Ash Wednesday for Newbies

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Do not be surprised this week when your co-workers and neighbors appear with smudgy foreheads. You will be tempted to grab a Kleenex and help them rub out the vaguely cross-shapen smears. Resist this urge. They have not become hygienically challenged – It is Ash Wednesday!

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent, an archaic word for “spring,” came to refer to a season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year preceding Easter – Sort of a “spring training” for the spiritual life. Christians in the ancient traditions spend the 6 weeks before Holy Week in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember the greatness of God at Easter. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off.

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets (“repent in sackcloth and ashes“). Among Christians, the imposition of ashes associated with a 40 day fast began in the 4th century. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is a bit spotty. By the end of the 10th century, though, it was a long-standing custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lent. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice to Rome.

What do you do?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Afterward people go forth to spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to recall the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

Why?

Contrary to common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor  making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  It is instead about mindfulness. When we think about God, well that is a good thing. By the way, Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision in his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Can I come?

Yes! You can find an Ash Wednesday service at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. Services are usually offered multiple times per day. You do not need to be a member. Everyone is welcome. Although in Roman Catholic churches there are requirements for receiving communion, and Episcopal churches ask you to be baptized for communion, everyone can receive ashes.

I invite you, come to church this Ash Wednesday!

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Lent: Spring Training for Christians

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Wednesday is the Opening Day of Spring Training.

“Lent” is the Dutch and archaic English word for “Spring.” It came to refer to the season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year – hence, “Spring Training.” Play along with the analogy for a moment: Spring Training is where baseball players find out what they’ve got, where they learn and experiment with new skills, and where they figure out what they still need to hone for the regular season. Lent is the Church’s 40-day preparation for the regular season-the rest of life.

And Opening Day, Ash Wednesday, is this week.

Spiritual preparation

Lent is a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices, or disciplines prepare and free us, much the way a great hitter’s thousands of swings, day in and day out, give him the freedom to hit pitches a lesser batter wouldn’t dare swing at, or the way the apostle John’s years in prayer wore out his knees but shaped him into the apostle of love. Lenten practices, over time, produce a freedom, and open us for the grace of God to more fully shape and captivate us.

No “brownie points” are given

Contrary to a common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, merit-earning, or God impressing. Neither is it a way to make belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate. No human is rendered worthy through repentance. Worry not, theological policeman: ashes, penitence, and Lenten disciplines are not works to earn God’s forgiveness.

Forgiveness is earned

Forgiveness is earned though…just not by us. Forgiveness was earned by God at God’s initiation and God’s expense. We ARE forgiven because we WERE forgiven – on Calvary. Our forgiveness was proven three days later as a risen Lord walked victorious from the mouth of an empty tomb. That is why we are penitent – We have seen the great acts of God on humanity’s behalf. Our efforts are merely “training” in walking in gratitude of that gift.

And so, in anticipation of celebrating anew the Easter event, we spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline remind us of the greatness of our God and Savior.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service (you can find one at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church) you will listen to Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance, have ashes imposed on your forehead to remind you, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then we will go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

The tradition of the ashes began as early as the 4th century, associated with a 40 day fast. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is spotty. It is clear that by the end of the 10th century it was a longstanding custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the tradition to the church in Rome.

The Scripture readings point us toward our need for humility before God. We will read from the prophet Joel who reminds us that God is rightfully upset at our forgetfulness of both him and the least of his creatures. Joel implores us to, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”  – It is an internal brokenness God desires, for it is through brokenness that God’s love seeps through the cracks of our hard outer shells of self-reliance and idolatry and transforms us from the inside out.

We will also read 2nd Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, in which Paul entreats us “be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – A righteousness not from us: It is “of God.” This passage begins with the completion of a sentence in which Paul is exhorting the Church to be “Christ’s Ambassadors,” bearers of the message of reconciliation.

Seriously?

Did the gravity of that sink in? The holy Lord of all creation…the God whom the Israelites in the wilderness trembled at a distance as he hid his holiness in a terrifying cloud atop a mountain…the God whose moral perfection and purity was such that Moses could only see God’s back as he passed by…the God whose ark representing his presence couldn’t be touched, even in its defense, without the offender being struck down…THAT holy God makes us to be THAT righteousness in his sight.

…Even more, that same God calls us to the high and holy calling of reconciling other broken humans to himself.

So the reason Christians are penitent at Lent is that our spiritual life isn’t just a nice experience for ourselves. We acknowledge a calling far beyond human reason or human capacity. Our hope is that, by being increased in love and mercy as we pursue Christ, we would be a help to others in their journey toward the Savior. Lent is an opportunity for God to call us deeper into himself and his high and holy purpose of pointing our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers to the great mercy of the Triune One.

And so we will go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly that, “We are dust.” But we are redeemed dust.  Grateful dust. Dust with a purpose.

Spring Training is upon us!

Come find out what you’ve got. Learn and experiment with new skills. Figure out what you still need to hone. Every once in a while a professional athlete, for one reason or another misses Spring Training. It almost always shows. Would you like to be more serious about your spiritual “game”? Ash Wednesday is a great place to start.