LOS ANGELES -- Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran church leaders of Los Angeles ushered in the Christian penitential season of Lent in an unprecedented ecumenical Ash Wednesday service.
Standing before an estimated 900 students at the University of Southern California, three clergymen -- Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Episcopal Bishop Frederick H. Borsch and Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Paul W. Egertson -- drew the sign of the cross on each other's foreheads with ashes to mark the beginning of Lent. They then placed ashes on the students.
The service was believed by participants to be the first time since the 16th century Protestant Reformation that bishops of the three churches had joined each other in an Ash Wednesday service. A Vatican spokesman said Wednesday he was unaware of any precedent. In 1993, leaders of the three churches in Los Angeles recognized the validity of each other's baptism rites. They participated in a joint baptismal service in 1994.
''It's one more step,'' Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, said after Wednesday's service. ''The more we seek common ground and do things together and encourage our parishes to do things together, all those are steps forward toward unity that we pray for.''
Egertson, bishop of the Southern California West Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, also alluded to continuing divisions.
''While Christians themselves continue to be enslaved by evil divisions within our own ranks, we three (bishops) are here as ambassadors to bear witness to God's work of reconciliation in the world,'' Egertson said.
Since the time of Jesus' apostles, Christians have observed a period of preparation and fasting before Easter. During this season, known as Lent, they are encouraged to pray, reflect, fast and seek forgiveness for their sins.
Traditionally, the ashes imposed on the foreheads of believers come from burning the dried palm branches used in the previous year's Palm Sunday services that commemorate Jesus' short-lived triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
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