St. Mary’s Catholic Church's Father Peter Iorio explained to his congregates Wednesday night what the cross on their foreheads was, and was not.
“It’s not the letter ‘t,’ in orange to represent a favorite sports team,” Iorio said, as well as it not being a heart, dollar sign, or anything other than its intended purpose. “It’s a cross, symbolizing a relationship with Jesus, the Christ.”
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the 40-day period known as Lent, where it’s common for those adhering to the teachings of the church, to have a cross marked on their heads, which also often goes in hand with fasting and abstaining from certain behaviors, like meat eating.
“We’re branded like cattle, you might say,” said Iorio before he was to bring members of his church forward to receive the ashes.
Judy Holt, a Childrens Faith Formation Coordinator at the church, said the ashes were made of the palms used in the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday, a pre-Easter Catholic celebration.
She has 209 kids in the youth program, who range in age from pre-kindegarten age to high school, and are taught about the church through weekly classes. While many members of the church give up something, perhaps a vice like drinking soda or social media sites, to symbolize Jesus Christ’s suffering, she says they also emphasize adding something, too, like helping others or taking special care to say their prayers.
The goal after the 40-day period is complete, is that the kids continue without whatever it was they gave up, and continue doing whatever action they added.
Glen Tamplen, a 28-year-old from Johnson City, is just returning to the church after time away, while he was living in West Virginia. Saying it felt like home to be back at the church celebrating Ash Wednesday, Tamplen said he embraces the chance to do something some people, especially in the South, might have never seen before and wear ashes on his forehead. Many people don’t adhere to the same faith that he does, and it might look funny to some, but he’s happy to have an opportunity to represent his faith and perhaps share it with someone else.
Often times, Tamplen and others will go to one of the day’s earlier services and wear the ashes throughout the entire day, but it’s not the duration of wearing the ashes that is important to him.
“It’s not how long you wear it,” Tamplen said. “It’s that you wear it and know what it’s about.”
The act itself is important and symbolic to many people, even if in transit, like Steve Koches, who lives just outside of Pittsburgh, but has been working in Piney Flats. Koches said he was working last year, too, and missed the chance to go to the Ash Wednesday service. He said his wife laid down an ultimatum this time around, saying he’d better find a church to receive ashes, or not come home. So, he found himself at St. Mary’s for the first time, excited to become, as Iorio would say, branded.
Although he says it’s an internal thing more than something you brag about, Koches and his wife, nicknamed “Rock”, will give up drinking beer for the 40-day period, something that’s quite manageable for them to do, as much as he says he enjoys a Yuengling. What’s important to Koches is having faith. While his wife is a strict follower of Catholicism, to him it’s more about believing in a god.
“As long as you believe in something, you’re probably a good person,” Koches said.