Worship Service for Ash Wednesday

Hi everyone,

Here is our service for Ash Wednesday, February 14th, 2024.

It will be a simple service, as it usually is for Ash Wednesday. There is no sending hymn, so once the service ends you may sit in quiet contemplation for as long as you need. The bulletin for this service is found here. You can follow along with it or with the words on your screen. The sermon is included on this page below the video.

May God’s unending love fill you with peace, this day and always!

By the power of your Spirit, O God, my our ears be opened to hear your word and our hearts softened to receive your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Well… I’m just going to say it.  Attending an Ash Wednesday service has to be the least romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day ever.  Well, since 2018 at least, which was the last time these two days coincided.  I don’t know if there is another more contrasting and completely polar opposite pair of days that could land on the same day like Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, except for maybe when Easter lands on April Fool’s Day.  Unless, of course, if you can imagine Jesus popping out of the tomb yelling “Fooled you!  Didn’t stay dead.”

But for today, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, I don’t know if we can really stretch out a connection like that.  They are so different from each other.  I mean Ash Wednesday is about self reflection, while Valentine’s Day is more about expressing your love to another.  Ash Wednesday is about remembering our mortality and limited time on Earth while Valentine’s Day is about wanting to be with someone else for as long as possible.  Ash Wednesday is about repentance from sin and changing from our unrighteous ways while Valentine’s Day is about… oh wait maybe there is a connection after all. 

Of course, I’m joking.  Although relationships do seem to be like that these days, at least the ones we see as portrayed in media.  What I mean is that relationships these days seem like they’re all about saying sorry, making up after a fight, and doing everything you can, even as far as completely changing yourself, to be with the other person.  To be honest, I don’t think that’s really what relationships are supposed to be about.  They’re supposed to be about mutual care and respect for each other, a commitment to stay connected as companions, and having an appreciation for the other as they are for who they are, not what they should be because we want them to, regardless of what the musical-turned-movie-starring-John-Tavolta-and-Olivia-Newton-John Grease has taught us.  Relationships, at least the kind that I feel should be celebrated on Valentine’s Day, should be about love, commitment, and respect, not trying to change the other so they can be more loved by you.

But that is what Christianity seems to be like for many people as well, doesn’t it?  In that it I feel as though a lot of people would say Christianity is about changing someone or being changed.  We have to be a certain way to be accepted, live a certain kind of life and don’t live another more fun kind.  I mean we’re given these 10 rules to follow, which lead to a plethora of sub-rules that we also should follow to ensure we don’t break those original 10.  And along the way we’re given more rules, more guidelines, more laws that we must keep or else we might face some weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It’s like Christianity in general has a “be good, or else” kind of feel to it.

Again, at least that’s what how the media portrays it.  And that’s how the masses outside of the church, and some inside the church seem to think as well.  Maybe this is why church attendance is on the decline everywhere, the stigma around organised religion being about control, forced change, and manipulation.

Let’s be honest, don’t the readings that we get for this Ash Wednesday, the same readings that we get every year, seem to support this?  Very clearly Jesus is giving his disciples instruction on what not to do, lest they be seen to be like the hypocrites.  They have to make sure they don’t act a certain way or else they won’t receive their reward.  Make sure they’re good, or they just won’t get good.

It’s hard to argue with that as it seems so clear in the text.  And then we get this season of Lent that this day kicks off, a season of scarcity and discipline.  Religious tradition would have us “fasting” from something until it hurts.  Be it our favourite food, drink, or dessert, the idea is to give it up for these 40 days until Easter.

So it’s like we have to give and give and change and change in order to be righteous.  We have to be disciplined and strict in order to be good.  We have to fit that pious mold that doesn’t really look like how we are normally, in order to be loved by God and welcomed into this community.

And I guess that’s why this day and this season aren’t exactly on the top of the popularity charts.  That could be why we get so few out for this service year after year.  Perhaps this is the reason that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day don’t really seem to jive all that much.

One is just about fun for couples in love, and the other just sucks.

Well, it sucks if you see it as this sort of dysfunctional relationship, that is.  Christianity is hard if it is seen as a give and take sort of thing.  Ash Wednesday is a tough day to observe if we just see it as not just a reminder of our mortality, but also a reminder of our shortcomings and our shame. 

But yet, we’re here.  Here in the space or watching online, we are here. In spite of the stigma around this day and this season, we decided to come out anyway.  Even when the readings today specifically tell us not to flaunt our religious discipline, we will be having our foreheads clearly marked in ash a sign of the cross.  Even though this day, this religion, this way of life seems to be not in our best interests in this day and age, we have chosen to observe and participate in this day.

And above all, we will yet again be reminded that we are from dust and to dust we shall return.

Still, we come.  Still, we make our way out this evening for this service.  Still, we show up.

Maybe it’s because there is just something about the ashes that draw us back to ancient times.  The ancient practice of throwing ashes over your body as a sign of lament, change, and renewal.  The ashes symbolise a death of course, but a death of what was holding us back from seeing, feeling, and loving. 

See the ashes are a symbol of a complete turn around in paradigm and practice, of a realisation of something wrong in our lives, of repentance and rebirth.

And that is what Ash Wednesday is about.  It’s not about changing for the sake of change, or reluctantly being a certain way to appease someone else, or especially not showing off the ash cross on our heads.  But it’s about seeing what habits or practices are harmful to us, recognising how we aren’t perfect, and turning away from the shame and guilt and into God’s everlasting arms of love.

See we are reminded of our mortality in this season.  We have but one life to live.  This life is meant to be full of love, community, and to just be the life that truly is life, but it sometimes is squandered away by things that might not carry the same meaning as we would think they would.  And so this day and season is meant to help us learn to shed these things.  Shed these things not out of reluctant obligation or even as a prerequisite for salvation, but because it is good for us, good for our community, good for us to further embrace the life that God has intended for us.

So the shame that we have of not being perfect is removed.  The guilt that might come with not being 100% righteous is lifted.   The sin of not living life as God has intended is forgiven.  And in spite of us not always getting it, even though we might still flaunt when we shouldn’t flaunt or boast when we should boast, while we continue to live in our sin, guilt, and shame, we are saved.

Saved even when we are in sin.  Redeemed even when we aren’t righteous.  Loved even when we are unlovable.  And that is the great and confusing dichotomy of our faith, that we can be saint and sinner at the same time.  That God’s Word can be both law and gospel.  That this cross can be a tool for death but be a symbol for life.

As Father Mike Schmitz of YouTube fame said about the ashes, “the ashes mean I’m a sinner, but the cross means that I have a Saviour.”

So yes, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have nothing in common.  Ash Wednesday is so much better.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.