Planning - Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.
The prophet calls for the people to undertake serious 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 -- not to make us look important, but as means to let God transform us, and through us, the world.
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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.
This service is about penitence. It is about confronting our sinfulness and our mortality, confessing the former (through confession and pardon) and embracing the latter (through the impostion of ashes). It properly concludes with Holy Communion.
A reminder about the Sundays in Lent: The mood of Sunday services during Lent does not need to be penitential or "Good Friday" in feel or content. The Sundays in Lent each year are designed to take your congregation on a journey of preparation for baptism, with a slightly different focus for each year of the three-year cycle. In Year B, with readings from Mark, the readings direct us to the core challenges of discipleship to Jesus. These challenges are not presented to make us cower in fear, or withdraw into silence. They are presented to "spur us on to love and good works" as we engage discipleship to Jesus ourselves and walk with others who may begin to engage it with us in the waters of baptism or the oil of confirmation come Easter.
So think of Lent this year, guided by these texts, as a kind of spiritual "boot camp." Take on the challenges week by week and help one another get better at living them.
Let that spirit of getting ready for a spiritual boot camp pervade how you celebrate Ash Wednesday this year as well. Yes, you are sinners. Yes, you will all die. Embrace these realities, but resolve as you do not to let them define your lives here and now. Instead, let discipleship to Jesus and the challenges he presents determine how you will live as his disciples and as a community of those who bear his name
For more on Ash Wednesday, see page 321 in The United Methodist Book of Worship. For more on planning for worship during Lent, Year B, click here.
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Simplicity and spareness, 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 the 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 has been transformed by the 1992 Book of Worship into a set of ritual actions with some readings attached. 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 be 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 in God and restore communities to merely 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 -- this year's readings call us to embrace and embody.
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Make plans now to invite the congregation to renew their baptism at the Easter Vigil (briefer version, here, and fuller version in the 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 Lenten disciplines (both inward- and outward-journey kinds of things).
Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline provides some very 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 leading up 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. Some church supply houses carry ashes, if you need to go that route; or 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!
What do you do WITH the ashes? If you've not used ashes before, here are a few simple tips.
- Use finely ground ash with no additives. The finer the ash, the better it will stay put. You can achieve this with a mortal 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 itself 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, or indeed that we are, in ancient Roman terms, his bond slaves, and he is our master.
- 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 exist for people to use if they wish. DO NOT USE WATER to try to remove ash. This may 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.
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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, especially for Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Malta. Malta, where Paul was shipwrecked in Acts 28, is one of the most Christian nations on the planet, with an estimated 96 percent of the population identifying as Christian (95 percent Roman Catholic, many of them practicing!).
A Contemporary Service for Ash Wednesday contains full suggestions for instrumental music, recent hymns (from The Faith We Sing), original liturgy, and projected slides.
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