Ash Wednesday, Lent, and telling the Gospel Story through Liturgy
“These ashes remind us that we all need Jesus.” We passed around a small bowl of ashes to the children and let the children touch them and make observations. We pointed out how the ashes came from something alive but are now just ashes and dust (ashes are usually burnt from left over palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday).
We then put a sign of the cross on the back of their hands with the ashes (or forehead if they want) and we allow them to make their own cross on a poster with a large cross on it. It is a simple and interactive liturgy that embodies the message of Lent—intentional self-examination and reflecting on our need for God.
Our faith community “imposes” ashes the Sunday following Ash Wednesday. Ashes are just one way to tell the Christian Gospel through liturgy. “Liturgy” literally means the “work of the people,” in other words, what specifically we do in our worship, e.g. prayer, reading, and other elements of our worship.
In the context of the gathering community of faith, it is the shape and movement of our worship. Think of liturgy as the “worship arts” of the church… the thoughtful, meaningful, and artistic expression of our theology and faith.
Seasons and Time in the Church
Liturgy is also the organization of the church’s time and seasons. The liturgical calendar follows the story of salvation. This includes: Advent (the waiting), Christmas (12 days), Epiphany (light & life), Lent & Easter (death & resurrection), Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the work of the Church). The seasons of the church organize our time and prepare the Church continually for the Appearing (greek Parousia) or Christ’s eventual return.
Ash Wednesday & Lent
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a 40 day season leading to Easter. It is a season of renewal and returning to the Lord. During lent, we intentionally recall our own mortality and we put aside distractions to listen and focus on God. This is why many Christians will fast from certain foods or abstain from certain activities.
Lent can also be a season of dealing with sin and the things that keep us from becoming who we are yet to become by the grace of God. In short, Lent it is a season of self-examination. I like the simple prompts—STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, PRAY.
Christians receive Ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance. When ashes are placed on the forehead, the minister will say something like: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return…Repent and Believe… or Jesus Christ is our Savoir.”
For the children we chose the simple phrase, “These ashes remind us that we all need Jesus.” I knew the message had sunk in when one Ash Sunday, I overheard a child remarking the cross on her mother’s forehead…
“Mommy, I know why you have that cross on your forehead… It’s because we all need Jesus.”
Rooted in Tradition
Early Christians observed with great devotion the days of Jesus’ passion week and resurrection. It became customary to include penitence and fasting. Lent provided a time in which converts could prepare for Baptism (always done on Easter Sunday). Interestingly, Lent & Easter were also a time when those separated from the church for greater sins were reconciled and restored.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are great examples of practices rooted more in Church tradition than in direct biblical teaching. This is why they are often less known to Evangelical Christians who place less emphasis on Church Tradition. These traditions however, serve as a description of repentance and renewal rather than they are a prescription or simply rules or rituals to follow.
Lent can help us experience the movement from disorientation to orientation—allowing us to focus on where we are spiritually lacking and what repentance (or change) is needed in our lives. The message of Lent is that we all need to continually renew our repentance and faith. Lent invites us to do this through self-examination, repentance (addressing things that need to be changed), prayer, fasting, and self-denial/moderation.
In a world that does not value admitting mistakes, weaknesses, or vulnerability, Lent can open up a vital path to humility and spiritual renewal.