Ash Wednesday Worship

OK, folks. Can we take a moment to acknowledge that I am posting this Ash Wednesday resource a full month before I would generally start planning Ash Wednesday worship? I’ve hear rumors of pastors who “plan ahead”–so this is for you. Whether you use this service in it’s entirety, pull out a few pieces of it, or head in a completely different direction, I hope the suggestions below will somehow support you as you plan to lead your congregation into the season of Lent.

(This service draws on material from the Creative Arts Lenten Retreat I wrote several years ago.)

Suggested order of worship

Welcome and Introduction

Thank you for being part of this Ash Wednesday worship service as we come together to mark the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. We will spend the coming days journeying with Jesus toward the cross; toward the death that ultimately brings resurrection life. During this season, many of us will practice a new spiritual discipline or give up something that seems to be getting in the way of the life God calls us to live.

We come together to acknowledge our sin, to acknowledge our mortality. We come to glimpse the Christ who offers forgiveness, who offers everlasting life.

As part of tonight’s worship, the imposition of ashes will be offered. This practice may not be familiar to everyone. Ashes have been used in Christian churches to mark the beginning of Lent since at least the 10th Century, and ashes are mentioned in scripture as a symbol of purification and repentance. Traditionally, people receive the ashes on their foreheads; if you prefer that I mark the back of your hand, simply hold out your hand when you come forward. We offer the imposition of ashes tonight as a physical reminder of our mortality and sin and as an assurance of God’s forgiveness and salvation.

Let us begin our time of worship by focusing our minds and hearts on God’s presence with us. I invite you to relax into a comfortable position and close your eyes as you take a few deep breaths. Let us pray.

Prayer of Releasing

Holy, holy, holy God,
We are grateful for your presence. We rest in the promise of your grace.
Our minds and our spirits are restless. Our attention is tugged away from you.
Let us unclench our hands and release these things:
We release all that we have done recently–whether for good or for ill.
We release all that we feel like we should have done today, but did not do.
We release all that we need to do soon.
We release our fear.
We release our anxiety.
We release our impatience.
We release our pride—and our shame.
Everything that pulls us away from you, O God, we release.
Silent prayer
Holy One, fill us now with the joy and the peace of your deep, abiding presence.
We offer all of ourselves to you, our One God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen

Song Suggestions (Number indicate where to find the song in Voices Together.)

  • Gathered Here, Phil Porter (#3)
  • Still My Soul, Graber/Nafziger (#603)
  • Spirit of the Living God, Daniel Iverson (#740)

Scripture Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Scripture Reading: Psalm 51:1-17

Prayer of Confession (with Psalm 51:10-12)

God of Compassion, we turn toward you now.
We rend our hearts.
Forgive our pride and forgive our insecurities.
Forgive our self-absorption and forgive our self-destruction.
Forgive our doubts and forgive our certainties.
Forgive our longing for attention and forgive our desire to hide.
Forgive each step we take away from you.
Create in us clean hearts, O God. And renew right spirits within us. Do not cast us away from your presence. Do not take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of our salvation, and grant willing spirits to sustain us.

Assurance of Pardon (with 2 Corinthians 6:2)

God says, “‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Know that in Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. May the peace of Christ be with you.

Song Suggestions:

  • Amazing Grace, Newton (#163)
  • Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Robinson/Wyeth (#563)
  • Kyrie, various versions

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lord’s Prayer

Imposition of Ashes
Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return. God is with you on the journey.

Song Suggestions (during or following imposition of ashes):

  • Sign Us with Ashes, Merciful God, Bringle/Alonso (#304)
  • Nada te turbe, Taizé (#604)
  • Within Our Darkest Night, Taizé (#632)
  • Nothing Can Ever Come between Us, Taizé (#654)

Reflection (see below)

Song Suggestions:

  • By Night, We Hasten, Taizé (#543)
  • Abide with Me, Lyte/Monk (#502)
  • I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, African American Spiritual (#306)

As you enter the sacred darkness of this season, know that you are led by the God’s grace, restored by God’s spirit, and held always in God’s steadfast love.

OR my favorite quote for Lent from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

Reflection Time

Allow some space in the worship service to help people consider what their own spiritual practices might look like in this Lenten season.

First, share some words about the importance of spiritual practices—about what they are and what they are not. Below is an excerpt from a longer Ash Wednesday reflection of mine.

Many people give things up or take on new practices for Lent. There are appropriate times and places to share about our spiritual commitments as a way of encouraging others and receiving encouragement for ourselves. And as the reading from Matthew suggests, there is also a danger of turning Lenten practices into a sort of spiritual Olympics: “The bronze goes to Fred for giving up red meat. The silver goes to Susan for giving up Facebook. And the gold medal for Lenten deprivation goes to Mary who gave up caffeine–including coffee and chocolate!” The reward for our spiritual practices comes from God, not from other people. We give things up or take things on in order to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives–not so that other people will think that God is more present with us than with them.

One of the reasons I like the term “spiritual practice” so much is the sense of privacy that it invokes. You do not practice in front of an audience. You practice by yourself, or with a gifted teacher, or with a group of other people who are trying to master the same skill. We all need a lot of spiritual practice. There is very seldom a call for spiritual performance. So if giving up caffeine increases your awareness of God’s presence in your life, by all means deprive yourself of chocolate for forty days. Just don’t expect a medal. Instead, expect an encounter with God; the God who knows you deeply; the God who loves you deeply; the God who dwells within you and around you, whether you recognize this space you inhabit as holy or not.

Next, invite people into a time of discernment where they can consider what will be most nurturing for their spirits in this season of Lent. There are many ways to do this. A few ideas:

  • Preach a sermon that explores various options for Lenten practices and offers guidance for people to choose a practice that is right for them.
  • Invite people to brainstorm ideas as a full group and then break into small groups to discuss which of the ideas resonates with them.
  • Create space for quiet contemplation through a guided meditation, labyrinth experience (walking or finger), or journal prompts.
  • If you have significant time to give to this section of the service, you could have stations set up to introduce people to various spiritual practices, and possibly include a creative prayer practice.

Finally, receive commitments from those who have made them. You might invite people to write their commitments down, share their commitments verbally with another person, or light a candle to represent their commitments.

Now is a great time to join the Spacious Faith Patreon community!

Next week I’m sending out new spiritual journal pages and the link to the February worship and preaching resource page.
During Lent, I’ll be exploring possibilities for writing a new Lenten devotional, and if you are a patron at any level, you will be able to see my posts about this and share your own ideas.

Find out more and join on my Patreon page.

Thanks so much for your support!

A few other Ash Wednesday worship resources:

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