Tomorrow marks the beginning of the church season called Lent. While we praise God every day of our lives, during Lent our lives and our worship become more muted and quiet. For during the next 40 days we will meditate upon our Savior who came to carry our sins and die in our place. Our reserved and contemplative worship reminds us of the depth of suffering which our sins have caused and which our Savior endured.
The first day of Lent is 40 days before Easter, on a day that has become known as Ash Wednesday. Here are some historical notes on Ash Wednesday, adapted from a post by Pastor Johnold Strey of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Belmont, CA:
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian’s 40-day journey (excluding Sundays) to Jesus’ cross and his tomb to await the proclamation of Easter. Ash Wednesday begins the Christian’s Lenten journey with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance. The ancient practice of imposing ashes on the foreheads of Christians gives Ash Wednesday its name. The church father Tertullian (c. 160-215 AD) writes of the practice as a public expression of repentance and of our human frailty that stands in need of Christ. The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusively Roman Catholic practice, but today is observed widely by Christians of many traditions.
Today, midweek evening services for Lent have become the norm in Lutheran congregations, and the repentance theme of Ash Wednesday is often replaced by a focus on the Savior’s Passion, a focus at one time reserved for Holy Week alone. In popular practice, Ash Wednesday has become the first in a series of six services that include the reading of the Passion history and a review of one or another aspect of the Savior’s suffering and death. Most of our Lenten sermon series as well as most of the worship resources produced in our circles have placed Ash Wednesday into the regular set of midweek Lenten services.
In recent years there has been renewed interest to return to a confession and absolution focus for Ash Wednesday worship. That confession and absolution focus will be emphasized in our service at Christ the King on Ash Wednesday evening. Black, the color of sorrow and death, will be used rather than the normal purple of Lent. The Ash Wednesday service reflects a serious tone of meditation and repentance over sin.
We will also include the imposition of ashes for the third consecutive year in our Ash Wednesday service this week. The service will begin with an extended corporate confession of sins (identical to our Ash Wednesday services in recent years). Near the end of this opening rite, worshippers who want to receive the sign of ashes may come forward. Participation is voluntary. Children are welcome to participate at their parents’ discretion. Guests are also invited to participate.
The traditional custom for the imposition of ashes is that the minister places the ashes on each person’s forehead in the shape of a cross. In our worship at Christ the King, the ashes will be placed in the form of a cross on the back of your hand instead. As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (see Genesis 3:19). Worshipers then return to their seats.
The goal of a custom like the imposition of ashes is to proclaim God’s law in several ways (in the confession of sins, in hymns, in the sermon, and with the use of ashes), just as we proclaim the gospel in several ways (in absolution, in hymns, in the Creed, in the sermon, in the Lord’s Supper, through visual art such as banners, and in various worship ceremonies). Many worship scholars, both within and outside of Lutheranism, have observed that we have entered a more visual and tactile generation. That observation has led many Christians and churches to seek visual, tactile ways to proclaim law and gospel in worship. The Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes is one example of a tangible way to proclaim God’s Word in our worship. May its message impress our hearts and minds with our need for Christ’s salvation!
Indeed, as we use this ancient ceremony in our Ash Wednesday worship, we pray that the law of the Lord strikes our hearts with sorrow and repentance over our sin and then turns our hearts toward our Savior from those sins, Jesus Christ. For in him alone do we find forgiveness and salvation.
God bless us all as we meditate on that Savior during Lent, and God grant that our quiet contemplation prepare us for the joy of victory on Easter morning!