On Ash Wednesday, the palm leaves and crosses saved from last year’s Palm Sunday are burnt into grey ashes. They are then smeared in the shape of a cross onto the foreheads of Christian people.
It’s a powerful symbol – an unexpected image. If you’re walking down the street or coming out of a shop and you happen to pass someone who has recently been at a church service and is marked with this prominent Lenten sign, you’ll look twice. The cross makes a person stand out.
But not just the person. This sign, whether worn on the forehead or not, signals for all Western Christians the beginning of Lent. Focussed reflection follows as it did for Jesus when he spent 40 days in the wilderness prior to three years of itinerant ministry. We can use the StF section headed The Faithful Christ: Lent and Temptation (StF 234 – 241) to sing about that period of deep self-reflection : Forty days and forty nights and Jesus, tempted in the desert (StF 236 and 237).
It is our period of reflection too. As Paul Wood and Ian Worsfold write:
… You call us to the wilderness
to concentrate the mind
on letting go of many things
that stifle humankind.
(You call us to the wilderness, website only)
Often, we think of Ash Wednesday as a day of confession. We may pray with St Augustine:
The house of my soul is narrow;
enlarge it that you may enter in.
It is ruinous, O repair it!
It displeases Your sight.
I confess it, I know.
But Ash Wednesday is not just about repairing ourselves as individuals. It is also about re-establishing good and balanced relationships with those around us.
Icon of St Ephrem the Syrian (Photo by Troubageoff, Wikimedia Commons)
In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the beginning of Lent is signalled differently – not just on a different date but with a different day. “Clean Monday”, a day of strict fasting, reminds Eastern Christians that Lent begins with good intentions and a desire to clean our spiritual house. On this day, and frequently throughout Lent, Christians pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust for power, and idle chatter.
Instead, grant to me, your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.
O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for you are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.
It’s a prayer for self-awareness and of awareness of our brothers and sisters.
And should we choose to read or speak these words this year, will we also take note that these are the words of a Syrian man? Will we picture in our mind other Syrians, our sisters and brothers who have been made homeless and chosen to run from the places they know best because of war, oppression, and complex international relationships? Will they and others like them be part of our Ash Wednesday reflections on the flawed behaviour of humankind, and of our roles in that?
The Revd Norman Wallwork suggests that Alan Luff’s hymn God grant us words to speak (StF 647) is one we should consider singing on Ash Wednesday.
God grant us words to speak
when words are all we bear
to ease the pain that others feel
and show our loving care.
The final two verses of Alan’s hymn evoke the example of Jesus hanging from a cross with thoughts still for “the ones whose pain he healed by words of love and life”. The cross becomes a sign “beyond all speech” of hope through the pain and struggle. It can help us, too, on this day of confession to look outwards.
Returning to Paul Wood and Ian Worsfold’s hymn:
… You call us from the wilderness
to diff’rent barren lands
to breathe the message of the cross
for other empty hands.
For further suggestions of hymns to sing in Lent, and other helpful resources, see Lent in worship and reflection 2019 and Lent - expanding our horizons.
For useful notes about the meaning and traditions of Ash Wednesday, you may find the following website pages helpful:
BBC Religions – archive page on Lent
Project Britain – a website aimed at children