Ash Wednesday falls on the first day of March this year, and is a day of penitence to cleanse the soul as we embark on the season of Lent.
Services in church on Ash Wednesday draw on the ancient biblical traditions of covering ones head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting. The priest marks churchgoers on the forehead with a cross of ashes signifying penitence and mortality, and says: “Remember you are dust and until dust you shall return” – based on God’s sentence on Adam in the book of Genesis (chapter 3, verse 19). The cross of ashes reminds us that death comes to us all; that we should be sorry for our sins – essentially, for showing that we reject God and God’s love in the way we lead our lives and relate to others; that we should change ourselves for the better; that God made the first human being by breathing life into dust; and that, without God, human beings our nothing but dust and ashes. At the end of the service we leave the mark on our foreheads and so carry the sign of the cross out into the world.
We mark Ash Wednesday at a service of Holy Communion at 10am at St Peter’s, East Bridgford (see p. ).
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, we are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly follow triumph. Using the ashes to mark the cross on the believer’s forehead symbolises that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from death and sin.
Lent may originally have followed Epiphany, just as Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness followed immediately on from his baptism; but it soon became attached to Easter, as the principal occasion for baptism and for the reconciliation of those who had been excluded from the church’s fellowship for serious faults. This history helps us to understand the characteristic notes for Lent: self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study and preparation for Easter.
“Now is the healing time decreed
For sins of heart and word and deed,
When we in humble fear record
The wrong that we have done the Lord”
(Latin, before 12th century)
As the candidates for baptism were instructed in the Christian faith and as penitents prepared themselves, through fasting and penance, to be readmitted to communion, the whole Christian community in the early church was invited to join them in the process of study and repentance, the extension of which over forty days would remind them of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tested by Satan – “Forty days and forty nights, fasting in the desert, tempted yet undefiled”, as the words of the 15th century German hymn tell us.
Many Christians today, as part of our Lenten discipline, choose to abstain from certain foods or drink, or to follow a course of study. During Lent you might also choose to dedicate more time to prayer, or think of new ways in which you can use your gifts to help those in need.
This year in the Fosse Group we plan a simple light weekly lunch; and a course of study each Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon over the five weeks following the week of Ash Wednesday, and to which all are most welcome. Full details appear in the weekly pew sheet and on the Fosse Group web site.
During Lent liturgical dress is kept as simple as possible; churches are kept bare of flowers and decoration. The colour of the hangings and vestments is sombre purple, symbolising both pain and suffering borne by Jesus in his Passion and Crucifixion. We do not say or sing Gloria in Excelsis.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent (sometimes known as Refreshment Sunday), falling on 26th March this year, is traditionally allowed as a day of relief from the rigours of Lent, and the Feast of the Annunciation always falls in Lent; these breaks from austerity are the background to our modern observance of Mothering Sunday on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
We shall have a special Mothering Sunday service on 26th March both at St Peter’s, East Bridgford (9.15am) and at St Augustine’s, Flintham (11am) to which all, as ever, are very welcome (see page ).
Our Lenten journey continues in April, and leads to Easter, the greatest of all Christian festivals…
(adapted from Times and Seasons, Common Worship, 2006)
With all good wishes for this season of Lent,