The Rev. Stacy Walker-Frontjes stood alone, ankle-deep in a snowbank, outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in DeKalb last Wednesday, waiting patiently.
With her white pastoral robe covering her winter coat, ski pants and boots, she braved a biting wind and a persistent snow to greet college students trudging by on a snowy path with a warm message.
A few miles south, The Rev. Hyerncherl Paul Lee of the United Methodist Church of Waterman was doing the same thing outside the Waterman Post Office. Like millions of Christian ministers around the world, the two were marking Ash Wednesday with prayers and the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of anyone who wanted it. Unlike many pastors, the two left the snug warmth of their churches to offer ashes to people passing on the street.
Lee said the unseasonable cold forced him inside periodically to warm up, but in general the weather “never stops” him.
“This is a practice of faith to remind us who we are,” he said. “We are limited in our life on earth and we have to be closer to God. We are broken people and we ask God for forgiveness.”
Ash Wednesday was the official start of the Lenten season, the 40-day period which will culminate on Easter Sunday, April 20. It is the time when Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead to save mankind from its sins. Many Christian denominations observe Lent as a period of reflection and repentance to prepare for Easter.
“It is a time to regroup, re-energize and reaffirm in what makes our faith,” the Rev. Jon Hutchison of the First United Methodist Church of DeKalb said.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Creston began its celebration on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is famously celebrated as Mardi Gras, a day of celebration before the solemnity of Lent.
St. John’s offered a New Orleans-style dinner of jambalaya, red beans and rice. Saying the traditional meal of pancakes “is boring,” the Rev. Ron Larson said his congregation wanted to spice up Mardi Gras – French for “fat Tuesday” – by offering New Orleans-style fare “so we can have a good time with other people.”
Larson added it’s another way to get ready for the sacrifices so many Christians will make during Lent.
“This holy season of Lent is a time to take as we step back from our worldly comfort and enter spiritually into the desert with our Lord,” the Rev. Jim Parker writes on the website of St. Mary Catholic Church in DeKalb. “This period of time before Easter is intended by the church for self-examination and self-denial.”
For the next few weeks, churches will host a variety of special activities and services. The Sycamore Federated Church held a soup supper of six homemade soups before its Ash Wednesday services. The Rev. Dennis Johnson called it “a nice, simple meal,” a tradition they’ve hosted for at least 25 years.
According to the Rev. Ray Krueger of Immanuel Lutheran Church of DeKalb, early Christians observed periods of fasting in preparation for Easter. Today, many sacrifice something they enjoy during Lent, and some, like Catholics, abstain from eating meat on select days.
“It’s a long-standing tradition as a means of focusing on an attempt to get closer to God by sacrificing something, the same way Jesus sacrificed (his life),” Krueger said.
In the past few years, he said, some people have begun committing to performing good deeds they wouldn’t normally do, which can also be seen as a sacrifice of sorts.
“It sounds so dreadful to give up something,” Johnson said, adding that helping someone adds to your spiritual life.
“Forget the potholes, just be a decent person.”
But not all Christian denominations observe Lent. Rev. Edward Hathcoat of the First Baptist Church in Genoa said the season is not a part of the Baptist tradition.
“To be honest, we don’t observe that,” he said.