So today I joined Father Acker, his wife Alice, and Dru and Jack for the morning Ash Wednesday service; there will be another tonight as well. After Morning Prayer, Father Acker prepared the ashes -- ashes of last year's fronds from Palm Sunday -- mixing them with holy water so that they would stick. Bowing my head while ashes are imposed on my forehead in the form of a cross while Father spoke: "Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" is reassuring as I am marked as Christ's own.
Praying Psalm 51 on my knees with other Christians is a worshipful and humbling experience, one that I highly recommend to all believers. Then we continued praying from the Penitential Office of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
O most mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his sin, and be saved; Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive , and comfort us who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgment with thy servants; but so turn thy anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our transgressions, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We also prayed the Lenten Collect which is to be prayed each of the forty days of Lent:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A few years ago, Pastor Stephen and I wrote up this little thing on Ash Wednesday that we put in the Lake Murray Sunday bulletin before Lent began. It's a wonderful little explanation for those of you who may not be familiar with liturgical practice:
What is Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday has been observed in the church since the late 500s and marks the onset of Lent, the forty days (not including Sundays) preceding Easter. The forty days of Lent parallel the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying, before starting His earthly ministry. If we back up forty days from Easter, skipping Sundays as they are always days of celebrating the Resurrection, we land on a Wednesday. It's called "Ash Wednesday" because ashes have been traditionally used to mark the foreheads or hands of those who attend church on that day.
In the Old Testament, ashes are a sign of humility and repentance of sin. (See 2 Sam. 13:19 and 15:2; Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:6, Jer. 6:26 ). Jesus mentions repenting in sackcloth and ashes in Matthew 11:21. A mark is a sign of ownership; in Ezekiel 9:4-6, a mark on the foreheads of the people provided protection to those who served God. Therefore, a mark of ashes shows that we repent of our sins and belong completely to God, submitting our lives to Him as a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to Him (Rom. 12:1). Ashes marked in the form of a cross are a fitting and visual reminder that we belong not to ourselves, but to Christ, and that we are adopting an attitude of prayer, repentance, and humility.
So how do we celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent? Look on this time as an opportunity for spiritual housecleaning. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, take this occasion to come quietly and reverently before the Lord, offering your life to Him to examine. Ask Him where He wants to work. Ask Him what He wants to change. Then take this Lenten time, these forty days, to work on those areas with His help, being devoted to prayer and perhaps asking another Christian for accountability. Replace the "junk" in your life with new spiritual habits that can take hold during these forty days. Perhaps too much time with the computer or TV can be turned into more time in the Word, prayer, or in discipling family members. Perhaps an over-dependence on food can become more disciplined through fasting from certain foods and increased time in prayer. Whatever the Lord convicts you of, set aside this time give up whatever is displeasing to Him and develop new habits that delight Him as we repent of what is old and put on what is New.
We could each do our repenting in the privacy of our own homes, but the unity of the Body of Christ will be strengthened and the Enemy weakened if we hold each other up in prayer and accountability during this time of Lent. Christians all over the world will be uniting in prayer, fasting, and repentance during Lent; joining them can only reinforce the Gospel of Christ throughout the lands and defeat the power of sin and darkness in the lives of Christians everywhere.