I and other friends have received questions from non-liturgical evangelicals about how to do “liturgical stuff” like Ash Wednesday services. Toward that end, I’m posting the liturgy that we will follow (built off of various traditions and some of our own twists). We’re including both Communion and the Imposition of Ashes. I’m also posting “Worship Notes,” which we print alongside our liturgy to help people understand why we do what we do. Worship Notes function kind of like a commentary or news column alongside our order of service. Here’s a PDF of what the bulletin actually looks like, if it’s helpful. It’s an 11 x 17 sheet, folded in half. Sorry for some of the funky formatting on the responsive readings.
ASH WEDNESDAY ORDER OF WORSHIP
We Enter into Worship
Prelude – Lucille Reilly, hammered dulcimer
Explanation of the Service
Blowing of the Ram’s Horn
Call to Worship
Leader: Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Choir: Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near –
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
All: Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them in ages to come.
Leader: 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.
Choir: Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious
and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding
in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
All: Who knows whether He will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind Him, a grain offering
and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Leader: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Choir: Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests,
the ministers of the Lord, weep.
All: Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’
Hymn no. 257: What Wondrous Love is This
We Meditate on the Word
Scripture Reading: Psalm 51:1-17
Anthem: Lord, Make Me to Know – Johannes Brahms
Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth,
That my life is but frailty and I must perish.
Surely all my days here are as an handbreadth to Thee,
And my life is as naught to Thee.
Verily, mankind walketh in a vain show, even his best state is vanity.
He goeth about like a shadow.
In his anxiety and in vain he heapeth up riches,
But knoweth, nay knoweth not who shall gather them.
Now, Lord, what then do I wait for?
My hope is in Thee!
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Message for Children, Students, and Adults – Zac Hicks
Receiving Christ, We Enter into Lent
Please know that the receiving of ashes is voluntary, not mandatory.
Though Holy Communion and the Imposition of Ashes happen together, those not ready to take Communion are still welcome to receive ashes. Likewise, some may come forward to receive Communion who do not want to receive ashes.
Elder: The body of Christ, broken for you.
Congregant: And I will live for Him.
Elder: The blood of Christ, shed for you.
Congregant: And I will live for Him.
The Imposition of Ashes
We Go Forth in Repentance
Closing Hymn no. 252: Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
Leader: May the peace of Christ be with you.
People: And also with you.
Leader: Go in peace.
ASH WEDNESDAY WORSHIP NOTES
What is Lent? “Lent” comes from the Old English word lenct (meaning “spring”), which named the season often associated with this time period. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a 40-day countdown to Easter, intended to symbolize the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, recorded in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 4). Lent is a season of preparation, as we look and move toward Holy Week (that week symbolizing Jesus’ last week prior to the crucifixion and resurrection, where we celebrate days such as Good Friday and Easter). Traditionally, Christians take up practices during Lent which symbolize repentance, such as fasting. More important than our works, however, is remembering Jesus’ work on our behalf. Lent is a great period to continually reflect on the fact that Jesus not only died for us, He lived for us. And His perfection and good works is the lens through which God looks at us when we put our faith in Him. He certainly died to pay the penalty for our sins. But He also lived to give us a righteousness we could never live out ourselves.
The Ram’s Horn, called “shofar” in Hebrew, comes from our ancient Israelite heritage. It has been used to call the people of God into a solemn service of worship. The shofar is not necessarily a musical instrument, but a warrior’s trumpet. Perhaps, as we enter into this time of fasting and repentance, we can use this opportunity to challenge our hearts with Scripture’s admonition to make war against our flesh (Romans 7-8; 1 Peter 2:11)—the sin that, through the Holy Spirit, we have the power to subdue in our lives.
The use of ashes. It was commonplace in ancient Israel to wear sackcloth and heap ashes on one’s head during times of mourning, lamentation, and repentance (e.g. 2 Samuel 13:9). We mark the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads to symbolize a tension we must walk during the season of Lent. This tension, for followers of Jesus, is that we enter into a time of repentance and inward examination (symbolized in ashes), all the while knowing that the punishment for our sin has met its end in the gracious work of Christ (symbolized in the cross). There is simultaneous sorrow and joy, repentance and grace. The symbol on our foreheads neatly summarizes the full journey from Lent to Easter.
Taking fasting seriously. We live in a culture of excess. Our society knows very little of self-restraint and moderation. As followers of Jesus, we need to be on constant guard against the onslaught of culture in this area, knowing that we are awash in such sentiments that cut against the grain of who we’re called to be as simple and temperate. Perhaps Ash Wednesday can be a wakeup call for us to examine those areas in our lives where we’ve let our excesses go unchecked. Fasting is commanded by God and is a useful tool to help us keep our flesh “in check.” It is a vehicle through which the Holy Spirit trains us to say “no” to the flesh and “yes” to Christ’s righteousness. Consider what fasting could look like for you this Lenten season.
Preparing for Communion. How do we prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper?
First of all, by knowing Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior. We are to come with an understanding faith. We should know Christ, and we should know what this table is all about. That is, we should “partake in a worthy manner.” This meal involves a “participation in the Blood of Christ” (I Cor 10:16).
Secondly, by being reconciled with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Our union with Christ is both an incentive and a means to unity with others (Matthew 5:23-24).
Thirdly, by repenting of all known sin. This is not a meal for perfect people. There is only one with a perfect righteousness, and that is Christ. We are to come trusting in His righteousness, but we are to come with a renewed repentance and desire to live as His obedient disciples.
Scripture says, “A person ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” (I Cor 11:28). If for any reason you are not ready to take the elements, it is always okay to remain seated, and to use the time to do business with God.
Sent out in peace. The Benediction this evening could easily pass us by. We could walk mindlessly through a few phrases and then be on our way. Or, perhaps, we may let these brief statements soak in. We live in a world of strife—nations war against one another; individuals “war” against one another; we war within ourselves. There is an incredible need for peace in us as individuals and in us as a human race. As Christians, we believe that such peace has no ultimate satisfaction apart from knowing Jesus. Our dismissal sends us out as ambassadors, carrying “the peace of Christ” to a world that desperately needs it. During this Lenten season, let’s recommit to being the peacemakers Christ has called us to be (Matthew 5:9).
Teaching our children “uncommon godliness.” As noted above, the concept of fasting swims hard against the current of culture. We should not think that our children are incapable of understanding this or even training themselves now in the war against the flesh. Perhaps parents can go home from this evening and engage their children in a conversation about what kind of fast could be meaningful and appropriate during Lent.