“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow; tear your hearts
and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive.” – Joel 2:12-13, CEB
It was mid February in my first year at a new church. As I sat in my office creating the bulletin for Ash Wednesday, I realized I did not know their tradition of securing the ashes for this special service. I walked down the hallway to ask the church secretary about the ashes. Were there palm branches from the previous year that I could burn? Was there a special tradition around how and when they are burned and prepared? Or did the church simply order prepackaged palm ashes from a Christian bookstore or church supply distributor?
I will never forget the horror on her face and my subsequent shock to her response. “Oh Pastor, we don’t do ashes!” Trying to make sense of this, I said, “So, the confessional tone of the service is only reflected in the liturgy?” Her response was simply, “Oh goodness, no Pastor. Don’t you think all of that is a bit too depressing?”
The next week, in trying to get my bearings, I asked just about everyone in the church about their Ash Wednesday traditions. From my conversations and looking back into the files, I realized the church secretary had been right. Their Ash Wednesday services of the past had consisted of celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion, but did not included ashes or liturgies of confession. Not wanting to make a change the congregation might not fully understand, I decided that year was my first opportunity to explain why we celebrate Ash Wednesday.
The next year I introduced the imposition of ashes, giving permission for worshipers to participate in whatever way they felt comfortable by staying in their pews for silent prayer, receiving ashes on the back of their hand or in the sign of a cross on their forehead. I remember sitting in a worship committee planning meeting my fourth year there, and one of the new committee members asked if we would do the imposition of ashes again that year. The patriarch of the church who was also on the worship committee emphatically said, “Well, of course, we always have the ashes. The ashes are a symbol of our brokenness and need for God’s restorative power for hope and healing.”
In many ways, that “ash-less” Wednesday experience was a watershed moment for the congregation and me. Together, we realized how important it was to think about why we do the things we do. We spent time together studying and reflecting upon the history and rituals of Christian church. We even offered apologetics, written descriptions of the meaning behind the traditions and rituals we celebrated, and included them in the newsletter and bulletins. Most importantly, we spent a great deal of prayer and planning creating worship services throughout the liturgical year that might invite people into a place of honesty, which enabled them to fully receive God’s grace and mercy.
As we begin a new Lenten season, I pray you will take some time learning about the rituals and deep symbolism of this season. When you more fully understand why we do what we do in the Church, it helps to more fully see how this applies to your own spiritual life. May your Lenten season be an opportunity for you to deepen your relationship with God. May it be a time for reflection and renewal. And may it be filled with moments of awe, wonder and transformation.
Blessings to you each on your Lenten journey. Shana