‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’: Ash Wednesday draws thousands of area Catholics

Lance Shearer

Thousands of people on Marco went around the island on Wednesday with their foreheads smeared with sooty ashes. The marks, in the shape of a cross, symbolize the worshippers’ rededication to the ideals of Christianity.

On Ash Wednesday, San Marco Catholic Church on Marco Island held six masses to accommodate the throngs of worshippers. At the nine o’clock service, every place in the parking lot, and every seat in the sanctuary, was filled. The congregation heard from Parochial Vicar Rev. Duong Nguyen, along with Deacon Mark Leonard, as they explained the significance of the day and the period of fasting, prayer and devotion to good works it ushers in.

For many Christians, Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter are a special time, a period of sacrifice, prayer and penance. Lent means different things to different people, and even the dates of its observance are calculated differently in Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox denominations. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists also celebrate Ash Wednesday. The period also evokes the 40 days Jesus is said to have spent in the desert being tempted by Satan.

For Roman Catholics, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), which for some revelers over the years – maybe more in New Orleans than on Marco Island – has meant starting the season with a throbbing head and all the more incentive for vowing to live a more abstemious life.

Outside the church at San Marco, the congregation’s director of religious education, Kim Adamson, stood at a table giving away rosary beads and books of doctrinal relevance or instruction.

“We were packed at 7:30, too. We’ll be busy all day,” she said, adding that the later masses at 4 and 7p.m. “might not be so full.” The church also held mass and distributed ashes at Holy Family in Everglades City.

The ashes are a symbol of penitence and also reflect the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” said to be the fate of our physical being, said Adamson. Along with doing penance for our sins, the fasting associated with “giving up something for Lent” is coupled with a dedication to alms giving or doing good works for those less fortunate.

“Fasting without prayer is just another diet,” said Adamson. “When you take something out of your life, you make more room for God.”

In the modern world, she said, the thing given up for Lent could be “television, or Facebook, or Instagram.” She urged believers to “take the dollars you would have spent” on bad habits and use them to make the world a better place.

Inside the San Marco sanctuary, Deacon Leonard urged worshippers not to make a public show of their devotion and good works.

“When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” he intoned. “Pray in secret.” The faithful are engaged in a battle, he told the congregation.

“We are at war. This is the first day of battle. Our enemy is the evil one, who lurks behind all evil deeds. Are we willing to be men and women at war?”

Father Duong said that Ash Wednesday begins “40 days of preparing for the rising of Christ, to find what is the meaning of the resurrection.” Speaking after the service, he guesstimated that the San Marco sanctuary holds about 600.

There were multiple officiants applying ashes to foreheads inside the sanctuary, to accommodate the demand. Some people had discreet, gray marks, but those anointed by Father Duong walked back to their pews decorated with a bold black cross.

“He likes to make sure,” joked Janet Heckin, leaving church with her husband John. The ashes are traditionally made by burning palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.