Ash Wednesday:
Like Jesus did it!

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

Ash Wednesday: Like Jesus did it.

An Alternative Worship Service

Today most churches offer some kind of service on Ash Wednesday.  It was not always so.

In the early days of American Protestantism, Ash Wednesday was rarely, if ever, observed.  This was one of those days that the Roman Catholics celebrated.  It would have been lambasted as Papist for a self-respecting Protestant congregation to observe a Catholic holy day and place ashes on people’s foreheads.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s and the rise of the Three-Year Common Lectionary that Protestant churches began to embrace some of the more common high church ceremonies.  By the mid 1990’s most mainline churches had some kind of observation on Ash Wednesday.

As one who grew up in the anti-Papist 1950’s Methodist Church with a Free Mason for a father, some of the High-Church events don’t swallow easily on my antiquated palate.  I began to harbor strange feelings about Ash Wednesday.

As the Roman Church began to excel at driving its own members away from the church with a series of Papal decrees that alienated more and more Catholics, we began to see a large number of disheartened former Catholics filling our pews.  As a United Methodist pastor I found myself with a growing number of new members in my congregation who called themselves “recovering Catholics”.  They loved the structure of Methodist worship — orderly, consistent, not really High-Church but not a contemporary band-led worship experience.

It was in response to these new members, who asked for some of the familiar rituals of their former church, that I acquiesced and agreed to an Ash Wednesday service.  I just wasn’t going to use ashes!  I know, I know, it’s not really Ash Wednesday unless you use ashes, but as I read scripture I wonder at the authentic teachings of Jesus that instruct us to avoid such displays.

Ash Wednesday is prescribed as a day of fasting.  Jesus is very specific about the nature of fasting.   Read again Matthew 6: 16-18:

 16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  (NRSV 1989)

From my reading:  Fasting all day, placing ashes on our heads to show our piety, is in direct contrast to the teaching of Jesus.  How do we justify such activity?

But, what should we do?  Everyone wants to have some kind of observance.  I went back to scripture again.  The common reading for Ash Wednesday also comes from Matthew:  the temptation for 40 days in the wilderness and the encounter with the Devil, Matthew 4: 1-11.  As Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and proceeds for 40 days, not counting Sundays — which are always “the Lord’s Day” and therefore Feast Days — this reading is perfect.  We are preparing for 40 days of our own personal pilgrimage to Holy Week and Easter.

So, how did Jesus prepare?  When Jesus felt moved, or perhaps driven, out into a time of questioning, meditation, fasting, prayer, and ultimately temptation, how did he prepare?

Jesus prepares for his time of devotion by going for baptism, back up into Matthew 3: 13-17.  “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” (Vs. 13, NRSV)

Jesus comes for a blessing, not of ashes to show his devotion, but of water to be purified, cleansed, and strengthened for his time of trial and temptation.  So, following the example of Jesus himself, I have adopted an alternate celebration for Ash Wednesday, a reaffirmation of baptism.  The service does not involve water, because as United Methodists we believe in one baptism, and having been baptized we merely reaffirm our baptism.  But it does involve the whole congregation coming forward and receiving blessings as they begin the preparatory season of Lent.

I have placed a .doc file of the bulletin on the web site under “Resources”.  You can also download the file here.  The following is an explanation of how the service proceeds.

NOTE: If you do not have an accompanist for Ash Wednesday, fear not:  In many ways the service has more meaning without an organ or piano and the singular hymn can easily be sung without accompaniment.

NOTE 2: In many years I encouraged a 12-hour Prayer Vigil to begin Lent.  From 7 am to 7 pm in half hour time slots, people signed up to come to the sanctuary to pray.  I had a prayer sheet to guide them, or they could pray as the spirit led.  The service began at 7:00 pm, so it was a time of prayer and quiet already.

If there is a prelude, it should be appropriately somber and meditative.

To begin the service I would enter and kneel in prayer for a few minutes and then proceed to the lectern or pulpit to begin with the Call.  In some years we had multiple staff present.  In some years we shared the service with other congregations, and each pastor had some part in the leadership.  In many years I just led the service by myself.  The blank lines in the bulletin are for the listing of names.

The singular hymn “Just as I Am, without one Plea” is simple and can be sung without accompaniment.  By the end of the service, everyone will know it.

The meditation is never long, five to seven minutes.   The theme is always our personal preparation to be raised with Christ on Easter.

The Invitation is usually delivered from the center of the chancel, and the congregation is invited to stand for the affirmation.

NOTE 3: The vows of baptism are my own.  I simply refuse to use the vows in the Book of Worship.  I don’t know a single soul who pledged allegiance to the spiritual forces of wickedness, so it just seems hard to ask them to renounce those forces.  Further, I feel strongly that when we take the vows of coming into a relationship with God, these should be positive statements, not double negative statements.  So, I rewrote them.  I explained to the congregation what I had done.  I never received a single complaint, and new members who took the vows of membership with the same vows were always appreciative.  You are free to do what you wish with the vows.  Keep in mind that there is no power in words when they have no meaning to the people who are asked to say them.

At the end of the vows I invite the people forward, just like a communion line, with one exception:  Rather than hold their hands out for bread, the people come forward and speak their first and middle names.  I remind them to speak up, since I hate having to ask people to repeat their name because they mumbled.  I usually know almost the whole congregation’s names, but not all, and certainly not the names of any visitors who wander in, and of course very few middle names; so I ask people to repeat their names for me.

Then, placing one hand on their head and one on their shoulders, I offer the reaffirmation of Baptism, and everyone says “Amen”.

When all have been reaffirmed, the blessing is offered, the prayer is shared and the last three verses of “Just as I am, without one Plea” are sung.

Feel free to use your own hymn, write your own vows, update your own liturgy.  Within your context, make it a worship service that points us toward Easter, and sends us off to follow Jesus into the wilderness and back to the cross.

And look no messy ashes to vacuum up!

Download the Bulletin .doc File