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Church prepares for ceremony of repentance, reflection

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The priest pushed the ashes onto Barry Griffin's head.

With his thumb, the priest marked the 25-year-old's forehead with a black, ash-smudged cross, and said "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Griffin, unfamiliar with the Episcopal liturgy at the time, and experiencing the Ash Wednesday ceremony for the first time, felt the priest spread the ash-and-oil paste in the shape of a cross above his eyebrows. He felt the force of the priest's heavy hand and he thought, "This man knows I'm a sinner."

Now a priest himself, Griffin chuckles at the memory of that Ash Wednesday.

"Of course," he says, "he didn't know who I was. It wasn't personal. That's just the effect of the liturgy."

The service marks the beginning of a 40-day period of repentance and reflection, traditionally practiced by Christians in preparation for Easter. In the service -- held today by Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and other Christian churches which continue the practice of traditional rituals -- parishioners approach the altar and receive ashes on their foreheads. Through the act, Griffin says, they acknowledge their sinfulness, how they haven't lived like God would want, and how they've turned away from God. And they acknowledge their need for grace.

"Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence," Griffin says. "In the first half of the service, we focus on our sins, and in the second half of the service, we focus on redemption."

St. Augustine's will hold Ash Wednesday services at 7 a.m., 12:15 p.m., and 7 p.m.

The Christians will recite Psalm 51 in unison, saying:

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion, blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin."

They will pray together.

The priest will say: "We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven."

The congregation will respond with the repeated plea: "Have mercy on us, Lord."

The service, more than any other in the calendar of traditional churches, is focused on sin and sorrow and the need for divine forgiveness. Griffin is quick to point out, though, the service ends with communion, everyone receiving bread and wine in a demonstration they have been saved by Jesus' death and resurrection.

The priest prepared for the annual ceremony Tuesday night at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church at 1221 Morrow Road, Morrow. Other churches, throughout the Southern Cresent, will also have Ash Wednesday observances.

Tuesday night, while some members gathered for an annual pancake dinner, Griffin stepped outside to burn palms and make the ashes. The palms were brown and brittle branches, used, last year, in a Sunday service commemorating Jesus' last days before crucifixion. Griffin piled them into the fire. He lit one end of the palms with a lighter, then touched the fire to the other end, watching the blaze grow in the dark.

Behind him, in the lighted church hall, parishioners laughed.

"I've seen ashes advertised in religious catalogues," the priest said. "But this is how I was taught to do it in seminary."

With a pair of tongs, taken from a kitchen drawer, Griffin pushes at the palms -- some of them knotted into crosses -- until they're all consumed in the fire. The pile of palms withers, in the flames, until there's nothing left by a small pile of ashes in a gold-colored tin.