Ash Wednesday in Community
Last night I went to church for Ash Wednesday service. We sang together, listened to scripture, and prayed together. Our pastor gave a short sermon, and led us through a silent meditation time by passing out cards with a single word printed on them. We would meditate on the word, and at the sound of the bell, pass the card to the right and receive a new card from the left. Then we read the litany of healing and received the ashes, and closed with prayer and song.
Many times in my life I’ve attended Ash Wednesday services like this, and often they close in silence. Last night though, we ended our service with a time of fellowship. We talked and laughed, checking in with each other about how work is going and asking about upcoming travel plans. The children who had participated in the service were relaxed and happy, but eager to head home for dinner. It was a lovely way to remember that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not solitary practices.
In the early days of Christianity, Lent was a season of preparation and reconciliation. New converts devoted themselves to study and preparation for taking communion. Those who had fallen away could seek forgiveness and renew relationships. People in the Christian community took seriously the importance of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the resurrection.
Dr. Jack Levison, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Perkins School of Theology, described the early practice of fasting by Christians as fasting from food and drink from sunup to sundown. In later years, a light meal was allowed; and then later the times were relaxed so that people could eat breakfast and dinner. Eventually fasting became abstaining from just one thing – so that now we ask “what are you giving up for Lent?” and expect to hear a single thing, like chocolate.
For me, the question is not “what will I give up for Lent?” but rather, how will I live so that I am reconciled to God and my neighbors? The Lenten disciplines of self-examination, prayer, fasting, reading and meditating on God’s word are designed not for my heart alone, but for the community of faith. My Lenten disciplines are not mine, but belong to my church family.
Belonging to a church helps me to grow in what Methodists call “sanctifying grace” – which is God’s grace that works on us, makes us holy, gives us the ability to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. Worshiping and studying with other Christians helps me to see beyond my own perspective, and hold me accountable to the call of Christ on my life. In this way, I understand Ash Wednesday and Lent to be practices that prepare me for the work of mission with the Church.
How will you be observing Lent? Does it help inform your mission work? Leave a comment and let me know what Lent means to you.