Today is Ash Wednesday, and if the start of the Lenten season leading to Easter seems early this year, there's a reason: The last time Lent arrived this early was 1913.
"Ash Wednesday already?" said the Rev. Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church-L.A. "It just crept up on us."
And it did so for many others, too.
"It's a real switch," said the Rev. Guillermo Garcia, pastor of St. Gertrude Catholic Church in Bell Gardens, to go from December to Lent in such a compressed time. "Suddenly you go from Christmas rejoicing to begin the penance."
Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, is observed by much of the Western church on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox.
At Masses and services today, priests and ministers will apply ashes in the sign of a cross -- indicating inner repentance -- to the foreheads of Christians.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Lent: An article in the Feb. 6 California section about the Lenten season said the Council of Nicaea was held in 323. The year was 325. The story also said Western churches at the council agreed on the formula to establish Easter. Both Eastern and Western churches agreed.
Easter often occurs in April and the word Lent comes from Anglo-Saxon lencten, meaning spring. But this year, because of cycles of the moon, Easter, or Resurrection Day as many prefer, will be observed March 23. The last time it occurred on that date Woodrow Wilson was president. Ash Wednesday in 1913 was Feb. 5, a day earlier than today because this is a leap year, which adds an extra day in the middle of the Lenten season.
So with Christmas decorations barely put away, churches have been gearing up for 40 days of repentance, reflection and fasting.
But, for some, not without a big splurge first.
On Tuesday evening, members of Centenary United Methodist Church in Little Tokyo staged a Fat Tuesday feast in the grand French Catholic tradition of Mardi Gras, with a beautifully decorated feast table laden with food.
The tradition is to have "the richest, fattiest and most filling food," said the Rev. Mark Nakagawa, senior pastor of the one of the oldest Japanese American churches in California. The menu included jambalaya, pancakes, bacon, sausages and seven types of desserts, including Mardi Gras king cakes--all prepared by church members.
At St. Gertrude, Garcia and his staff prepared for 16,000 worshipers to come for Ash Wednesday services, which will go from noon until 9 p.m.
Receiving the ashes is important to many Latinos who believe that something terrible will happen to them during the year if they don't, Garcia said. "So we have the added job" of explaining Lent to the misinformed, he said.
Some Christians will fast today, but spiritual discipline can take other forms.
"I am going to practice not losing my temper and patience when I do homework with my third-grade daughter," said Fong.
Though ancient Ash Wednesday rituals aren't part of his Baptist heritage, Fong's church has made it a tradition. He says everyone who attends Ash Wednesday services comes forward to receive ashes.
"The cross is our 'brand,' " said Nakagawa. "While the ashes remind us we will all die, the form of the ashes as the sign of the cross says we belong to Jesus Christ."
The 40-day fast tradition was required in the Council of Laodicaea in AD 360, and by the end of the 4th century it was observed in both East and West, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
But the churches differ on when to celebrate Easter. It was at the Council of Nicaea in AD 323 when Western churches agreed on the formula to establish Easter. In Eastern churches, Lent begins on the Monday of the seventh week before Easter and ends on a Friday -- nine days before Easter.
But some Christian denominations observe neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent.
The Rev. Charles G. Robertson Jr., pastor of Wilshire Presbyterian Church, who has been in ministry for four decades, ventured that one reason for not favoring the ancient rituals may stem from Matthew's Gospel in which Christ told his disciples not to be showy in their good deeds: " . . . when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. . . . "
Though the Scripture doesn't mention Ash Wednesday or Lent, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes appears in numerous passages, most notably in Job, when he responds to God: "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." Matthew's Gospel, too, notes repenting "in sackcloth and ashes."
Increasingly more Protestant churches are participating, pastors say.
Robertson, a lifelong Presbyterian who is active in ecumenical and interfaith work in Los Angeles, began Ash Wednesday services in the Presbyterian churches he has pastored since the 1980s.
He believes Christians of different branches are much more willing to learn one another's traditions than in the past.
Gailen L. Reevers, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Church of Christ in the Crenshaw district and an advocate of different generations worshiping together on Sundays, says everyone is invited to his church's Ash Wednesday service at 7 p.m. He will offer the imposition of the ashes, but no one is required to partake of it, he said.
"We let the spirit lead us," Reevers said.
When Reevers realized the early Ash Wednesday wasn't announced at Sunday's services, a mass e-mail was sent to parishioners to alert them.
Next year, Easter will be celebrated on April 12. But it will return to March 23--in the year 2160.