Ashes mark season of good works, penance

Lent is prelude to Easter Sunday celebration
by: Shanda Tice, Parishoners of St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Gresham stand in line to receive ashes on Wednesday, Feb. 21. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent.

Father Charles Wood has an explanation for those mysterious smudges you may have seen on the foreheads of your Catholic friends Wednesday, Feb. 21.

Catholics, as well as some other Christians, are anointed with ashes on the first day of Lent, the season of fasting and penance that precedes Easter Sunday.

'This custom … is not like a Catholic badge of honor,' he says. On the contrary, ashes remind believers 'there is this kind of sober reality, that without God, we would literally be dust.'

Jesus warned his followers not to publicize their fasting, the priest says, and the ashes are intended to remind believers that they need to focus on God's role in their lives.

'What we really need is the Lord, fundamentally,' he says.

Hundreds of people attended three Ash Wednesday services at St. Henry Catholic Church, 346 N.W. First St., Gresham.

During the noon Mass, Father Wood, the church's parochial vicar, told the congregation that Lent was an opportunity to simplify your life by giving up various potentially harmful habits, from drinking coffee to making sarcastic remarks to family members.

The priest drew chuckles from the congregation when he confessed that he was addicted to watching movies.

After pondering trying to see every movie on a must-see list compiled by film critics, he says he sensed the Holy Spirit telling him: 'There is no movie you have to see. The only thing you have to do is to continue to dedicate your life to Christ.'

Various sources state that Christians of different denominations often choose to give up something for Lent, as well as fast, in order to better focus on their faith.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, for example, says that Catholics 14 and older should abstain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent, and that Catholics between 18 and 59 should fast - eat only one full meal - on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, which falls two days before Easter.

Kurt Kemnitzer, a parishioner at St. Henry, says he and his wife usually give up beef and chocolate during Lent, although he says it's harder for him to give up beef than chocolate, which is more tempting to his wife. Kemnitzer says giving up something reminds him of how Jesus gave up his life on Good Friday.

'It's a symbol for us to open ourselves up to understand what (Jesus) went through during … his crucifixion and resurrection,' Kemnitzer said.

Christians also use Lent to concentrate on doing good works, reading the Bible or, in the case of St. Henry parishioner Dena Hegstad, reading the Divine Office daily. The Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, is a collection of Psalms, scripture readings and prayers that 'gives you a broader perspective on ways of thinking,' Hegstad says.

She also says reading the Hours is part of her calling as a Benedictine Oblate - a person or family that associates with the Benedictine monastic order, although they don't live at a monastery. Hegstad says she's associated with Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict.

Her friend, Susan Stanton, also plans to use Lent to improve her prayer life.

'I've been wanting to carve out some time to be by myself and pray on a regular basis,' she says. 'It's time to spend with God, time for God to spend with me. It's connecting with the one I need to connect with.'