Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ash Wednesday and the Beginning of Lent


A Time of Repentance, Preparation and Reflection 

The season of Lent, a time of repentance, preparation and reflection leading up to Easter is for many Christians the most holy time of the year.  It is the forty day period (forty-six, if we count Sundays) leading to the Celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day.  An important custom in Liturgical Churches such as Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Episcopal, the observance of lent is becoming popular in other churches such as the United Methodist, and even some independent churches. 

Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent follows a day known as either Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras: a day in places like Albertville when pancakes, bacon and sausage are eaten, harkening back to the tradition of giving up certain foods as a sign of sacrifice and penitence.  In places like New Orleans and Mobile, the Pancake supper is usually passed over for the Celebration of Carnival ending in the dramatic climax of Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” 

Ash Wednesday is a day to slow down, to take a deep breath and to ask God to forgive us of sins past and to “lead us and guide us into all truth.”  The Liturgy, or worship service, on Ash Wednesday at Christ Episcopal Church is quieter and simpler than our normal time of worship on Sunday.  It will provide times for silent reflection on our own lives and how we intend to lead a new life following in the way of Jesus Christ, as well as reflections on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and what this means for the whole world.  Those who would like are also invited to the altar for the “imposition of ashes,” which reminds us that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”  This simple but powerful act, for me, puts my life in perspective and allows me to see my relationship with God, Neighbor and Self as it really is. 

Ash Wednesday worship begins with the following prayer: 

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p.264)

This is followed by what, I believe, is the most powerful invitation ever offered to those of us on this journey as God’s people. 

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a
season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided 
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, 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. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel
before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265) 

And finally a reminder of our mortality and our relationship with God:
            Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the 
            earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our 
            mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is 
            only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; 
            through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (BCP, p. 265)

On Ash Wednesday we begin this powerful journey “through the wilderness” to the day of the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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