Ash Wednesday Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Ash Wednesday

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If there is to be a resurrection, there must first be a burial. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent, a season of penitence, of burying oneself, in preparation for the promised new life and resurrection of Easter morning.

In Scripture

Repent "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:1–6).

Confess "I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. . . . Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me" (Ps. 38).

A Clean Heart "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me" (Ps. 51).

Forgiveness "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered" (Ps. 130).

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139).

Loose the Bonds of Injustice "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (Isa. 58:1–12).

Return to Me "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing" (Joel 2:1–17).

Wages of Sin "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6).

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:20–6:10).

Grace through Faith "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God[ — ]not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:1–10).

"Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:13–2:3).

Points to Ponder

The Oil, the Ash, the Cross. While the ashes get top billing on this important day in the church year, don't forget the other two elements involved: oil to create a paste with the ashes and the sign of the cross with which the ashes are imposed. The three together outline the core gospel message. The ashes say "We are mortal and we are broken." The cross says "There is redemption in Christ." The oil anoints, saying (in the words of Jesus) "Go now and leave your life of sin." Sin/salvation/service in two small swipes of a thumb.

History. Just as Jesus prepared for his ministry with 40 days in the desert, so, too, early followers of The Way entered a 40-day season of preparation in advance of initiation into the Christian community and their first joyful participation in the Eucharist. This pattern of preparation for baptism was established and documented by the 4[th] century. Its purpose expands to include all Christians in a season of active remembrance of baptism, calling people to abandon everything that detracts from their primary loyalty, an allegiance claiming them for Christ in baptism.

Telling the Truth. Ash Wednesday is a day for telling the truth — often the hard truth — about who we are. It is a day for telling the truth — the gracious truth — that Jesus has entered into our human condition and has, even now, set his face toward the Holy Week work of redemption. Ash Wednesday starts the season of Lent, a season of repentance that must begin with an open, Spirit-guided search of one's heart. What is true, and do my words, my choices, my lifestyle tell that truth?

Give It Up or Take It On. On Ash Wednesday, people will often decide on a practice, usually an indulgence or a temptation, to actively avoid during the 40 days of Lent. This follows 1 Peter's injunction to eschew sinful ways and pursue the holiness of Christ. However, holiness is not robustly defined when it focuses only on the absence of bad behavior. Isaiah 58 is clear enough that holiness is the presence of charity, compassion, and justice. Rather than challenging people to give up a pleasure, challenge them to take on a passion for righteousness.

Repentance is not for the faint of heart. Repentance is more than feeling guilty for an evening. It is more than employing mood lighting in the sanctuary and singing somber songs. Repentance, by strict definition, is not a feeling at all. Repentance is not even a word to be spoken, necessarily. Repentance is an active 180-degree shift. It is turning away from what is wrong toward what is right, and turning away from what brings death toward what might bring new life. As the church season shifts from the glories and light of Epiphany to the realities and reckonings of Lent, how will our choices reflect this turning? How will our lives be turned from self to Christ?

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.