Lee’s and my young adult daughter, Leanndra, recently celebrated another birthday. On one hand, it feels like she arrived in this world a lifetime ago. On the other hand, it seems like only yesterday when I first held our newborn baby girl. Time has that kind of illusive, mysterious quality.
So it is with the rhythm of the Christian year. We were celebrating the birth of Jesus a mere eight weeks ago. Yet, already Lent has arrived, the season focusing on Jesus’ public ministry, culminating with his death on the cross.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, this year on February 17, when we reflect on our sinfulness and mortality. This explains the tenor of the Scripture passages listed in the Revised Common Lectionary for Ash Wednesday.
Joel 2 speaks of fasting, weeping and mourning. Isaiah 59 challenges the people of God to fast for justice and compassion. Psalm 51 is traditionally understood as a prayer of confession by King David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. The passage from II Corinthians speaks of God’s grace and reconciliation made possible through Christ’s death on the cross. Matthew 6 instructs us to avoid drawing attention to ourselves when we give alms and pray. Collectively these passages prepare our hearts and minds for key Ash Wednesday and Lenten practices, including fasting, introspection, confession, service, worship and giving.
Like many of you I have participated in traditional Ash Wednesday services where following songs, prayers and a message fitting for the occasion, worship participants came to designated stations in the sanctuary for the imposition of ashes on their foreheads. Those imposing the ashes would use liturgy like, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” or “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Due to COVID-19, many Ash Wednesday services will have a different feel from previous years. Some will be virtual, others outdoors and still others held in large spaces with worshippers social distancing and wearing masks.
In addition, a number of persons who typically participate in an Ash Wednesday worship service will find other ways to mark this holy day. For instance, North Alabama clergywoman Rev. Holly Woodall has painted the sign of the cross with a mixture of ashes and grey paint on white masks. She has sanitized and bagged the masks, making them available for every church member and anyone else who would like one.
In a Resource UMC article, writer and podcaster, Joe Lovino, gives additional ideas of Ash Wednesday practices, including praying your day, abstaining/fasting, cleaning, forgiving and seeking forgiveness.
I encourage you to join me in setting aside some time on February 17 to mark Ash Wednesday through a worship service or in another way. After all, Ash Wednesday and Lenten observances are important aspects to the rhythm of Christian living.
As always it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.
North Alabama Conference