Ash Wednesday is the first day of what the church has historically called the Season of Lent. As early as the 4th century the western church had determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Jesus’ 40 day fast (Matthew 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (Excluding Sundays) arrived on Wednesday seven weeks before Easter.
The aim of Ash Wednesday worship is threefold: to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance; and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin. Ash Wednesday service is filled with gospel truth. It is a witness to the beauty of our union with Christ and the daily action of dying and rising with Christ that points to this reality.
In some traditions the imposition of ashes is often a central part of the worship service. The ashes, which often are the burnt residue of the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday, are often mixed with a little water and carried in a small dish. As the leader goes from worshiper to worshiper, the leader dips a finger in the ash and makes a cross on each person’s forehead saying words such as “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Jesus Christ.”
In some contexts, the imposition of ashes may be a barrier to thoughtful worship because of its newness or because it may be misunderstood. The most important part of Ash Wednesday worship is that worshipers rend their hearts (Joel 2:13). With that in mind, let us begin this Ash Wednesday Liturgy.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for we shall praise him, our help and our God.
From Psalm 42:5/124:8
Lord, our God, you are full of compassion. As we enter this season of Lent, send your Spirit so that we may grow more and more aware of our need for a Savior, Turn away from our sinful habits regularly and genuinely, resist temptations great and small, And remember with confidence that our Lord Jesus conquered sin and death.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust.
Nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die,
that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days—you whose years endure
throughout all generations!”
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Gracious God, out of your love and mercy
You breathed into dust the breath of life,
Creating us to serve you and our neighbors.
In this season of repentance,
restore to us the joy of our salvation
and strengthen us to face our mortality,
that we may reach with confidence for your mercy,
in Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever. Amen.
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”
We want always to remember
That you love us, died for us, and rose from the dead for us.
In the next weeks, help us to remember, and help us trust in you more and more. Amen.
May God, who by his power
raised from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ,
hold you in his love,
surround you with his presence,
give you grace for every need,
and present you whole and holy
in the day of Jesus Christ.