Planning the Ash Wednesday service

Scattered thoughts:

  1. Even if you have an Ash Wednesday tradition, unless your church is large and in a pedestrian-centered district, midday services will drum up tiny congregations. Early morning and evening services are more appropriate, and I’m betting on the latter.
  2. Don’t fetishize the palm ash. Unless you already make your own bread, clothes and biodiesel, buy it from a church supply house. “Homemade” tends to be gritty and forced exfoliation is not a standard Lenten discipline.
  3. Despite the tradition, I’m not thrilled with imposing ashes at all, and certainly not on others’ foreheads. There’s something not quite biblical about it, and the gesture seems intrusive. If I had to do it all over, I would impart ashes on the back of the hand, which keeps the focus of the symbol on self-reflection.
  4. I’m not usually a big fan of people sharing their faults, sins or hope for amendment of life because social pressures keep participants from “going deep” and telling the heart truth. Anything less is a setup for self-delusion and that’s defeats the purpose.
  5. The focus of the service probably should be on the meanings and opportunities for Lent to take a slow, deliberate and thorough inventory of one’s failings, faults, sins and limitations (FFSL) and find a way to change or adapt to them as appropriate. It is the beginning of a Lenten process and the resumption of a lifelong process, so additional rites — writing down failings and burning them, say — addressing the end and ends of the process are out of order. Perhaps you can address these at the first Sunday after Easter.
  6. A brief instruction on how to account for one’s FFSLs would be OK, provided the advise goes past the tired chestnut of journaling. We’ve already heard of that. Writers on personal productivity might have some alternate ideas.
  7. Liturgy is not about a quorum of words. If you find a resource that seems to fit the pastoral need but is too long, trim to fit. Pacing is probably more important to impatient ears anyway.
  8. That said, service elements, based on the Church of England’s Common Worship here. (About a third of the way down.) Try and find, or compose, a good Ash Wednesday collect because you can thematically hang all the other elements of the service on it.
  9. Universalists didn’t do anything I could find about Ash Wednesday, and the Unitarians, via King’s Chapel, has done little (that’s in the public domain now) that is terribly interesting. Their use (1850 version of the prayer book) of a reading from Joel (2:12 ff.) might be helpful. Martineau and Hedge, other Unitarian liturgists, are essentially silent on the matter so far as I see. Mining old ordination services might uncover something.

6 Replies to “Planning the Ash Wednesday service”

  1. We were just discussion Jesus’ admonition against ostentation in the context of wearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and musing that being marked as a penitent could be seen as both very dramatic (“ooh, look at me! I’m a sinner!”) and as just dead serious (“Hi, I’ve been marked for death. How are you?”).

  2. Tried to do my own research – and couldnt –
    – I dont recall anyone in my small southern protestant town celebrating Ash Wednesday back in the 50s-70s.

    Is this a result of my myopia back then –
    or a product of southern pro-pietist anti-ceremony of that time?
    or is Ash Wednesday getting more popular?
    or all of the above?

    Steven R

  3. My personal practice is to distribute ashes (which I prepare myself from last year’s palms) in the small plastic or cardboard containers used by coin collectors, and I encourage worshipers to keep them handy (pocket, wallet, purse, etc.) throughout the 40 days of Lent. This avoids the “ostentation” of smearing the forehead (as per Matthew’s Gospel) and provides a more enduring reminder of mortality and the opportunity for true repentance.

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