The season of Lent is both rich and scary. The season is rich because we are invited to dig deep into our faith practices and determine whether we are on the right path to becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. We are encouraged to look at our whole lives and then to lay them alongside the life of Christ and see how we measure up. That is where the scary part comes in.
Being honest with ourselves is a difficult exercise; that’s part of why we need forty days to do it. It takes diligence and discipline and a whole lot of grace to see ourselves as we truly are. In fact, it might be argued that we are incapable of doing this Lenten thing on our own. It is simply beyond our capabilities and certainly beyond our inclinations. The only hope we have is to be gathered up in Jesus.
The guiding image for this series is found in Jesus’ own words. In Luke 13:34, the gospel text for the Second Sunday in Lent, Jesus tells us how he wants to gather us up, like a mother hen gathers her brood. He wants us to claim him, to run to him, to be loved and cared for by him. But this is not to avoid the Lenten examination. Rather, it is to be able to endure it. We can stand the scrutiny of the questions about the state of our souls because we have one who will love us no matter what we find. We can be honest with our failings and our successes because there is one who cheers us on no matter how we have run the race so far.
The season of Lent is essential for those who truly seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Because a part of what we learn in this time of self-examination is that we are what might be most in need of transformation. We might find that what might need to grow in faith and discipleship is the church and that the transformation of the world begins with building bridges and gathering up rather than with condemnation.
We hope you’ll join in with churches around the world as we seek to be gathered up in Jesus.
Ash Wednesday is an observance built around the imposition of ashes and not on the proclamation of the Word. The worship team should make sure that the focus is on the ashes and the symbolism that is inherent in them. Even if you don’t actually apply them to the forehead or any part of the body, the ashes can still remind us of our mortality and our human sinfulness. This is essentially a call to the Lenten observance; therefore, it needs to take the center place.
The words in the Book of Worship are an effective way of presenting the main theme of the Ash Wednesday observance. (See the explanation on page 321 of The United Methodist Book of Worship, also the “Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline,”, 322.) If your congregation is not used to the ritual of the imposition of ashes, some conversation ahead of time might help them be willing to adopt the practice. There is something significant and moving about being marked as a sign of our faithfulness and willingness to journey toward discipleship.
The theme of the series gives an indication of the mood in which this call is made. It is not one of condemnation, but of encouragement to move into the loving arms of Christ. Ash Wednesday is an acknowledgement of our need for a savior, but also the good news that the savior leads with grace.
So, we create space for worshipers to spend time in prayer and confession. This could be during the imposition of ashes or at other places in the order of worship. The music can carry the twin themes of the call to repentance and the loving grace of Jesus. A hymn like “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (United Methodist Hymnal, 269) does that nicely with “teach us with thee to mourn our sins” (v.1) and “Jesus with us abide” (v.3). Find ways to offer grace without muting the call. Through it all, we are being gathered up in Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.