Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.
The prophet calls the people to offer corporate acts of lamentation and repentance to prepare for "the Day of the Lord, a day of darkness and thick gloom."
Psalm 51:1-17 (UMH 785).
You may wish to follow the psalm with the World Methodist Social Affirmation (UMH 886), the UM Social Creed Litany, or a confession of sin, such as UMH 893.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.
Be reconciled to God and persevere in the ministry of the gospel in the face of every obstacle.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
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Acts of piety (prayer, almsgiving, fasting) are important practices by which God transforms us, and through us, the world. Their value is lost if we use them to call attention to ourselves or make ourselves look "holier than thou."
Ash Wednesday is the start of the Lenten journey of 40 weekdays (Monday through Saturday) that takes the church to the eve of Easter. Sundays are not included in the count of 40 days, as Sundays in the Christian Year are always "little Easter" celebrations.
Ash Wednesday is about penitence. We confront our mortality and our sinfulness. We acknowledge and embrace our mortality through the imposition of ashes. We confess and turn away from our sinfulness through confession and pardon. These two actions—embracing our mortality and acknowledging and turning from our sin—are the heart of this service. They are our primary preparation for Holy Communion that follows, and the taking up of our personal and corporate disciplines of discipling throughout this season.
Less is more
. Do your best to focus on embodying these two actions, with as few words or explanations as possible, and you will have planned a powerful service that enables your congregation to do what is most needful for this day and the days ahead.
For more on Ash Wednesday, see page 321 in The United Methodist Book of Worship
. For more on planning for worship for Lent, Year A, click here
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Simplicity and solemnity, quiet and focus. These are the atmospheric touchstones for this service. The ritual in the current Book of Worship offers the shape for this service that has been kept worldwide for centuries. No full sermon is needed here. Perhaps the briefest of homilies, perhaps even just a series of words, as in this simple video by Greg Feightner would suffice. “Comments” or “stage direction” should be kept to a bare minimum. The focus is more on action than words, and should be. For a new version of this service with more fluid feel and incorporating visuals, consider trying “A Contemporary Service for Ash Wednesday.”
Psalm 51 from The Work of the People.com might set the sort of tone for a quiet, moving service of penitence moving toward the gathering around the Lord's Table, perhaps using either the Great Thanksgiving for Early in Lent (UMBOW 60-61) or Word and Table IV.
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Embodying the Word
The celebration of Ash Wednesday among United Methodists has changed dramatically during the past half-century. What had been, in the 1965 Book of Worship, essentially a ritual of listening to readings and prayers while the congregation mostly sat in the pews has been transformed by the 1992 Book of Worship into a set of ritual actions with some readings attached. Actions first, words second. We enter. We pray. We read Scripture. We respond with the imposition of ashes. We are invited to the Table, confess our sins, and make peace with one another. (Psalm 51 may function as the prayer of confession; be sure to declare pardon afterward!-- UMBOW 323-324). We celebrate Holy Communion (use "The Great Thanksgiving for Early in Lent," UMBOW 60-61). We are sent forth to serve.
The readings for Ash Wednesday focus on realigning spiritual practices with their intended purposes -- fasting, prayer, corporate acts of repentance, and giving to help the poor and needy. The texts provide no rejection of the importance of these practices, but rather critique the ways they have been perverted from means of grace that center individuals and refresh communities from ways they may have devolved into focusing on individualized, self-serving ends.
As you plan your service this year, consider how both in the service and beyond it you may help your congregation reclaim practices of fasting, private prayer, corporate repentance, and giving to the poor and needy that are God-centered and community-enriching. And as we noted above, be sure to connect this service’s ritual initiating Lent with the kind of Lent—a Lent focused on accepting and living out the challenges of discipleship to Jesus through the baptismal covenant—this year’s readings call us to embrace and embody.
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Make plans now to invite the congregation to reaffirm the baptismal covenant at the Easter Vigil (briefer version, here, and fuller version in Book of Worship, 369) or on Easter day, or one of the Sundays of the Great Fifty Days.
Think longer term than Sunday to Sunday from here to Pentecost. Lent, Holy Week, and the Great Fifty Days of Easter form the central cycle of Christian worship. They are the inheritance we have from the ancient church for making new Christians and reaffirming our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent will be all the more vital and powerful if there are people preparing for baptism who remind us of our own conversion journey. Be sure to choose, train, and appoint mentors/sponsors to journey with those who are to be baptized or confirmed during the Great Fifty Days. For more on mentors and sponsors, see Daniel Benedict's Come to the Waters (Discipleship Resources, 1997). Chapter 6 in this book gives an overview of the Lectionary texts for years A, B, and C as an intensive course in baptismal preparation.
On this day and on the First Sunday in Lent, include a bulletin insert that offers people specific ways of keeping specific spiritual practices (fasting, praying the hours, searching the Scriptures, holy conversation, silence, Sabbath, among others) and concrete ways to meet the challenges presented each Sunday.
Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline provides some practical guidance for a number of these disciplines. The insert might include the Covenant Discipleship categories of "Acts of Compassion," "Acts of Justice," "Acts of Devotion," and "Acts of Worship."
See Steven W. Manskar's Accountable Discipleship: Living in God's Household (Discipleship Resources, 2000), pages 24-29.
Encourage people to reflect on the opportunities and to choose a few that they sense will call them to a renewal of the baptismal covenant and a deeper level of discipleship.
Also see "Connecting Worship and Daily Living in Lent" for a personal preparation sheet and links to other resources to support your congregation’s daily journey through Lent to Easter.
Where do you get the ashes? If you have access to dried palm leaves, you may burn and grind them for a good black ash. When you come to Palm Sunday this year, save some of the palm fronds for burning for next year's Ash Wednesday service. If you don't have palm leaves, try burning dry leaves of some other type.
Many church supply houses offer ashes for sale.
Better, you might consider asking a neighboring church for any extra supply they may be willing to share.
See The Faith We Sing, 2138, "Sunday's Palms Are Wednesday's Ashes" -- a great opening hymn for this service; lovely and familiar American folk tune (Beach Spring). Just remember, contrary to what early versions of UMBOW 321 indicated, DO NOT MIX WATER WITH ASHES! Water plus ash creates lye—a caustic substance that will irritate and possibly burn the skin, potentially severely.
How to Use the Ashes
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Use finely ground ash with no additives. The finer the ash, the better it will stay put. You can achieve this with a mortar and pestle, or by placing the ash in a strong plastic bag and using a rolling pin over it for a few minutes then running the ash through a sieve, or by placing the ash in a coffee grinder (if you don’t plan to use the grinder for coffee again!).
Use your thumb to place the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those receiving it. The ash is a sign of mortality. As at baptism, the cross is the sign of Christ's death AND victory over sin and death. The sign made at baptism with water or oil that may not be seen is here visible to one and all during this solemn service of worship. It is a living reminder that we belong to Christ.
Do not remove the ash during worship. The gospel texts for this service that speak of not showing our piety before the whole world mean that, but Christian worship is not public in that way. Encourage people to keep the ash in place during the rest of the service, including Holy Communion.
After worship, remove the ash by rubbing or with oil, not with water. If you have applied the ash "dry," it will generally rub off easily, leaving at most perhaps a dull smudge. Those who wish a more through cleaning may use a few drops of olive oil on a moistened finger, and a quick wipe of a cloth towel. Provide stations with small bowls of olive oil and cloth towels near the exits for people to use if they wish. DO NOT USE WATER to try to remove ash. This will create a caustic solution that will cause skin irritation and possibly more serious burns.
Save the extra ash from the service for the following year. It may be stored indefinitely, or reverently returned to the earth.
Pages 320-324 in The United Methodist Book of Worship contain a full and integrated set of basic resources for Ash Wednesday.
The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: We continue in prayer this week, for Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino.
A Contemporary Service for Ash Wednesday contains full suggestions for instrumental music, recent hymns (from The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song), original liturgy and projected slides.
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I would recommend that you consider letting the ritual from the Book of Worship carry this service. Simply reading the Scriptures and the Psalter together would certainly be sufficient for this night. If you do decide to preach, be as brief and focused as possible.
On Ash Wednesday, we mark the beginning of the season of Llent with a very bleak reminder of our mortality. We enter into these forty days of reflection with a call for intense and intentional spiritual preparation.
How do we prepare? By self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
In other words, we spend these forty days looking at ourselves very carefully in a mirror and examining ourselves and our community, our acts of faith, and our sin.
We Methodists don’t often talk about sin, but facing sin is what this evening is about. Facing sin is what the entire season of Lent is about! So if you are going to preach, you need to preach about sin.
Lots of times when people hear the word sin, they think mostly in terms of personal failures, things they have done or left undone that make them feel guilty. Things they don’t like about themselves, and that they want to confess and be forgiven for.
This is a very individualist view of sin, focused primarily on one person’s relationship with the Lord. It is important, then, to remind your congregation that sin isn’t just about individual failures and shortcomings. The people of the Bible wrestled with their individual sins and temptations, but they also grappled with their sins as a community.
Corporate sin is evident in many of the stories that are told in Scripture. It is also evident in the prayers of the ancient Israelites – especially in the Psalms.
Yes, sometimes the prayers in the Psalms were about individual sins; but other times, the prayers called upon the entire community to stand together and confess that their entire nation had sinned. And when this happened, when the spiritual leaders stood and confessed the sins of their nation before God, there is no record of individuals offering vigorous protests that they were not to blame.
The people of Israel understood that they, as a group, took part in both the blessings that came to the nation of Israel for its wise decisions; and they collectively suffered the consequences that came from bad decisions made by their leaders. Rise or fall, they would face the consequences of their life together as a nation.
But this difficult concept may be more difficult for individualist Western minds to wrap our minds around. We have been conditioned by our culture to think of ourselves as sole beneficiaries of the benefits or consequences of our actions. We “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” Our problems may be seen primarily as the result of our personal failure to work hard.
What are some examples of corporate sin you see in your community, your state, and your world? Evidence of sin can come in the form of economic problems your community is facing together, such as the closing of a factory or the opening of a big box store, both of which may mean enormous loss of jobs. It could be seen in the form of corruption in the government. It may also be seen in natural disasters that could be linked to human activity that has harmed the environment. It could take the form of racism, sexism, or other prejudice.
Take this opportunity as the leader to name and lead your people to confess their corporate sins.
The present economic situation, the crisis in our government, the wave of natural disasters – all of these are daily reminders that we are in this together -- in spite of our individualism. If ever there were a time for us to consider corporate responsibility and corporate culpability, it is now.
The good news is that God has always been willing to forgive when a person or a nation repents. Find examples from the stories in the Old Testament where a nation has repented and turned their hearts to God anew, and God has, in turn, offered forgiveness and a fresh start.
Each year, the Ash Wednesday Scripture readings call us to be alarmed about ourselves, to tremble, to tear our clothes, to repent and pray.
Each year, we enter with Jesus into forty days in the wilderness, forty days of coming face to face with the temptations that beckon, forty days of reflection and spiritual preparation, forty days of walking in the footsteps of those who have gone before us in this ritual period of prayer and self-examination.
Each year, it is hard to come face to face with our mortality.
Each year, it is hard to come face to face with our sins.
Praise God that none of us has to face it alone. We walk into this period together, we face our challenges together, and at the end, we will rejoice together as we celebrate the promise of hope that comes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
The Preaching Notes are written by Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, GBOD, email@example.com
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