Now that Christmas and Epiphany are over, let’s start thinking about Lent, Palm Sunday and Easter. In fact, let’s throw Ash Wednesday in there.
Ash Wednesday Service
Ash Wednesday is February 17 this year. Does your church usually have an Ash Wednesday service or not? Do you impose ashes? I don’t know how many Ash Wednesday services my home church had growing up, but it feels like it was always a part of my tradition. I love evening services with candlelight and ritual. I love Ash Wednesday services.
I found my favorite Ash Wednesday service online in 2000. It’s from Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Somerville, Massachusetts, by way of Sue Hamly. Thanks to both of you!
At the beginning of the service are a few words of welcome and introduction. Then there is 20 minutes of meditation time, with keyboard music or Taize songs. People could choose to simply sit in their seats, listen to the music, and pray or reflect. Or they could visit one or more “reflection table” that was set up with a few chairs around each one.
There were four tables. At each table was clay, water, oil, or ashes. There were cards with a scripture passage, a reflection, and an action for each element.
After the 20 minute meditation period, we had a traditional Ash Wednesday service, with imposition of the ashes, taken from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Here is what I put on the cards for each station:
1The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
Reflection: One of the ways in which sin is described in the Bible is as a “hardness of heart.” Do you ever feel that your heart is hard, that it is inflexible or judgmental? Do you keep your guard up in your relationships with others and/or with God? Reflect on the way in which this is true.
Action: Take a piece of clay. Warm it in your hands and knead it until it becomes pliable. Give it a new shape – perhaps a small bowl which could symbolize receptivity to God and to God’s forgiving love.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Reflection: One of the ways in which we can understand Lent is to see it as “Spring Cleaning.” Just as we will clean our houses in preparation for a visit from a special guest, so we take time to examine our lives in preparation for our encounter with the risen Christ at Easter. Are there closets where you store past resentments? Clean them out! Is there a sink full of dishes with the residue of negative behaviors? Start scrubbing!
Action: Dip your hands into the water in the bowl on the table before you, and wipe your hands dry on the cloth provided. As you do so, reflect on what your life could be like, thoroughly rinsed with God’s love. Take a marble as a reminder of God’s cleansing love.
19The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
21But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Reflection: The author of Lamentations spends most of his time complaining, both about the world’s afflictions and his own. One thought gives him or her peace: the steadfast love of God. The knowledge of God’s unshakable love, even in the midst of trouble, is finally the grease which makes the squeaky wheel of lamentation fall silent.
Action: Dip your finger in the oil in the bowl on the table before you and smooth it onto the back of your hand. As you do, reflect on the parts of your life which are stiff and squeaky – places where you are stuck, places which give you cause for continual complaint. Consider how the love of God might lubricate these parts of your life, renewing them, making them usable in a way they have not been before.
19 “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Reflection: Ash Wednesday used to begin a season of 40 days of deadly serious penance. It included a type of fasting far stricter than most diets today, embracing the absence of all life’s pleasures and enjoyments. There is evidence that marking the face or body with ashes began in Gaul in the 6th century and was at first confined to public penitents doing penance for grace and notorious sin, whom the clergy tried to comfort and encourage by submitting themselves to the same public humiliation. For our spiritual ancestors, the people of Jewish and other Near Eastern cultures, wearing ashes was a sign of mourning and lamenting. Ashes were usually associated with sackcloth, which was the clothing worn to mourn the death of a beloved or to lament a personal or communal disaster. Humans are the only species we know of who are capable of contemplating their own death. Yet few of us do. Ash Wednesday challenges us to reflect on our own death so that we can truly embrace life. The mark of ashes reminds us that only by a Christ-like death can we experience the promise of Easter’s life.
Action: Dip your finger in the charcoal and make a cross on the back of your hand. Press firmly. (It may work best in the same spot where you have already rubbed in the oil.) Reflect on the gift of life over death symbolized by the cross. Offer this prayer: O God, may I often remember the symbol of the cross upon my hand and say, “I am dust that will return to dust, yet in You I trust.”
The first time I led this service, a family came with four children. The kids loved it! As did the adults.