Millions of Christians around the world will be marking the beginning of Lent today by observing Ash Wednesday.
Several churches in the Pine-Richland community will mark the day with Ash Wednesday services. For some religions, that includes the imposition of ashes – when the foreheads are marked with ashes.
“The whole act of marking with ashes is very symbolic,” explained Father Tom Sparacino, pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church in Richland Township.
Father Tom, as he is known to his congregation continued, “The ashes are a real mark to remind us of our sins, but also to remind us that we are dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
The ashes are typically made from the palms used in last year's Palm Sunday services and blessed, according to Father Tom. The ashes are then used to mark a cross on the forehead of worshipers.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, a 46-day period before Easter that is an important time for prayer, fasting and what Father Tom referred to as “acts of mercy.”
“That may be as simple as not gossiping, or maybe helping a neighbor or visiting someone sick," Father Tom said. "It is helping someone in their time of need and serving other people.”
For many Christians, it is a time to sacrifice or “give up something for Lent.”
For Ron Bergman, a lector and member of St. Richard Church, Lent means a time when he will be “more rigorous in daily prayer” and a time for passing up on one of his favorites -- sweets.
“We do try to give up sweets and desserts,” he said, “But we also try to do some other sacrifices – watch less TV and spend some quiet time to reflect on our faith.”
Bergman and his wife, Kathleen, also try to attend additional services during the week that include the Stations of the Cross on Fridays.
Cranberry residents Joe and Patricia Bertucci attend St. Ferdinand Catholic Church in Cranberry.
The Bertuccis will receive the imposition of ashes to kick off their Lenten season.
“It is a special time for prayer and preparation for Easter Sunday,” said Joe. “We plan to make some sacrifices and also be a little more intent on prayer.”
Like many of Catholic faith, the Bertuccis will also forego meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent, a practice some no longer follow.
“I grew up observing this tradition and we still do,” he said.
Those of Episcopal faith also practice the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
“Lent is one of those seasons where the church asks us to look at our own shortcomings,” said Father Ron Baillie, minister of St. Thomas Church-in-the-Fields in Richland.
As Father Tom said, Father Ron feels that the ashes are a symbolic representation of mankind. “Without the breath of God, that is all man is – ashes,” he said.
St. Thomas will host additional services throughout the Lenten season including Wednesday prayer services that include a light meal.
“One thing we are called to do is fast. Our light meal is a reflection of this – we look at it as a time of worship and prayer, not as a time to indulge.”
To Patti Navilliat and her husband Joe, members of St. Thomas, Ash Wednesday is an important family date.
“Ever since I was a little girl, it was a big deal,” she said, “It is one way we carry on our family traditions by keeping to the weeks of atonement during Lent.”
Patti and Joe will attend Ash Wednesday services in Richland while her daughter and her family carry on the tradition in their home in North Carolina.
“The ashes are right there in the open and symbolize the mark of Christians. We are the same with that mark on our heads,” she said, “The ashes are a great equalizer.”
The Navilliats will add acts of faith to their routine during Lent including additional religious readings and “giving up computer time.”
The congregation of Cranberry United Presbyterian Church also celebrates Ash Wednesday, although they do so without ashes.
“It is a special service to make the beginning of Lent," said church secretary Kim Pugh. "We will have special music and prayers.”
Like those of the Catholic and Episcopal faith, the Presbyterians also look at Lent as a time for prayer and reflection.
“We are expected to take on things like Bible studies and additional studies. It is a time to prepare for Easter,” she said.
Pugh said they have additional services and Bible group sessions and Sunday sermons are geared for the Lenten season.
“We look at it as a time for spiritual growth,” she said.