and bless our journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth.
May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace;
our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts.
All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus.
For in his cross you proclaim your love for ever and ever.
—Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers
In the Baptist Church I grew up in, Ash Wednesday was neither mentioned nor observed. Because some of my Catholic friends would show up for school with smudges on their foreheads, and explain that the smudges came from the ashes they had received at church before coming to school, the words Ash Wednesday were not completely foreign to me, they simply referred to some strange rite foreign to the pure faith I was so fortunate to have in my heart.
It was not until I attended seminary at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union made of up of both Catholic and Protestant schools, that I became aware of the depth of meaning and tradition connected to Ash Wednesday. It was not until I became pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, which already had a tradition of “doing something” for Ash Wednesday, that observance of the day became part of my experience and practice.
At Lakeshore, our Sanctuary is open for several hours in the morning, at noon, and in the evening for people to participate in what we call Ash Wednesday Vigils, self paced times of prayer, reflection and ritual. The emphasis falls on repentance as an individual act and on the small changes of direction a person can make which end up making a big difference over time. These are not the only possible emphasis but they are the foci that seem to speak to the needs of our congregation.
Upon entering the Sanctuary—quiet recorded music is being played—the worshipper finds a written guide containing prayers, Scripture readings and reflections. After spending time reading and praying, they are invited to come to the altar and light a candle symbolizing their prayer and to stop and pray with one of the pastors who is seated nearby. The pastor prays with them and asks them to receive the ashes, on either their forehead or hand, as “a sign of repentance, healing and hope.” I find these times of quiet reflection to be life giving and the time of prayer with the people to be inspiring.
To recall various Ash Wednesday Vigils is to remember the courage of people in times of crisis, to acknowledge prayers of turning I have offered, to think of saints no longer physically with us and of, course, to remember the time Daniel Pryfogle, then a Minister in Training, caught the sleeve of his robe on fire on one of the candles, bringing new understanding to the meaning of ash.
I trust that what people come away from Ash Wednesday with is not a sense of guilt, but a sense of honesty, hope and direction; a belief that God, in the words of Isaiah, is at work to turn our ashes of mourning into garlands of overcoming.