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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 02/13/2013

Throughout the history of Christianity, Easter has been the primary festival, the center of the church year.  In fact, if I remember my liturgical history correctly, for the earliest Christians the church year consisted only of Sundays and Easter with Easter including an all night vigil kind of like what we’ve been doing here for awhile now; that was it.  The next development was Easter being seen as not just as a day but as a 50 day season culminating in Pentecost, a version of which was already an Old Testament festival people were familiar with. 

Then, going in the other direction from Easter, a time of preparation was added, a time that we call Lent and I think all this happened within the first couple of hundred years.  In those early years Easter was the time of baptism so Lent would be a time of preparation and learning about the faith for those who would be baptized, primarily adults at that time.  The duration of forty days was connected to Jesus’ time of trial in the wilderness, being tempted for forty days.

What I’m saying is that the observance of Lent has been around for a long time, way before Christmas for example.  This time of preparation has been part of the church year almost since the beginning although the way it is observed has changed in some ways.  Most notably the emphasis shifted from baptism to repentance although there are efforts these days to recover more of the baptismal emphasis, you’ll note that in some of the prayers of the church during Lent; but still, I think for most people what they think about relative to Lent is repentance and then perhaps the disciplines of Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving even if our observance of those practices tends to be pretty watered down these days.

Ash Wednesday, this day that marks the beginning of our Lenten observance, is probably the most brutally honest day of the church year if we take it seriously.  What we do tonight in a variety of ways is admit that something is wrong.  That’s not always easy.  It’s easy to admit that there’s something wrong with the world, it’s easy to admit that there’s something wrong with other people, but on Ash Wednesday, it’s personal. 

So we always start with Psalm 51 which is probably the best known prayer of confession in the Bible and the idea on this night is that each of us takes it personally, takes it as our psalm, our prayer because that’s how it’s written.  There are lots of first person pronouns in there.  It’s my wickedness, my sin, my offenses.  It’s harsh in its accusation, but on Ash Wednesday there’s no pretending that “something wrong” is about someone else.  On Ash Wednesday, there’s no place to hide. 

Along with that is the acknowledgment that “I” can’t do anything about it.  I can’t fix what is wrong on my own; I can’t get out of this mess.  In a self-help, pick yourself up by the bootstraps world, that too is difficult to admit.  Tonight though, we look at ourselves and say that we’re not dependent on our own efforts to do better, but on the steadfast love of God.  In the familiar verse, “Create in me a clean heart of God,” in Hebrew the verb translated as “create” can only have God as the subject.  None of us can create a clean heart on our own; only God can do it.  On Ash Wednesday, in honesty we acknowledge our dependence as we say and hear the words of Psalm 51.  I would even suggest that you take the bulletin insert and put it somewhere that you’ll see it once in awhile.  Don’t just say these words tonight, but come back to them.

On Ash Wednesday, one confession isn’t enough so we’ll do it again here in a few minutes.  This time it will be a more specific recognition of ways we fall short of being who God wants us to be, who we want us to be.  We won’t rush through it.  With each of the statements we’ll take time to reflect personally on them, because again, Ash Wednesday is personal. 

From there we move to the ritual action most people probably think about relative to Ash Wednesday which is the imposition of ashes.  A cross of ashes is traced on your forehead, ashes made from palms that were used to praise Jesus on Palm Sunday last year.  With the ashes, words are spoken, and again, it’s personal. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Talk about brutal honesty; there it is.  The ashes represent an ancient symbol that expresses sorrow for sins and other faults, but with that there is also recognition of a fact that none of us really wants to acknowledge, the fact that we’re mortal, that we’re going to die; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Ash Wednesday is about honesty, and there’s no place to hide…

…or maybe there is.  If we ended there tonight, it could be cause for despair.  But that’s not where we end.  The imposition of ashes is followed by the celebration of Holy Communion.  Communion is always a time to remember that Jesus is present with us.  He instituted this meal for that purpose, so that for all time his followers would have a way to experience his presence in a concrete, physical way and this too is personal; the body of Christ given for you; the blood of Christ shed for you.  This is a night that you especially want to hear the “for you” in those statements spoken directly “to you.”  Even in the brutal honesty of Ash Wednesday, Jesus comes to us, Jesus is present to us.  We acknowledge the reality of our sin, but as we receive the sacrament we also know the reality of forgiveness.

In between the rituals of tonight we hear lessons that remind us of the disciplines of Lent.  It’s not exactly a how-to manual on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, more of a reminder to us that there have always been practices that have been understood as drawing us closer to God thus enhancing the relationship.  They’re not undertaken as a way to impress God or ourselves or each other; it’s always about the relationship.

However Lent is observed, that is really what it’s about.  Our relationship with God is not what it should be, that’s what’s wrong; that’s what we admit tonight.  However Lent is observed this year, may it be a time that draws each of us closer to being who we want to be in relationship to God.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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