Forgiveness for Lent

A few years ago I would have been looking to pull out my bar-b-que grill about this time. Not because the weather would have necessarily been nicer, though it probably was, but because I would be preparing for Lent. I used to apply my do-it-yourself ethic to worship. Each year I would save the leftover palms from Palm Sunday in a box in my closet where they would get nice and dry. AshWednesdayI would pull them out before the following Lent and burn them in my grill to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. This required not only burning and collecting of the ash, but also some sifting and grinding and usually a big mess in my kitchen.Then I learned how inexpensive it is to just buy ashes from the same company that sells us the palms–certified ready-made palm ash. What will they think of next?

Lent begins on Wednesday. As Congregationalists we have a mixed history regarding many church holy days, such as Ash Wednesday. Our forebears in faith sought to eliminate what they saw as magical and superstitious (and Roman Catholic) elements of the religion. The early Puritans focused on the rational and experiential expressions of faith while eschewing priestly and sacramental aspects that were so important to the Catholic Church.

Ashes are a good example of the ambiguity that many of us still feel toward the ritualistic expressions of our faith. As a child I could always tell the Catholics in the community—they had the ashes on their foreheads. I didn’t know of any Protestants that did this, though now I understand that many reformed traditions did have Ash Wednesday services, including the German Reformed side of our own United Church of Christ.

I started an Ash Wednesday service at the church I served following seminary. I like the ashes for their involvement of the whole body. Our faith is too often stuck in our brain. In order to get it to be in our hearts, and legs and fingers, etc, we need to do some physical actions to make it real. Ashes, as a reminder of our mortality, help to make it all real.

As the starting point of Lent, Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality to motivate our Lenten spiritual journey. Our Lenten theme this year is “Forgiveness.” I will be preaching on this topic throughout Lent. We will be using the book “The Art of Forgiving,” by Lewis B. Smedes as a study guide. I am looking forward to Lent as a season to deepen our spiritual life as we explore what it means to forgive, and to be forgiven.

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