A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Preparing for Ash Wednesday

Friends, it may be hard to believe, but we’re only a few weeks away from the start of Lent! Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is Wednesday, February 17. We are going to observe Ash Wednesday this year digitally, as we have done everything else for nearly a year now.

To do so, you will need two things in your own home: first, bread and juice/wine/water for Communion, and ashes to use in the Imposition of Ashes ritual. Please read further to hear about why we do this and your options for participating this year.

Ash Wednesday, as you may know, is an ancient observance in the Western Christian church, dating well back before the Protestant Reformation. The imposition, or placing, of ashes on one’s forehead has a few different layers of important Christian symbolism.

First, it symbolizes our mortality; this is why the person imposing ashes traditionally says, “remember you are from dust, and to dust you shall return” from Genesis 3:19 to the person receiving them. And this is an important reminder because it means that our choices and decisions and commitments really matter, because we do not have infinite time to draw upon in the way we live our lives.

Second, ashes symbolize grief; throughout Scripture, ashes are a sign of grieving, whether that is grieving someone’s death or grieving a misdeed that one has done (or not done). It is the emotional companion of the act of repentance, which is the third meaning of ashes. Thus, they symbolize both regret for what has already taken place, and a desire and commitment to turn in a new direction of faithfulness in the time to come.

On Ash Wednesday, then, those ashes symbolize all three layers, and the season of Lent then becomes an opportunity to live into that repentance: turning and following in a new direction of deeper and more intentional faithfulness.

Ash Wednesday this year is also the last significant Christian holy day that we have not lived through during the pandemic. Traditionally, you come forward to receive ashes from another person, who puts them on your forehead in the sign of a cross. Like so many other things, this is neither a safe nor a wise practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, we will gather digitally at 7 p.m. on February 17 for our Ash Wednesday Service using Zoom; we will share log-in information for that service in next week’s newsletter. We will have a service of worship livestreamed from the Sanctuary that will include prayers, music, Scripture, a brief homily, Communion, and a time for silent reflection.

But we will break out into small groups in Zoom for two moments: the first will be for the Imposition of Ashes, in which we will “self-impose” while someone else in the group tells us the traditional words, and the second for Communion, in which we will pray together (using a prepared set of prayers) and digitally “serve” each other the bread and cup.

It will be very important to have both communion elements and ashes at hand for your participation in this service. To get ashes, you have two options. First, you can notify the church that you would like to order prepared ashes (and for how many people), which will be available for pick-up the week before Ash Wednesday at different times, including Sunday afternoon, or delivery if going outside is unsafe or unwise for you in terms of mobility issues or simply the pandemic.

Please send a request for prepared ashes to worship@fpc-bethlehem.org no later than Sunday, February 7 at 12:30 p.m. Be sure to let us know if you will pick up or if you will need delivery.

The second option is to prepare them yourself. Traditionally, ashes are prepared using the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, but that will obviously not be an option for you. So our best suggestion is to burn a small amount of charcoal a few days beforehand, collect the ashes, and then mix them with a small amount of olive oil (or similar oil) until they form a kind of paste; you can then use that in the service.

There are alternative ways to create ashes, such as paper; those are unlikely to work quite as well, but what matters in this service is authenticity of heart and spirit, so do the best you can if you don’t want to order prepared ashes and can’t use charcoal, and we will all worship together!

Grace and peace,