Ash Wednesday: An important part of repentance, renewing commitment to Christian faith
By Lakhram Bhagirat
Ash Wednesday, for the Christian community, marks the commencement of the 40 days’ Lenten season – a period of introspection and repentance. The Lenten season also serves as a time for service to humanity through acts of selflessness.
Guyana Times sat down with Anglican Priest Reverend Monsell Alves and Catholic Bishop Francis Alleyne to talk about the tradition of churches and the adjustment undertaken to adapt to the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
This year, Ash Wednesday is today but amidst a pandemic, the observance is going to be more tapered. The usual opulence of large congregations and mass before the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of believers and post-prayer mingling has been cancelled.
For the Anglican community, Ash Wednesday is a time where they prepare themselves for penance. In the Old Testament, according to Reverend Alves, Anglicans used Ash Wednesday to prepare for the commencement of their penance and as a period to turn away from sins.
“The Bible speaks to covering yourself in ashes. So, for us as Anglicans, it is very important because the imposition of ash on the forehead of every believer with these simple words “remember that thou are dust and to dust shall thou return” but now the imposition of ash has moved from that saying to “repent and believe the gospel”.
“The visible sign of repentance is the ashes. So when someone sees you crossed with ashes, it supposed to speak to them in two ways – I need repentance and it is a public expression of that person’s Christian faith. When you repent, you once again come into a relationship to believe in God – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” the reverend explained.
Reverend Alves is the parish priest at the St Sidwell’s Anglican Church at Vlissengen Road, Lodge, Georgetown. This year, the church will have two services, which will be limited in proportion to its usual grandeur pre-COVID-19 – one at 06:00h for the commencement of the day of fasting and one at sundown for the ending of the day of fasting.
The process to get the ashes to use on the day commences from the year before on Palm Sunday. He explained that when COVID-19 hit in 2020 and the restrictions under the Public Health Ordinance were instituted, all churches were closed.
“The pandemic came upon us last year and because of COVID-19, we could not have had the normal Palm Sunday procession. The palms are usually blessed on Palm Sunday which symbolises the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. So those palms having being blessed and distributed to parishioners, they would keep those palms and bring them before Ash Wednesday and the priest or assigned person would burn those palms, say prayers and prepare them for the imposition on members. As a result of COVID-19, the Diocesan Bishop did encourage parishioners virtual to raise their palms and he pronounced blessings on them,” the Reverend explained.
Explaining the Lenten season, Reverend Alves said that the 40 days of lent does not include the Sundays because, for Christians, every Sunday is a resurrection of Jesus.
Stations of the Cross
Every Friday during the Lenten season there is a Lenten devotion called Stations of the Cross – chronicling Jesus’ journey from trial to crucifixion.
Stations of the Cross is a series of 14 images depicting the events outlined Christ’s journey to the cross. The arrangement of the 14 Stations of the Cross: Condemnation of Jesus Christ to death. It is followed by Jesus Bearing the cross, The First Fall – Jesus falls the first time under the cross, His Mother – Jesus meets his blessed mother, Simon of Cyrene – the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, Veronica – the face of Jesus is wiped by St Veronica; The Second Fall – Jesus falls the second time, Daughters Of Jerusalem – the women of Jerusalem mourn for our Lord, The Third Fall – Jesus falls for the third time, Stripped – Jesus is stripped of his garments, Nailed – Jesus is nailed to the cross, Crucified – Jesus dies on the cross, Dead – the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross, and Buried – the body of Jesus is laid in the tomb.
The images are usually mounted on the inside walls of a church but is not confined to the building.
The exercise of visiting and praying at each of the stations stems from the early practice of Christian pilgrims. It is believed that the pilgrims visited the scenes of the events that happened in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday and took the same route as Jesus did on that fateful day.
Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday
After Ash Wednesday and leading up to the end of the Lenten period, the triduum begins on Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. “Maundy Thursday is where we have the reenactment of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It is done as a form of humility. Then we have Good Friday and so Good Friday like Ash Wednesday for us as Anglicans, as Christians, it is a day for prayer, it is a day for fasting. It is also a day of abstinence.”
Holy Saturday or Easter vigil
“The last part is Holy Saturday or Easter vigil. Easter vigil service is a beautiful service. That service is whereby the church is in complete darkness. The first part of the service is a reenactment to remind us as Christians of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel of Egypt’s bondage. The first act of that service you see the lighting of the fire. The Bible tells us that God delivered the people by balls of fire. So as we light the fire, the priest will have a pascal candle and the pascal candle will be brought into the church and you would hear the priest say these words “the light of Christ” and the people would respond “thanks be to God” and he does that three times until he reaches the sanctuary and he raises the candle and after that, he sings or says the Exultet (Easter proclamation). After that is being sung the light in the building is switched on,” Reverend Alves said as he explained the traditions of the church for the vigil.
The second part is the liturgy of the word. In the third part, the Diocesan Bishop would have people baptised as well as the holy sacrament of confirmation will be administered. “If not the members of the congregation will be asked to renew their baptismal vows and the priest would go around and sprinkle the members with holy water. The fourth part of the liturgy speaks to that of the holy eucharist. The altar isn’t prepared, the candles are there but aren’t lit until we are ready for the holy eucharist and then you are going to hear the ringing of the bells, you are going to have incense burning and it is beautiful and everything comes alive,” Reverend Alves explained.
Meanwhile, Catholic Bishop Francis Alleyne said that COVID-19 mandated that persons give up a lot in an effort to stay safe from the virus. He, too, said that Ash Wednesday symbolises repentance.
“We put ashes on a cross form on people’s foreheads or this year because of the COVID where we would not be touching anyone, we take the dry ash and just sprinkle it over the heads of persons of the congregation. Traditionally when we administer the ashes we would say, remember you are dust and to dust you will return so its that reflection on your mortality,” Bishop Alleyne explained.
“The whole of Lent would be a season of introspection, repentance. The idea of taking responsibility for something not as good as we want to be, some negligence in our lives, some habit or mistakes we have made and we want to correct that. We want to bring our life to a better place and the period of lent a time which we dedicate to doing that and we start off on Ash Wednesday with a symbolism of ashes,” the Bishop said.
He said that he already met with his priests and mandated full compliance with the Government’s COVID-19 regulations which means that there would be reduced crowd sizes and mandatory wearing of masks.
“Ash Wednesday is going to be a challenge not for all the churches because they can be able to manage but the Cathedral (of Immaculate Conception) has a tradition of big crowds showing up three times in [a] day at 06:00h in the morning at midday and afternoon. We are saying that on Ash Wednesday we will put on some extra services and try to spread this out so that not everybody will come one time so that we keep to the number and minimise the time that we have gathered.”
“On Ash Wednesday our tradition would be mass, bless the ashes and distribution of the ashes but we don’t really have to do all of that. The main thing on Ash Wednesday is to bless the ashes and distribute. So we will try to minimise the actual services we would have and explain to the people that this is a sacrifice we have to make,” Bishop Alleyne informed.
Both the Anglican and Catholic churches are urging believers to introspect this Lenten season and connect more with God.