Lent is just around the corner. Our annual season of preparation for Easter begins on February 17, Ash Wednesday. Since the covid test numbers aren’t yet low enough for us to meet in person, we’ll gather for worship online.
The biggest question about Ash Wednesday online seems to be: What about ashes? This year, as with so much of our pandemic worship, we’re going with a choose-your-own-adventure.
Step one – Plan to join us for worship on Wednesday, February 17, at 7:00 p.m.
Meeting ID: 892 3894 9591
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Step two – Choose your sign: Ashes, no ashes, or something else entirely.
Since we’re doing this all at home, this weird year is an opportunity to try something new. We can’t do the usual so we may as well mix it up, conduct some experiments, and see what we learn. Before I get to specific suggestions, I’ve got two interesting facts for you:
First, for a long, long time, ashes weren’t part of Christian worship. They’re first recorded in use in Germany in the tenth century where they were sprinkled over penitent persons while a lector read the account of Adam and Even being cast from the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. (Genesis 3 is the source of “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”) A hundred years later, people started sprinkling ashes over all the faithful (not just penitents). Following that, monks adopted a practice of smearing in a cross on the tops of their tonsured heads. Since most people aren’t tonsured or bald, when the practice trickled down to the masses, the cross was smeared on foreheads instead (in an odd juxtaposition with the scripture that tells us not to disfigure our faces while fasting).
Second, by custom, ashes are usually imposed by a priest, having first been blessed. But that’s custom, not canon. Anyone can impose ashes; there’s no requirement to be ordained. In addition, the prayer that “blesses” the ashes isn’t actually a blessing, so the priest doesn’t actually bless them, and the prayer isn’t restricted to clergy. Anyone can pray over ashes and anyone can impose them.
That’s all to say: What we do on Ash Wednesday isn’t remotely the way we’ve always done it. We’ve got precedent for re-imagining our practice, especially given the strange circumstances. I’ll offer some suggestions:
1. Gather or create your own ash and impose it on yourself or family (with consent, of course). It’s customary to use last year’s dried out palms, but it’s not necessary. Any ash will do; you could even burn a sheet of paper and use that. Sprinkle the ash on your head, mark a cross on your forehead, smear it across your bald pate—whatever seems right to you. The goal is an outward expression of our mortality and repentance by (slightly) disheveling ourselves.
2. Visit me at St. Luke’s during office hours on Ash Wednesday. I’ll be in the entryway just outside the worship space. Wear a mask and we’ll meet briefly for a prayer and ashes. I’ll be there from 12:30 till 3:00. If that time doesn’t work for you, get in touch and we can make an appointment. Rest assured that Covid-19 is not transmitted through touch of the skin. We’ll be wearing masks and we’ll stay at least six feet apart except for the moment of ash imposition.
3. Remember your mortality and mark your repentance alone with some time in silence and prayer. Perhaps this year Lent begins with a fast from the customary worship practices, taking instead the form of solitude, quiet, and self-determination. If you choose this option, here’s a resource that might offer some helpful guidance.
4. Make up your own practice. How do you remember your mortality? How do you express remorse and a commitment to change? How might you offer that remembrance and that commitment to God? Marking the beginning of a holy Lent need not be fancy, merely genuine. God loves you infinitely—how will you reconnect with that love in the coming weeks? Whichever option you choose, get in touch—I’d love to hear what you decide to do.
Step three – The Big Lenten Prayer Tent
For the season of Lent (February 17th – April 3rd), Bishop Loya is inviting each of us in ECMN to practice discipleship through daily prayer: five minutes every day, inviting the Holy Spirit’s guidance. (I’m going to adopt the practice and in encourage you to do the same.)
It undeniable that God is at work in ECMN. The Holy Spirit is showing up in all our painful, joyful, chaotic, challenging moments, showing up to us as individuals, as a people, and as a society. By praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we remind ourselves that we are not in the driver’s seat. We are making space in our own hearts and minds to notice all the places that the Holy Spirit is already at work.
Here’s how the Big Lenten Prayer Tent will work:
Each day, you can pray whatever comes to your heart, or you can use the following collect to pray and offer intercessions.
God, we know that your Spirit is moving in the changing winds around us. As we seek to follow the way of Jesus, stir up your power in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, guide us in all things with your Holy Spirit, give us bold and open hearts, that we might be wholly committed to showing forth your love, your justice, and your healing power in the world.
Each week, in the ECMN newsletter and on social media, one of our members will offer a prayer practice for you to try.
As we gather in our communal spaces (Leading Beyond the Blizzard and Collar to Collar), we’ll share what we’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing through this practice.
On April 6th at 2pm, during our Leading Beyond the Blizzard gathering, we’ll reflect on this period of collective prayer.
Find more information about the Big Lenten Prayer Tent here.
Step Four – Remember God’s constant love for you.
That’s what this is all about.
Yours in Christ, Justin