I love the liturgy of the Ash Wednesday service in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. While you might think an Ash Wednesday service would be a depressing focus on sin, I find it to be very powerful and even uplifting.
The opening prayer gets me right away:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have created and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
I think being reminded of God’s forgiveness before we confess our sins reinforces God’s unconditional love for us.
On of the readings usually is Psalm 103, which includes these verses:
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and full of great kindness.
He will not always accuse us,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
This Psalm brings to mind a “children’s sermon”that I heard years ago. The pastor talked about how children always want to be treated fairly, and how siblings especially don’t want their brother(s) or sister(s) getting more than they deserve. But he explained that we are lucky that God doesn’t treat us fairly–He gives us more than our “fair share” and doesn’t hold every wrong against us. To me, this Psalm is a reminder that God sees us apart from our shortcomings and wrong-doings.
After the Bible readings, the service continues with an invitation to observe a holy Lent, which begins:
Dear People of God . . .
Seriously, I just love that phrase, maybe because it connotes a sense of belonging to God.
Of course, it is a solemn service. With the imposition of ashes the priest reminds us:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
and the Litany of Penitence has nearly two full pages of ways in which we have fallen short of God’s will for us, from failing to love our neighbors as ourselves, to being self-indulgent and envious, to being negligent in prayer and worship. I am guilty in all these ways, but still I leave the service reassured of God’s love.
I still haven’t decide how I am going to observe a holy Lent–what practices of “self-examination and repentance,” “prayer, fasting and self-denial,” and “reading and meditating on God’s holy word” I will focus on for the next 40 days, but at least I have started Lent with a sincere and contrite heart.
Are you giving up anything or committing to do anything for Lent?
If you got ashes today, has anyone told you that you have a smudge on your forehead?