quite apart from the ashes of Ash Wednesday, whether on the street or in a church, Lent can also help save money. Just abstaining from alcohol, cigarettes and chocolate during Lent can earn about $50,000 – $90,000 by the time a person retires. If the normal amount of money spent on these items over the course of 40 days was locked up in a bank, there will be quite an impressive nest egg at the end of many a working life. An additional benefit has to do with the reduced calorie intake. Just cutting out alcohol and chocolates could add up to a 12,804 calorie reduction.
A unique phenomenon for those who wish to experience the significance of Lent and Ash Wednesday spiritually, or as a means to save money, is the Ashes to Go concept. In a city like New York, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to go to church for an ash smearing. But according to Presbyterian minister Rev. Mieke Vandersall many of these non-churchgoers want the spiritual connectedness of participating in some traditions. It is to cater to these that a few churches in Manhattan have started the Ashes To Go concept. Priests and ministers take to the street and trace a mixture of ashes (made from the burnt leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday) and oil, onto the forehead of willing passersby while uttering the reminder that “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” The members of the clergy that offer this unique service insist that it is not meant to replace church attendance, nor is it a gimmick. Instead the intention is to bring people back to church during Lent and onward by demonstrating an open and welcoming attitude. A listing of Ashes to Go locations in the New York area is available below.
By Grace Stephen