So today is Ash Wednesday…today also marks the beginning of Lent (which is Latin for Spring.) Lent is forty days of prayer and fasting before the season of Easter. You may say, “hold on a minute, there are 46 days between today and Easter.” You would be correct. The forty days refers to the weekdays – the six Sundays between now and Easter are not fast days.
These forty days are days of preparation for the celebration of Easter. In the early church, the forty days preceding Easter, where a time to prepare the baptismal candidates for baptism on Easter Sunday. At least for me over these next forty days, I focus on the cross of Christ – the sacrifice that was paid for my sin. In reality that is what Ash Wednesday is really all about. It is a service remembrance that we are all human, that we are all frail, that we are all dust and to dust we will return. Today many will read the words of David in Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb,
teaching me wisdom even there.
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Look with favor on Zion and help her;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.
Times of reflection are important in our lives. Take a look at how God reminded the Israelites time after time to remember. The best example is after Joshua led them across the Jordan River. Once they had crossed, God commanded them to take twelve stones and pile them up as a memorial to what God had done.
Jesus even instituted the Lord’s Table, so that we could remember. I think that is why I find myself drawn to these more liturgical forms of worship. One of the things that I have learned is that these forms of worship do not have to be cold and formal. It depends on the attitude of the heart. Isn’t that the way it is with all of our worship – it depends on the attitude of our heart.
I did not grow up in a liturgical church. In fact, I was in my thirties when I first was introduced to the church year. The first time I ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service is while I pastored a small church in upstate New York. We were invited by another evangelical pastor to the community ecumenical Lenten services. While I wasn’t an official member of the group, several times that year, I participated by leading part of the worship along with the other clergy. Yes, it was strange, and it was awkward, but there was a sense of connecting with the greater Church.
Some may think, I am doing something that is catholic. One of the things we tend to forget in our 21st century minds is that for 1500 years after Jesus’ resurrection, there was only one church. Immediately following the Reformation, you would have seen very few differences in worship from the church that Luther started as a result. Even the grandfather of our own movement, John Wesley, was an Anglican and would have followed the forms of the Anglican church.
Here are two links that ask the same question: “Why Ash Wednesday?” and answer it in greater detail. I liked the way both of these writers said it.
One of the things that I have noticed is that those who attended our service last year, where greatly moved, not only by the Ash Wednesday service, but by our Good Friday service as well. All of these help us prepare our hearts to celebrate Jesus crucifixion and his resurrection. How will you be preparing your heart? What areas in your life need to be renewed? Is there a place in your heart for revival?