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Ash Wednesday: a Time of Reflection, Prayer

Christians all over the world are observing Ash Wednesday today.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more on the day and what it means.

Here in Springfield on Ash Wednesday, churches are holding services and masses where people have ashes placed on their foreheads.

Father Tom McCann, priest at Catholic Campus Ministries, said it’s not a Holy Day of Obligation, so Catholics don’t have to go to Mass.  But it’s the beginning of the season of Lent, and it’s a good way to start the Lenten season.

"The Gospel reading from Matthew today will speak of prayer, fasting and alms giving--three sort of foundational points of conversion, and so, for those who come, they're able to hear the scriptures and hopefully take it to heart," he said.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are from palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday that were burned and are sometimes mixed with oil.  They’re placed on the forehead, often in the shape of a cross.

"A visible sign of one's desire to turn their life around and to seek Christ," he said.

The use of ashes comes from the Old Testament, according to Missouri State Religious Studies professor, Leslie Baynes.  She said ashes are a very ancient symbol of penance and even despair.

"For instance, David's daughter, Tamar, was raped, and after she was raped one of the first things that she did, according to the Bible, was to put ashes on her head.  Job, who famously was so afflicted, put ashes on himself," she said.

Different Christian denominations observe Ash Wednesday in their own way.  Besides having ashes placed on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, Catholics 18 and older up to age 60 are supposed to fast—eating one full meal during the day.  Those 14 and older are asked to abstain from meat.

It’s also a day when those who choose to give up something for Lent start that practice as a sign of sacrifice.  But McCann said they can also add something instead.

"Pope Francis has come out previous to Lent, and he talked about maybe rather than giving up something, an  attitude of seeking to overcome the attitude we have towards others.  Because he says people have a general indifference to other people, and he would like us to work on that during Lent," he said.

Not too far from Catholic Campus Ministries, Melissa Dodd, pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church, sat in a darkened sanctuary waiting to give ashes to those coming in to receive them.  An Ash Wednesday service is also planned for tonight at the church.  She said the ashes remind Christians that they’re beginning the season of Lent.

"And that is supposed to be an introspective time  kind of looking into ourselves and preparing our hearts for the gift of Easter and what that means when it comes to our redemption and our forgiveness," she said.

She hopes those who receive the ashes will take away with them a sense of introspection and what they can do to strengthen their faith.

"As Christians we focus a lot on what Jesus did for us and God's love for us, but for that to mean something we have to understand that we don't have it all figured out--that we need that love, we need that grace, we need that strength, we need that direction, and so that's the reason for Lent," she said.

Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter in the western church, according to Leslie Baynes.  Easter this year will be on March 27th.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.