- Revised Common Lectionary Readings
- Worship Planning Notes
- Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário em português, Lecionário comum revisado
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: 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.”
Worship Planning Notes
Why do we begin Lent with such a stark reminder of death as Ash Wednesday?
Precisely because we are, during this season, preparing ourselves, and some among us, to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant more faithfully.
And baptism is about death first.
As Paul reminds us in Romans 6:4-5, in baptism we are co-buried with Christ into a death like his, that we may be raised with him in a Resurrection like his. We die—to sin, and to the power of death as a power over us. Easter Season is the time for focusing on life in the Risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. During Lent, we learn or learn more deeply what it means to “die to self and chiefly live by [God’s] most holy Word” (Claudia Hernaman, “Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days,” UM Hymnal, 269, verse 3).
Death to self is the journey of discipleship. To become a disciple of someone, as Jesus understood it and as rabbis in some branches of Judaism still practice it, is to submit oneself to learning everything about how the teacher lives. It is to put aside one’s own inherited patterns of life to learn those of another. From the earliest days, Lent was the final and most intense leg in a three-year journey of discipling, an opportunity for those who had become hearers of the Word (catechumens) to become doers also.
But we do not become doers of the Word, we do not become disciples of Jesus, without first dying to self. Jesus himself said this. Whoever wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. To deny ourselves is to die to ourselves.
So Lent begins with all of us together, disciples with decades of experience and those just now coming to the way of Jesus, enacting exactly what it takes for us to take this journey of discipleship. We acknowledge how overrun by sin our lives still are. And we take on the ashes as a sign of our mortality and sinfulness. We all begin this journey on that level playing field. We acknowledge we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
That is why 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 most appropriate ritual beginning for our personal and corporate disciplines of discipling and growing in discipleship, in death to self, 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 and Easter Season that will help you make these seasons of discipling in your congregation, view our webinar and download our handouts.
Simplicity and solemnity, quiet and focus. These are the atmospheric touchstones for this service. The ritual in the current Book of Worship provides the basic structure for this service as it has been kept worldwide for centuries.
No full sermon is needed. 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.
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 afterwards!—UMBOW 323-324). We celebrate Holy Communion. 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 these practices, but rather critique the ways they may have been perverted from means of grace that center individuals and refresh communities 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 God-centered, community-enriching fasting, private prayer, corporate repentance, and ministry with people who are poor, sick, oppressed, or in prison.
And as we noted, remember this service is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. It is the ritual initiation of a season of discipling and discipleship. And make sure the discipling systems are in place and operational so what you begin tonight actually begins what it is historically designed for.
In Your Planning Team
Think long term, through Easter Season, not just about this service.
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.
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.
Lent will be far more vital and powerful for your congregation if there are people preparing for baptism, professing membership or restoration to the community. 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
- 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.
Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions
Pages 320-324 in The United Methodist Book of Worship contain a full and integrated set of basic resources for Ash Wednesday.
The Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: We continue in prayer this week for Ireland and The United Kingdom.
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.