Ashes? Yes! A service of penitence and renewal

Bulletin Note

Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day in the Christian church calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a time of penitence, discipline, and renewal. In the Ash Wednesday service we are reminded of our mortality, we confess our sins, and we experience forgiveness through Christ's death and resurrection. The "imposition of ashes" is a central part of the service. During this time you are invited to come forward to receive the ashes on your forehead.

In Saipture, ashes serve both as a symbol of mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance. But neither sin nor death are the final word. We leave the service in confidence and gratitude: Christ has conquered death, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

 

ORDER OF SERVICE

(Including Leader's Comments and Reflections)

Our Approach to God

Prelude and Silent Meditation: "Christ, Hie Life of All the Living" (see p. 27)
[Bach]

Introduction to the Service

Welcome to this Ash Wednesday service. Just a brief word of introduction about the service. When we come to the part in the Order called "Imposition of Ashes," about ten of us will gather on the platform. We will first apply the ashes to each other, and then we invite you to come forward. You may either kneel or stand.

Let us worship God.
Choral Call to Worship: "If You Believe"
[from Zimbabwe; included in the collection Sen! by the. Lord (G.I.A,)]
Hymn: "Christ, the Life of All the Living" Choir only on stanza 2
[PsH 371]

Scripture and Reflection

Are you sure that you ought to come and have the ashes imposed on your forehead? My hunch is that for many of you it will be the first time, and that probably no more than one percent of Reformed and evangelical churches will conduct an Ash Wednesday service today. But listen to these words from Scripture:

Daniel 9:3-5; 18-19

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed:

"O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.

"Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name."

Ashes? Yes!

Ashes—Yes, but don't bother coming up if it's only a novelty, only a curious ritual, only a substitute. The prophet Joel says, "It may be O.K. to rend your garments and douse yourself with a bucket of ashes, but if it's only a ritual—don't bother. Rend your hearts, and ask for forgiveness." Kneel down here, but only if your heart and spirit is submissive to the Lord.

Joel 2:1-2; 12-13

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
Let all who live in the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming.
It is close at hand—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was of old
nor ever will be in ages to come.
"Even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning."
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.

Ashes? Yes, but Make Your Heart Right

Why ashes? When I clean out my fireplace, I get streaks of dirt on my hands, and the dead leftovers get put in the trash. Ashes are inert, dead, dirty. And maybe that's why God's people of old put ashes on their heads—to show that they were mortal and spiritually empty. Ashes became a symbol for the barrenness of their lives, of their need for forgiveness, and of their desire for renewal.

Yes, you may wish to come to have ashes imposed on your head, but remember, probably nothing mysterious or magical or mystical will happen. Rather we do this to show that with God's ancient people, we know in our bones and skin that we, in ourselves, are dead, and we say, "Lord, we repent in dust and ashes. Forgive us. Revive us again."

Isaiah 58:5-7

"Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day to humble oneself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
"Is not this the kind of feasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

Ashes? Yes, but Do Justice

Ashes—Yes, it's the right kind of ritual. But again, don't bother if this is a substitute for living right. The Lord thunders through the prophet Isaiah: I'm tired of your church services, your sermons, your Praise & Worship, your seeker services, your Ash Wednesday rituals. These things mean nothing if you're not obedient to me, and if you don't undo tire violence in your society, the injustice that cries to heaven. The ashes on your forehead should make you work for justice for the poor and homeless, for peace in South Africa and Bosnia, and against racism on your campus.

Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness
a planting of the LORD
for tire display of his splendor.

Ashes? Yes, but Seek New Life in Christ

Finally__ashes only because they will be applied in the form of the cross. Ashes of deadness only because the cross has given us new life. In celebrating the church year, always remember that even during Easter we still see the outline of the cross; and during Lent we already see the promise of tire open tomb.

We will leave here quietly meditatively but also joyfully. We are sinners, but forgiven sinners. We lift high the cross. We go through Lent with renewed gratitude to Christ, with new discipline and dedication. You may keep the ashes on your forehead for the day (if you don't feel too self-conscious about it), but we know that Christ has already turned our ashes into the garland of victory.

Imposition of Ashes

Anthem: "Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs," sung during the imposition
[Lotti]

Prayer of Confession

Psalm 51: "Create in Me a Clean Heart"

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.

(Repeat)

Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord,
and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation,
and renew a right spirit within me.
[Composer unknown; arr. © 1986 Maranatha! Music]

Assurance of Pardon
Blessing

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.