On March 5, millions of people worldwide will go into dimly lit rooms where they will stand in line so a priest or pastor can wipe oily ashes on their forehead and say, “From dust you’ve come to dust you shall return.” If you’re not familiar with the broader context of Ash Wednesday, this tradition might seem creepy and a little morbid.
But about 10 years ago, in a small church in downtown Portland, those ashes were placed on my forehead for the first time. I remember feeling connected to a movement much bigger than me and bigger than the local church where I was observing Ash Wednesday. As we prayed the prayers, responsively read, and as the ashes were imposed, I felt like I was connected with the millions of believers who were observing Ash Wednesday all over the world and with the believers who, for hundreds of years, had done the same thing in their local churches.
As I’ve journeyed into more liturgical experiences I find the rhythms of mourning and rejoicing, waiting and celebrating to be incredibly honest and liberating. Quite often Christians focus on the hope of the cross and the joy it should bring but hesitate to experience the mourning, anger, hurt and disgust that necessitate the ongoing work of the cross in our lives. Lent encourages us to feel a full range of emotions and, in doing so, our view of reality shifts and our relationship with God deepens.
I began to celebrate Lent because I had grown tired of believing Christians needed to be happy all the time and Lent allowed me to mourn. I began to celebrate Lent because I was tired of trendy and wanted something tested. I began to celebrate Lent because I wanted to feel more connected to the global Christian community. I began to realize that, at some point, we evangelicals had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We rejected church holidays because they were part of a larger legalistic and oppressive structure. But we’re now going back for the baby. Tradition can either support us or it can stifle us. I have found that observing Lent can be an incredibly freeing experience and I invite you to journey with me into this season of fasting, mourning, and waiting.
What is Ash Wednesday (and how does it relate to Lent)?
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day), which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season that lasts 40 days (the 6 Sundays aren’t counted) before Easter. Because the date for Easter changes every year, the date for Ash Wednesday does too. This year, Ash Wednesday falls on March 5.
Lent is a season for Christians to prepare for Easter by focusing on why we need the resurrection. During Lent we remember our mortality and our sinfulness. Our mortality and our sinfulness remind us of our need for a Savior. When we remember what our lives were like before Christ and take an honest assessment of what our lives are like now—which is what Lent encourages us to do—we are better prepared to celebrate who Jesus is and what was accomplished on the cross.
A few weeks ago my husband and I celebrated Valentine’s Day. We had a picnic with fruit, bread, and cheese. He had written down every year we had been together on pieces of paper, folded them, and put them in a bowl. As we pulled them out, one by one, we remembered what happened that year and what those events meant in our relationship. We could have done that any night; it didn’t have to be February 14 but by choosing to celebrate Valentine’s Day we were taking time to be intentional about celebrating our relationship in a way we might not have otherwise. Church holidays work the same way. They are annual days set aside for us to remember events of the greater Christian story and to celebrate how these events impacted our relationship with God.
Ash Wednesday kicks off, Lent is one of the many holidays associated with Easter. The Sunday before Easter we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day we remember when Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem knowing that within the next week he would celebrate Passover with his disciples (Maundy Thursday), die on the cross (Good Friday), lay in the tomb (Holy Saturday), and rise again (Easter). Each of these holidays can be observed in ways that enhance your relationship with God by reminding you of who Jesus is and what he did for you.
What to expect at a typical Ash Wednesday service
If you decide to begin the Lenten season of preparation and reflection with by participating in an Ash Wednesday service, here’s what you can expect:
Typically, the atmosphere will be simple and somber. Lights will be turned off or down low. The sanctuary will be filled with candles (if fire code and church policy allows them). Decorations will be minimal and will typically be black, gray, or purple. Worshippers are usually encouraged to enter the sanctuary silently. Songs are sung in minor keys (I don’t know what this means in technical, musical terms, but I know that, practically, it means they sound sad).
The order of service will vary to some degree depending on how traditional or contemporary the church decides to make it but an Ash Wednesday service will usually include these elements:
- Prayer (including prayers that the congregation reads together out loud)
- Teaching or sermon
- A time of silence for personal reflection and confession
- Imposition of ashes (This is when you get in the line and the pastor draws a cross on your forehead, or hand, and says, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”)
- Closing Prayer
- Dismissal: You leave the sanctuary quietly and head home
Ash Wednesday, whether you observe it in community or not at all, is simply the kick off of the larger season of Lent. It is day one of forty set aside to help you join with millions of your brothers and sisters in Christ to reflect, remember, and prepare to celebrate the resurrection and how it changed the world, your life, and forever.
Jen is a woman called by God to make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ. Jen works as a course mentor/adjunct faculty for Western Seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning and serving her family as a wife and mom. She is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church and a student working on her ThM at Western Seminary.
This article is part one of a four-part Lent series. Other titles are listed below. For more posts about Lent, visit www.annesleywriters.com.
1. Why Ash Wednesday? by Jennifer Ellison
"I began to celebrate Lent because I had grown tired of believing Christians needed to be happy all the time and Lent allowed me to mourn."
2. Why Lent? by Brittany Lenertz
“Rather than lent changing for me . . . it actually changed me."
3. This is How We Do It: the Summers Home by Andrea Summers
“Tracing Jesus’ lonely journey through the wilderness, Lent forces us to grapple with the reality that temptation, suffering, and contemplation become reservoirs of strength for future ministry.”
4. This is How We Do It: the Ellison Home by Jennifer Ellison
“But how do you help a toddler observe a season that focuses on mortality and sinfulness when she doesn’t have a concept of death and doesn’t understand sin to any real degree?”