Today is Ash Wednesday, when Western Christians wear the mark of ashes on their foreheads in preparation for the contemplative season of Lent.
The dusty mark is a tangible symbol of repentance for those who embark upon the reflective 40-day period that leads up to Easter.
For many Midlands Christians, Lent represents a time of daily spiritual readings and prayer as they ponder the life of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Some give up special foods or fast during periods of Lent.
"I think prayer is the foundation of it all," said the Rev. Mary Moore Roberson, parish associate at St. John's Episcopal Church on Wheat Street in Columbia. "We say that Lent involves prayer, fasting and alms-giving. This is preparation for Easter, and we go through a dark period before we enter the light."
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The Rev. Timothy Bupp, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Lexington, said he encourages his parishioners to take on the burdens of the community during this time on the Christian calendar.
"I encourage them to examine honestly where their life is, where they see Christ in their life," he said. "Oddly enough, I don't ask them to give things up but to look for ways to participate in the community ... to do more of what the church should be doing."
Congregations who worship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition began the Great Lent on Monday. This year, Easter is celebrated April 4 in both Western and Eastern churches.
Traditionally, ashes for the Ash Wednesday service come from burning palm fronds saved from Palm Sunday.
Here is a sampling of Ash Wednesday services:
- St. John's Episcopal Church, 2827 Wheat St.: services at 7:45 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.
- Zion Lutheran Church, 226 Corley Mill Road: service at 6:30 p.m.
- Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 3909 Forest Drive: prayer vigil, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; services at noon and 6:30 p.m.
- St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 3700 Devine St.: Mass at 7:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 6 p.m.
- St. Peter's Catholic Church, 1529 Assembly St.: services at 8:30 a.m., noon and 6:30 p.m.
- St. Martin's-in-the Fields Episcopal Church, 5220 Clemson Ave.: services at 7 a.m., noon and 5:45 p.m.