Our family attended the Church of the Apostles Ash Wednesday service last year, and we are so thankful that we did.
We almost didn’t attend because it was a dark, cold week night, and my husband had to meet our children and me at the church after a long, hard day at work. I did not grow up in the Anglican tradition and had only ever been to one other Ash Wednesday service, but for years had heard French friends speak of the beauty of “le Mercredi des Cendres” (“The Wednesday of Ashes”). Beautiful ashes… such a different way to see the world.
As we entered the church, we noticed that the sanctuary was over half filled. The music was beautiful and worshipful. The tone of the service was one of peacefulness and quiet reverence.
Near the end of the service, we went forward, and one of the pastors placed ashes in the shape of a cross on each of our foreheads, saying the classic Lenten reminder, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They were strange and somber words, and yet they awakened something hopeful in me… a merciful reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the preciousness of each day. After receiving the cross of ashes on our foreheads, we returned to our seats for a time of reflection, repentance, and prayer. Seated there, Ken and I felt encouraged to see our three normally distractible young children drawn in by the reverent tone of the service and bowed in prayer. Just hours earlier, my mind had been swirling with so many random thoughts and distractions… choosing paint color samples for our home, picking the right pair of boots, reading my sister’s Facebook posts… all good things, but how quickly I had lost my focus and purpose for the day. Now in the stillness of the service, God was calling me to be still. The quiet time of prayer forced me to face my heart and my sins, my petty selfishness, my addiction to sugar, worrying about my brother…so many burdens I had been carrying…so many things holding me back from whom God wanted me to be, so many things from which he wanted me to be free.
Hebrews 12:1-2 reads, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” As we prayed, I saw in the upcoming days of Lent a hopeful picture of letting go of the old in order to take hold of the new. The Ash Wednesday service helped me to focus on Jesus and His love. It reminded me of one of my favorite parts of worship: taking Communion. For me, Communion just never gets old. Almost every time I take Communion, I am moved by His great mercy, remembering that I am nothing without Jesus. Like the bread in my hands each week, the cross of ashes on my forehead that day reminded me that Jesus loves me so much that He was willing to suffer greatly to save me from sin and death and to give me new life and new hope.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Zephaniah 3:17. We have it framed in our home, and I look at it each morning: “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” During the Ash Wednesday service, God quieted me with His love. God showed me my brokenness so that He could begin to heal and to restore me. My time of “sackcloth and ashes” was not my whole story. Philippians 1:6 reads, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Leaving the service, I felt hopeful, remembering that God had not given up on me in all my mess and sin. He was carrying me and renewing me. He is the God of all Hope and Grace.