Ash Wednesday Service at 5:30pm
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. The biblical witness is found in the opening epic of the human story: “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). In the tenth century the use of ashes was employed in visibly reminding worshippers of their mortality as they began their Lenten “watch by the cross.”
This first day of Lent reminds us (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer #88) that two things are involved in genuine repentance: “the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new.” The way to Easter is the way of the cross. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). New life with Christ involves a daily surrendering of the old life. The first step of this Lenten journey invites us to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness by the imposition of ashes.
Traditionally, the ashes for the service are prepared (well ahead of time) by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The ashes should be ground to a fine powder and mixed in a shallow bowl with a little water or oil. (It is also helpful to have a damp towel available for the hands of those who impose ashes.) As each worshiper comes forward the ashes are imposed on the forehead in the sign of a cross and the words of Genesis 3:19 are repeated each time: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of ashes is often preceded by a call to confession and followed by a litany of penitence or a corporate prayer of confession, calling to mind the words of Job, “I repent in dust and ashes.”
Imposition of ashes can be a deeply moving, though sobering experience. If imposition of ashes is likely to be new and unfamiliar to people in your congregation, care should be taken in introducing the practice and in preparing the congregation for their participation. There should be adequate explanation and ample opportunity for discussion and decision by the worship committee and consistory. If the consistory decides to include imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service, no worshipper should feel compelled to come forward to receive ashes, nor should the practice be seen as a way of displaying one’s piety before others. It is simply a vivid and tangible reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our utter dependence upon the grace of God and the power of Christ’s resurrection.