As a pastor, I never failed to worship on Ash Wednesday, but the proclamation on those days is never long or detailed. The liturgical act of the imposition of ashes and hearing the ancient scriptures associated with the beginning of Lent take on a greater significance for me. I have always planned worship to be full of silence with pregnant pauses after the reading of the scriptures, and time to contemplate those words we will hear again: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
- The text of Joel is beautiful poetry that points to the challenges ahead for God’s people as they confront their future in Exile. The ‘Day of the Lord’ is a theme throughout the prophets, and Joel makes it clear that the day is not a day of glory and light like many want, but one of gloom and darkness. The prophet calls the people of God to a solemn fast and time of repentance. It is a call to return to God under dire circumstances. Sometimes the most difficult words and harsh warnings sound better in rhythm and rhyme. am reminded of the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. which were both prophetic and beautiful to hear. Some questions to ponder- How is 7th century BCE Judah similar to 21st century America? How are the the people of God similar?
- Psalm 51 is the traditional Psalm for the day. Other sources use Psalm 103. Psalm 103 focuses on God’s mercy and steadfast love. It is a definite word that needs to be heard on this first day in Lent. The scriptures and message of the day can be very dark and forbidding unless we understand them as rooted in the grace of God. Psalm 51 also proclaims God’s steadfast love, but also calls the reader to repentance and a “broken and contrite heart.” The past few year in the Episcopal Church where I have attended, we used it as a unison “hymn” read during the imposition of ashes. It is a powerful passage of scripture full of dynamic images.
- In year’s past, I either left this scripture out of the readings for the service, or we just read them followed by silence. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are well appointed for the day, but I don’t find them to be as powerful as the first lesson or the Gospel.
- The reading from Matthew 6 is the ancient reading for Ash Wednesday. I view the Sermon on the Mount as an introductory course in being a disciple of Jesus. This is very straightforward teaching from Jesus of what it means to be a follower. We can try to interpret away the significance of prayer and fasting and how its centrality may be different in our day than his, but we would not be faithful to the text. Jesus gives us a warning-“Beware of practicing your piety before others…” In a world that goes bonkers over reality shows, and a country full of churches that work hard to practice their piety before others, the Gospel calls us to reevaluate. Jesus makes some assumptions about his followers–they give to the poor, they pray, they fast. Notice he starts those sentences with the word, “When” not “If.”
- The Church is called on Ash Wednesday to remember who it is, and some of our important practices–we care for those in need, we pray and we fast. Jesus ends that section of his sermon with a reminder that we are not supposed to be about hoarding earthly treasures, but living for Kingdom purposes. When I hear the Gospel, and then hear the words said over me–Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return–I am reminded that I am called to spend these finite days on earth in service of the Holy One and not of my own desires. I can’t think of a better way of starting the season of Lent and the journey to the cross with Jesus.