Mark of the Season Christians Celebrate Beginnings of Lent with Ashes
Hitzeman, Harry, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Harry Hitzeman Daily Herald Staff Writer
On Wednesday, Christians across the suburbs and the world will begin the holy season of Lent by receiving ashes on their foreheads.
The ashes remind Christians of their sin and help serve as an impetus for people to rededicate themselves to Christ's teachings.
At most churches, the ashes are the end product of blessed branches from the prior year's Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the town of Jerusalem to a hero's welcome.
The palms are dried, burned and crushed into a powder suitable to be rubbed on a person's forehead in the shape of a cross.
Many Christians make an extra effort to attend Ash Wednesday Mass, and churches must ensure they have enough ashes for the thousands in their congregations.
That's where the Wheaton Religious Gift Shop and Supply Store comes in.
Each year, the Wheaton store sells hundreds of packets of ashes to churches all over the suburbs and the City of Chicago.
Joe Taschetta, co-owner and principal at the Wheaton store, acknowledged the ashes are a "very odd thing to sell," but it helps churches provide a service.
Taschetta said most orders are placed in January or just before Ash Wednesday because church leaders don't want to run out.
"You're going to have crowds of people," he said. "It's hard to judge how many people will come out (for Ash Wednesday Mass)."
The shop is geared toward Catholics, but also sells ashes to Lutherans, Episcopal and Evangelical churches.
The ashes are made by a North Dakota firm, which also burns dried palms. A two-ounce bag for 1,000 people sells for $12.75.
Phil Taschetta, Joe Taschetta's father and senior adviser at the Wheaton shop, said another aspect that drives churches to buy their ashes is time.
"Making your own ashes is a lot of work," he said, noting the ashes must be sifted and ground until it's suitable to place on one's forehead.
"You've got to burn an awful lot of palms to get a little bit of ashes."
At Mass, a priest will rub the ashes in the sign of the cross on a person's forehead, reminding them to reject sin, follow the Gospel and that they eventually shall return to dust after their life on this Earth has ended.
Lent ends with Easter, the holiest of Christian holidays that celebrates Jesus Christ's resurrection following his crucifixion.
The Rev. David Dillon, pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Glendale Heights, said it's important, but not essential for Christians to receive ashes this week.
"The most important thing is that a person make a decision to renew and strengthen their relationship with the Lord," Dillon said.
Ashes as a symbol of sin and repentance dates back to the beginnings of the Christian church.
Extremely sinful parishioners were dressed in sackcloth, an itchy, uncomfortable fabric, while sitting in ashes on the church's steps asking God for forgiveness.
The use of ashes to make the sign of the cross on a person's forehead during a church service dates back to the 11th Century, added Lynn Mikels, minister of education at First United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights.
The church produces its own ashes in a small ceremony each year.
Mikels said the transformation of palms to ashes signifies that Lent is an opportunity to change.
"During Lent, Christians often seek to change their attitudes and behavior to bring them more in line with Christ's teaching," Mikels said. "This is a time of change, and Lent is a season for reflection."
Some churches enlist help from parishioners each year to help make ashes.
The Rev. Bonaventure Okoro, associate pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in St. Charles, said hundreds of churchgoers bring in their old palms the day before Ash Wednesday.
Okoro said it takes about three hours to go from palms to suitable ashes, but it's well worth it. …