I attended an Ash Wednesday service this week. It was only my second time for such a thing; the other was ten years ago. This time, it was a combined service that brought together four churches: First Baptist (my church), First Methodist (our host), First Presbyterian, and Golf Course Road Church of Christ. Two of the churches observe Ash Wednesday every year, but the other two don’t.
The Methodists made us feel very welcome. In fact, sitting side-by-side in our church clothes, we all looked alike. All four churches are too large to know everyone, so there was a bit of uncertainty whether the new person sitting next to you was one of us, or one of them. As it should be.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day period of prayer and abstinence known as Lent. The name comes from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. Through the years, I’ve seen people walking around with an ashen cross on their forehead, and I knew what it meant, but I didn’t participate. It never occurred to me. We always had something else to do at our own church.
I’ve spent my entire life in Baptist churches, and Baptists don’t do liturgy. In fact, we run away from it as fast as we can. We don’t even like someone reading a printed prayer; if it isn’t improvised on the spot, we aren’t sure God pays attention. The closest we come to liturgy is when we do responsive readings from our hymn books, back when we used hymn books.
Since it is so different from my upbringing, a liturgical service always catches me off balance. Liturgy is not magic. It can become stale and repetitious just like any form of worship. But being surprised by God is magic, however it happens.
For me, this time, the surprise was how emotional I felt. I was in tears much of the time. I realized how much I needed this communal form of worship. I felt is deeply when we all read a prayer together, out loud, in unison. Most holy and merciful Father: We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. There is an element of surrender in reading a liturgy aloud. You end up saying things you aren’t brave enough to say on your own initiative.
At the conclusion, I left the service quickly and quietly, working my way silently through the crowd and out the back door. I was too soft to talk to anyone. I turned off my audio book and drove home in silence because I wanted to linger in the moment a bit longer.
Once I got home, Cyndi took one look at my marked forehead and said, “You’ve been seriously marked.” I looked at it in the mirror for the first time, and it looked like the minister had used one of those extra-large Magic Markers. “Well, I chose one of the Presbyterian ministers. I figured they had the most experience with this sort of thing.”
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32