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BOB ABERNETHY: Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Western Christians. Roman Catholics and Anglicans especially begin the 40 day Lenten observance with a priest making the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. We asked Rev. William Tully of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York about the significance of the ashes and of Lent.

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REV. WILLIAM TULLY (Rector, St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, New York): In the Christian year, in the traditional Christian year, Lent is the 40 days preceding Easter day, which is a variable date, and the first day of it is called Ash Wednesday. At some point in the observance of these 40 days, the custom was to take the palm fronds, these palms that had been waved in triumph and festivity on the previous Palm Sunday—are then taken home by people. Often people will keep them where they can see them just to remind themselves. And then they dry out, of course.

In January every year we ask people to think about them and bring them back. We collect these palms into a big bag and then we take them outside and burn them, mash it up and make ashes. And on Ash Wednesday, worshippers who come here are invited—not compelled, but invited—to come forward and receive the sign of ashes. We say, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

Lent is an intense and interior season, a very sober, quiet season of introspection. What we emphasize, at least in our tradition, is to try to get people to think about it as a daily thing. This is a way to step out of that daily routine and step into yourself.

Prayer at root is really a kind of quiet conversation with God, listening as well as speaking. At the beginning of Lent, we reread the story every year from the gospels of Jesus being driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil 40 days and 40 nights. The wilderness, though a physical place in the Holy Land, is also the picture of our own interior landscape. So in Lent, the church asks us to go inside into our own wilderness to wrestle with the things that are there, and to grow up spiritually.

Ash Wednesday

Western Christians begin the 40 day Lenten season with a priest making the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. Rev. William Tully of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York talks about the significance of the ashes and of Lent.