Ash Wednesday

Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon standing before the altar

Priest, deacon and subdeacon standing before the altar, taken from Ceremonial Pictured in Photographs (Alcuin Club Publication)

This evening I was involved in my first Solemn Eucharist at All Saints’ Church, St Andrews, where I took the role of deacon during the liturgy of the imposition of ashes and Solemn Eucharist; my first Solemn Eucharist since I left St Andrews Cathedral, Inverness in 2003.

A moving experience

I found it a very moving service, and one that I was easily able to enter into without being overly distracted by where I should be or what I should be doing next. But that I put down to trust in my fellow ministers of the sacrament, the priest and subdeacon, who gently guided me and prompted me when required.

Like when I forgot to say the offertory sentence and just began to lay out the altar in preparation for the Eucharist.

“Offertory sentence,” Fr Jonathan prompted me.

“Oh! Sorry!” I said, pulling an apologetic face that probably made me look like I should be in a scene from Wallace and Gromit.

I turned to the congregation. And then back at Fr Jonathan. “What is the offertory sentence?”

He smiled. “Let us present our offerings to the Lord with reverence and godly fear.”

I turned back towards the congregation. “Let us present our offerings to the Lord with reverence and godly fear,” I said before returning to ‘setting the table’.

But I digress.

I found it a very moving service and a perfect start to Lent.

Our observation of Lent

I don’t have the words before me that were used during the service this evening, but here are similar words that I’ve used in Ash Wednesday services before, taken from the Church of England book Lent, Holy Week, Easter: Services and Prayers (Church House Publishing/SPCK, London, 1986):

Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the Church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time the Church came to recognize that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

What really spoke to me was the Hebrew Bible reading from the prophet Joel:

[12] Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

[13] rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing [...]

[17] Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘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?”‘

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996)

The sentence that stuck out for me most was in verse 13: “rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.

Rend your hearts not your clothing. Lent is about a change of mind, a change of heart. It’s an internal thing, not external. The external comes later, once the heart has been changed.

“Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

With those thoughts in mind I now feel prepared to enter Lent.

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