Thoughts on Ash Wednesday, taken from Worship Without Words by Patricia S. Klein – oh my, I cannot recommend this little book strongly enough if you have any interest at all in liturgy, loveliness, and visuals in worship.
The name is taken from the custom of putting ashes on the forehead on this first day of Lent, as a reminder of our need for repentance. The date of Ash Wednesday falls forty-six days before Easter. The ashes used are the powdered ashes of the burnt palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services.
…all this flourishing life, turns to a little ash, a handful of dry dust, which every breeze scatters this way and that. All this brilliant color, all this sensitive, breathing life, falls into pale, feeble, dead earth – and less than earth – into ashes. It is the same with ourselves. We look into an opened grave and shiver: a few bones, a handful of ash-grey dust.
Remember man that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Ashes signify man’s overthrow by time. Our own swift passage, ours and not someone else’s, ours, mine. When at the beginning of Lent the priest takes the burnt residue of the green branches of the last Palm Sunday and inscribes with it on my forehead the sign of the cross, it is to remind me of my death.
quia hulvis est
et in pulverem reverteris.
(Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs)
I spent my earliest years at a Lutheran church, in a family of occasional attendees. I have vague memories of being very young and making crosses out of my Palm Sunday frond. Though my family didn’t continue attending church and I didn’t get involved again until my teenage years, the sense of the sacred stayed with me. During my exodus into mega-church Evangelicalism, this was the time of year when I most missed the anchoring, aching loveliness of liturgical worship. It was a palpable loss even if I couldn’t quite identify what was missing.
(And don’t even get me started on my angst when, while working at a church that had Saturday services, we had to celebrate Easter Sunday on Holy Saturday [Christ the Lord will rise tomorrow?] )
It wasn’t until my husband attended seminary at Nashotah House Theological Seminary that the pieces and parts came together for me, creating a cohesive journey that has deepened my longing for all of Jesus – all of the journey – all of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3.10-11). Everywhere you turn, during Lent, there is a reminder of it – from the crosses being veiled – shrouded – to the lack of ‘Alle–ia’ being spoken or sung anywhere for the duration of the penitent season. As a worship leader, that one had a profound effect on me. And imagine the joy at singing it on Easter morning after fasting from it for so long!
So, to begin, our hymn for Ash Wednesday comes from the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, though like most others, I’m sure it’s published in many other places. This could well be a theme for the entire journey, and would be a great prayer for every morning. It’s sung in this hymnal to the simple tune St. Flavian, but could be easily sung to any 18.104.22.168. setting.
Lord, who throughout these forty days, for us did fast and pray,
Teach us, with Thee, to mourn our sins, and close by Thee to stay.
As Thou with Satan didst contend and didst the vict’ry win,
O give us strength in Thee to fight, in Thee to conquer sin.
As Thou didst hunger, bear, and thirst, so teach us, gracious Lord,
To die to self, and chiefly live by Thy most holy word.
And through these days of penitence, and through Thy Passiontide,
Yea, evermore, in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.
Abide with us, that so, this life of suffering overpast,
An Easter of unending joy we may attain at last.
Claudia Frances Hernaman (1838-1898)
Born: Oct. 19, 1838, Addlestone, Surrey, England, Died: Oct. 10, 1898, Brussels, Belgium.
Claudia’s father was an Anglican priest, and her husband a minister and school inspector. She took an avid interest in children’s religious education, and some of her translations of Latin hymns were specifically for children.
And, to close, from the Book of Common Prayer, an Ash Wednesday charge –
I invite you, therefore, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.