Throughout Wednesday, church parking lots across the Golden Isles were filled with cars. It was more than just the average mid-week church gathering — it was the heralding something special, the beginning of Lent.
For the 40 days leading up to Easter, Christians observe a period of self-observance and often restraint in preparation to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
It begins with Ash Wednesday, where fronds from the previous years’ Palm Sunday are burned. The ash is then used to make the sign of the cross of the foreheads (or hands) of the faithful.
Like many local pastors, the Rev. Alan Dyer was quite busy on Wednesday, as vehicles lined up at St. Simons Presbyterian Church. His congregation, however, opted for a different route than just the traditional service. They offered drive-thru ashes. An unconventional method, Dyer and his team believed it would allow people with scheduling conflicts to participate.
“The drive-thru ashes is an idea we have talked about as a staff for several years. That said, it is not an original idea. Lots of churches have been doing this for a long time all around the country. Honestly, there was very little push back from our congregation — the response has been overwhelming positive,” he said.
“The basic hope was that it would simply provide a space for people who otherwise would not be able to attend a service to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. We view it as an outreach ministry to our community. Some of those who came by were parents dropping kids off at school, people on their way to work, individuals with mobility limitations, people with other church homes, people with no church home, as well as tourists just driving down Kings Way.”
Dyer says a pastor greeted every person who came to receive the ash, explaining the concept behind Ash Wednesday and Lent. They then placed the ash on the hand or forehand and offered to pray with each participant.
“Despite the cold, it was a fun and meaningful experience. I think the pastors participating got as much out of it as those stopping by,” he said. “I am grateful to serve a church that is open and willing to try new things.”
The Ash Wednesday service was also a beginning for many. Lent is a time where people choose to give up a vice — or even something benign that they are fond of, such as chocolate or candy. Others choose to take on a task, like charity work. And while some may link the idea of Lenten observance specifically to Catholics, Dyer notes it is something that many denominations embrace.
“The basic understanding of Lent is largely the same across most Christian traditions. Through repentance, prayer, and fasting, the hope of the 40-day Lenten season is that we will embark on a journey of letting go of those things in our lives that need letting go and that in doing so we will more fully encounter the good news of new life proclaimed at Easter,” he said.
“The basic claim of the Christian faith is the same today as it has been since the beginning: ‘In dying, we live.’”
For Dyer, the notion of taking on or expanding a particular spiritual practice is a gratifying way to observe Lent. He feels it is a key way to connect and create fellowship.
“I like to take on a spiritual practice during Lent that is less focused on me and more focused on others. Jesus is always found in community. Do things that build community and put you into contact with others,” he said.
“Add one day of volunteering at an organization serving those on the margins of our community. Or write one letter a week — or one letter a day if you are especially proficient — to people in your life to express your gratitude or appreciation of them.”
Regardless of which method one adopts, Dyer hopes these next few weeks will offer time for reflection and contemplation of one’s own faith.
“The only way to the empty tomb is through the cross. New life, in other words, requires a surrendering of the old life. So letting go of something — or adding something on — during Lent can be an opportunity for us to practice resurrection,” he said.