A stark wooden cross, draped in purple, overlooked a crowd of some 250 people as they streamed into Grace United Methodist Church in North Augusta for Ash Wednesday services.
Ash Wednesday opens the 40-day season of Lent, a time of self-denial and good works. Lent ends with Easter, the observance of Jesus' resurrection. Most Christian churches will celebrate Easter on April 4.
Many in the Augusta-Aiken area attended ecumenical services such as Grace's or denominational observances such as one at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Lent leads to the cross, the symbol of forgiveness, said Dr. Gary Redding, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Augusta, who preached at Grace's interdenominational service.
Talking about forgiveness the first day of Lent is hard, but people need time to wrestle with the idea, he said.
"Forgiveness is the biggest challenge in the bag," Dr. Redding said.
He told of the Jewish patriarch Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and later, as an Egyptian leader, had the perfect opportunity to get even. Unknown to them, Joseph toyed with the idea of revenge. One moment he had his brothers thrown in jail; the next he was overcome with sorrow.
For weeks, maybe months, Joseph struggled with forgiveness but in the end, he forgave his brothers. Joseph wept so loudly it could be heard all over his palace, said Dr. Redding.
Why did Joseph cry? Dr. Redding quoted author Philip Yancey, who said it was grief and love, "the sound of a man forgiving his brothers."
This was the third year for Sharon Fernstrom of North Augusta to attend the ecumenical services.
"I want to make all the services I can," she said.