The sign of the cross was drawn on foreheads with ashes this week on Ash Wednesday as many churches began observing the 40 days of Lent, the season in which Christians fortify their spiritual lives for Easter.
The Rev. Jack Ryan, pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Kalihi, said: "The ashes on Ash Wednesday, made from burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday, are imposed on the forehead in the sign of the cross.
"It humbles us before God, calls us to repentance and encourages us to use the 40 days of Lent to refocus our lives and deepen our relationship with Jesus."
Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians and some other Protestant churches observe centuries-old Lenten rituals that culminate in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter, which falls this year on April 24.
At St. John’s, Ryan said, "It’s amazing: People really come out for Ash Wednesday; it really touches people. It’s an Old Testament ritual of wearing sackcloth and ashes."
"In the Hebrew Scriptures we find the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who was sent to the great city of Nineveh. When the king was moved by his message, he removed his jewels and finery, dressed in sackcloth and covered himself in ashes as a sign of humility before God."
Ash Wednesday was preceded by Shrove Tuesday, popularly known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, "the last day to gorge yourself before Lent, back when people took fasting seriously," Ryan said.
"Lent is a time for cleansing and preparation for a new beginning. People today do something extra instead of give up something. Kids sacrifice their spending money to donate to feeding the homeless — we have a big feeding program here — or adults go to Mass every day during Lent.
"It can be life-changing for people, in reconnecting to the Lord. I focus on praying and going to Mass an extra day during Lent."
The Rev. Elizabeth Zivanov, of the Parish of St. Clement in Punahou, urged her members "to use those 40 days to focus more on your relationship with God and with others in an intentional and daily way," according to her message in the Episcopal church’s March newsletter.
"Perhaps you will consider those with whom you have a broken relationship and consider the possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation," she suggested.
"Perhaps you might identify one a day a week during which you’ll fast or maintain a simpler way of eating. Perhaps you might even attend worship weekly on Sunday mornings during Lent. Or perhaps you’ll find a special set of readings," Zivanov recommended.
Both Western (Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Protestants) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christian churches recognize Easter on the same day this year. Some years they do not, as the East and West use different calendars to calculate the beginning of Lent, the special dates within the season, and when Easter falls.
For Western churches the Holy Week before Easter starts with Palm Sunday, April 17, commemorating "the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem" with the waving of palms, Ryan said.
Maundy or Holy Thursday, April 21, celebrates the Last Supper for Jesus and his gift of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Here, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as a symbol of "making the leader a servant," Ryan said. "In a sign of humility and service, the priest washes the feet of 12 members of the congregation" in Catholic churches, he added.
After Mass, people can stay and pray until midnight as if waiting with Jesus — "this reminds us of Jesus’ agony in the garden (of Gethsemane), where he asks his disciples to watch with him until he is arrested by the Roman guards."
Good Friday, April 22, is the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
"During Lent there are no decorations or flowers in the church beginning on Ash Wednesday. But on Easter Sunday there are flowers all over the place, and it really gives you a sense of resurrection."