My first Ash Wednesday service was in Chicago, some 45 years ago. In a new career position, I’d just been trained by someone who’d formerly followed my beliefs, but had discovered the joys of being Episcopalian. Jack, who enjoyed shocking me with belief practices foreign to my way of thinking, encouraged me to join him for Ash Wednesday services at a large Episcopal church. I was invited to receive the imposition of ashes, but, overwhelmed by the music, liturgy and unfamiliar practice, declined, unable to grasp it all.
Since then, I’ve received the ashes and over time, this spiritual practice became very important to me. The service marks the beginning of Lent, and focuses worshippers on Lent’s meaning and relationship to Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 40 days, plus six Sundays (nonfast days) before Easter, a period based in part on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Services draw on Genesis 3:19, God’s statement to Adam and Eve about the consequences of their sin.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, based on that Scripture verse and traditionally spoken by clergy, as ashes are traced in the form of a cross on one’s forehead. Traditionally ashes were made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds (now they’re often purchased from religious supply stores). Lent is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, repentance, redirection and sometimes fasting, which culminates in Easter. It can be a solemn time for refocusing one’s life.
Some churches offer Lenten services during the week; Sunday sermons focus on Lenten topics. If you don’t have a regular church home, a quick Internet search will turn up many local services. Churches offering Ash Wednesday and Lenten services mainly include Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. Some Baptist churches are adopting Lenten practices. A North Carolina Baptist Convention article, “Why the Baptist Church Should Celebrate Lent,” is useful, offering ideas for making Lent meaningful. Author Kenny Lamm writes, “In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the ‘real’ church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.”
The Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church offers a similar perspective on Lent. “There are many ways of looking at Lent. One is to view it as a spiritual journey into the wilderness,” he said. “The image works well here in Alaska; we are very familiar with going into the actual wilderness. We also know the importance of getting prepared. Few people would head into the Alaskan wilderness without a tent or a sleeping bag or bug dope or food, etc. How you prepare will be determined by the terrain where you are going and the length of the trip. It’s the same with Lent. The time to start preparing is now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. The two themes or goals of Lent are repentance/conversion and preparation for the celebration of baptism. We prepare to pursue these goals by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I usually ask folks to plan to do something significant in each of these three areas. It’s also important to remember the essential connection between fasting and almsgiving. Whatever you are abstaining from, you are supposed to take the money you would have spent on that and give it to the poor. Fasting without almsgiving is called a ‘diet’ and is of limited spiritual or practical benefit.”
Consider adopting a practice during Lent to grow as a Christian. Lax in Scripture study? Consider renewing this life-giving habit. Never fed the hungry or visited prisoners? Many church-led opportunities here can help. Need a break from the constancy of your electronic life? One day per week respite, shutting everything down, might be perfect for you. Sound a bit like Sabbath? Maybe it is, i.e. a cessation of all work for an entire 24-hour day. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Lent could establish some significant change in your life.
As in years past, a group of local Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to impose ashes upon request. One of those pastors, the Rev. Martin Eldred, says, “It gets us out of our comfort zones. Ash Wednesday in church is easier to set up; you wait for people to come. But taking ashes to the people is very visible; it’s good to shake up complacency and bring the Gospel to the people.”
“Taking ashes into Town Square Park and the downtown area reminds everyone we meet that we’re in the same human boat together,” says another Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour. “We are of the same dust and we are destined for the same end. Church buildings (and, sometimes, church leaders) can be barriers. Out in the open, we are there for conversation, for prayers, and for the reminder that we are all dust-made by God, loved by God, returning to God one way or another.”
These pastors aren’t proselytizing, but serving God’s children, reminiscent of the work of Sara Miles, director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In her book “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” Sara tells of taking ashes to the people on Ash Wednesday.
“God meets God’s people all over the place: by the side of a lake, in a city square, an upstairs room, a manger, a burning bush, a human body,” she told National Catholic Reporter. “The idea that liturgy should only happen inside church buildings is fairly recent: in fact, faith is practiced everywhere, in homes and public places as well as in temples. Taking ashes outdoors is just one example of contemporary worship beyond the building: you could also look at street churches, unhoused congregations, outdoor processions and vigils.”
I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.
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