Shel: At Mercy Church we have an ancient-future tension in our worship. We have very traditional times of worship and very charismatic/renewalist (that is to say, contemporary with the theology in place that gave rise to it – so it’s not simply superficial, attractional and trite).
Many of us came from churches that decided nothing done by believers in worship was good if it didn’t come out of the 1960s-1990s and we think that’s a shame. So yes we are pragmatic. BUT we do not let the religious spirit’s of the 1960-1990s rule us.
We draw from the ancient traditions – giving the voice of the church that has gone before a place in our worship along with our voices.
As I also clearly said – we do not see ANY particular act of worship “working” for salvation. But that we are in a body and involving our senses in worship matters. The use of ash as an outward sign of an inward repentance is powerful. And of course we never say one must worship this way. Just as we can’t force anyone to raise their hands in prayer and worship.
In the Western Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting before Easter. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed, mixed with either holy oil or water, and imposed on the head with the sign of the cross, or sprinkled on the forehead. The ashes are made from burning palm branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday. When the priest imposes the ashes he says either “remember man you are dust, and to dust you will return” (see Genesis 3:19), or “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The ashes serve a dual purpose. First, as the above words imply, we are reminded of our mortality and humanity as we begin the Lenten Fast. Second, the ashes are a Biblical symbol of repentance, sorrow, and humility. There are many cases in the Scriptures of wearing ashes as a sign of penitence, often while wearing sackcloth. In 2 Samuel 13:19, Tamar puts on ashes and tears her clothes as a sign of sadness and repentance. In Esther 4:1-3, after learning of the king’s decree to kill all Jews, Mordecai tears his garments, and puts on sackcloth and ashes. His fellow Jews do the same thing, as well as beginning to fast. The prophet Jeremiah (6:26) urges his readers to “gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes.”
Here is another good article:
Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It not only prefigures the mourning at the death of Jesus, but also places the worshipper in a position to realize the consequences of sin. (See Reflections on Ash Wednesday). Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian.
In the early church, ashes were not offered to everyone but were only used to mark the forehead of worshippers who had made public confession of sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the Easter celebration. However, over the years others began to show their humility and identification with the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are now observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday. Ashes became symbolic of that attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4, NRSV).
Colors and Symbols of Lent
The color used in the sanctuary for most of Lent is purple, red violet, or dark violet (see Colors of the Church Year). These colors symbolize both the pain and suffering leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the suffering of humanity and the world under sin. But purple is also the color of royalty, and so anticipates through the suffering and death of Jesus the coming resurrection and hope of newness that will be celebrated in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Some churches use grey for Ash Wednesday or for the entire season of Lent, or for special days of fasting and prayer. Gray is the color of ashes, and therefore a biblical symbol of mourning and repentance. The decorations for the sanctuary during Lent should reflect this mood of penitence and reflection. Some Anglican churches use unbleached muslin, which can range from white to beige, with accents in red or black for Lent to symbolize this same spirit of penitence.
Some churches avoid the use of any flowers in the sanctuary during Lent, using various dried arrangements. This can be especially effective if aflowering cross is used for Easter. Other churches use arrangements of rocks or symbols associated with the Gospel readings for the six Sundays in Lent.
Some church traditions change the sanctuary colors to red for Maundy Thursday, a symbol of the disciples and through them the community of the church. Since Eucharist or communion is often observed on Maundy Thursday in the context of Passover, the emphasis is on the gathered community in the presence of Jesus the Christ.
Traditionally, the sanctuary colors of Good Friday and Holy Saturday are black, the only days of the Church Year that black is used. It symbolizes the darkness brought into the world by sin. It also symbolizes death, not only the death of Jesus but the death of the whole world under the burden of sin. In this sense, it also represents the hopelessness and the endings that come as human beings try to make their own way in the world without God (see The Days of Holy Week). Black is always replaced by white before sunrise of Easter Sunday.
There are many ways for a congregation to mark the journey of Lent. Of course, beginning with a service of worship for Ash Wednesday is always appropriate (see Ash Wednesday: A Service of Worship). During Lent, one of the most effective visual reminders of the season that can be expanded in many variations is to use a rough wooden cross as a focal point in the sanctuary. The type of cross and how it is constructed will depend on exactly how it will be used. The cross is usually erected in the Sanctuary on Ash Wednesday as a visible symbol of the beginning of Lent. It is usually draped in black on Good Friday. The same cross can also become a part of the congregation’s Easter celebration as it is then draped in white or gold, or covered with flowers (see The Flowering Cross).
One effective way to make use of the cross is to use it as a Prayer Cross during Lent. A hammer, square nails, and small pieces of paper are made available near the cross. At a designated time of prayer during the Sundays in Lent, or beginning with Ash Wednesday, people are invited to write their prayer requests on the paper, and then nail them to the cross. The quiet time of prayer with only the sounds of the hammer striking the nails can be a moving time for reflection on the meaning of Lent, and a powerful call to prayer. The prayer requests can be removed and burned as part of a Tenebrae or Stations of the Cross service during Holy Week to symbolize releasing the needs to God.
Some churches have a special time of prayer or meditation one night of each week during Lent. Often Catholic and high church traditions pray the Stations of the Cross (see The Fourteen Stations of the Cross). Some Protestant churches have a special series of weekly Bible studies followed by a time of meditation and prayer. Often, in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, the prayer time is followed by a simple meal of soup and bread to symbolize the penitence of the Season.
We enjoy celebrating Palm Sunday. The children get to make paper palm branches and for many it is one of the few times they get to take an active role in “big church.” We wave the palm branches and celebrate. And we all love Easter Sunday! It is a happy time, with flowers, new clothes, and the expectation of Spring in the air.
Yet there is something significant missing if we only concentrate on celebration for these two Sundays. It is too easy and promotes much too cheap a grace to focus only on the high points of Palm Sunday and Easter without walking with Jesus through the gathering shadows of Maundy Thursday and the darkness of Good Friday. For us, that journey begins on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a way to recall a larger story than just celebration. It is a way to face the reality of the consequences of sin and the terrible toll it takes on the world. Lent calls us to examine our own lives with the prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me (Psa 139:23-24).
The journey through Lent is a way to places ourselves before God humbled, bringing in our hands no price whereby we can ourselves purchase our salvation. It is a way to confess our total inadequacy before God, to strip ourselves bare of all pretenses to righteousness, to come before God in dust and ashes. It is a way to empty ourselves of our false pride, of our rationalizations that prevent us from seeing ourselves as needy creatures, of our external piety that blinds us to the beam in our own eyes.
Through prayer that gives up self, we seek to open ourselves up before God, and to hear anew the call “Come unto me!” We seek to recognize and respond afresh to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. We seek to place our needs, our fears, our failures, our hopes, our very lives in God’s hands, again. And we seek by abandoning ourselves in Jesus’ death to recognize again who God is, to allow His transforming grace to work in us once more, and to come to worship Him on Easter Sunday with a fresh victory and hope that goes beyond the new clothes, the Spring flowers, the happy music.
Yet, that celebration begins in ashes. And it journeys though darkness. It is a spiritual pilgrimage that I am convinced we must all make, one way or the other, for genuine spiritual renewal to come.
I have heard the passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14 quoted a lot: “. . .if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This usually is quoted in the context of wanting revival or renewal in the church. The prayer is usually interpreted as intercessory prayer for others, since we too easily assume that any problem lies with someone else. Yet a careful reading of the passage will reveal that the prayer that is called for here is not intercessory prayer for others; it is penitential prayer for the faith community, for us. It is not to call for others to repent; it is a call for us, God’s people, to repent. It is our land that needs healed, it is our wicked ways from which we need to turn, we are the ones who need to seek God’s face.
Perhaps during the Lenten season we should stop praying for others as if we were virtuous enough to do so. Perhaps we should take off our righteous robes just long enough during these 40 days to put ashes on our own heads, to come before God with a new humility that is willing to confess, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Maybe we should be willing to prostrate ourselves before God and plead, “Lord, in my hand no price I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” That might put us in a position to hear God in ways that we have not heard Him in a long time. And it may be the beginning of that healing for which we have so longed.
O Lord, begin with me. Here. Now.
-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher – All Rights Reserved