Given that the weather has created dangerous driving conditions, I realize that many can’t get to church to gather for Ash Wednesday, our first day of Lent. For those who would like to mark the day with prayer and reflection, I offer this at-home form of Ash Wednesday prayers. Gather with family or friends or by yourself. Create holy space, perhaps at your dinner table or in a quiet corner of your home. Light a candle. Sit in silence for a few moments. Enter the silence and solemnness of Lent.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
We forget, I think, that the Greek hypocrite is a value-neutral word in the time of Jesus. It means actor, someone who is taking on a role. It was a valid and useful way to communicate in the time of Christ as it still is. We all act. It’s part of being human. We take on roles, some comfortable and useful, some, maybe, for adulation or so that we can pretend to be someone we really aren’t in our deepest, truest selves. Those who are often enthralled with roles of authority and impressive titles may be hiding from deep personal insecurity that feels unimportant. Those who act happy – all the time – may be fearful of the grief that sits behind the doors of their souls. Those who are addicted to perfection may be avoiding the imperfections that plague all of us.
I wonder how often we act out roles to avoid our innermost selves, the selves we’d rather hide from in a dark place behind closed doors, the selves we’re quite certain if God knew, we’d be banished to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I wonder how often we think, “If God knew who I really was, I wouldn’t be beloved.”
Except God does know who we really are – the gloriously lovely parts of us and the dirty, not for public consumption parts of us; the good and lovely and the bad and ugly; the parts we are proud of and the parts of which we hide in shame. God knows us – all of us.
Lent is a time to drop the acting roles – or at least consider which roles we are playing to avoid the deep truths within us - and open the doors to the parts of our souls we would rather ignore or act as if we’ve never met. And, in meeting all of these deeply authentic (and perhaps not so kind and lovely) parts of our selves and souls, we are asked to remember that we are deeply beloved of God.
So what are the roles your play in your life? Are they masking deeper insecurities, attitudes, maybe even a past we’d rather keep behind closed doors? What truths about ourselves would we rather not hear? And how can we prayerfully bring these all to God for God’s transforming work in us and through us during this Lenten season?
The Lenten Exhortation
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
We are invited, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us keep silence before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
After a period of silence, pray the Litany of Penance. If you are with a group, you may replace “I” with “we.”
Litany for Ash Wednesday
On this day, Almighty God, I remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.
After this and each petition, offer a time of silence.
I have not loved God with my whole heart, and mind, and strength. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not loved myself as God loves me.
I have ignored your call to serve, as Christ serves us. I have not been true to the teachings and actions of Christ or followed the examples of the apostles in word and prayer. I have chosen my own desires over faithfulness to the Great Commandment to love.
I have been unfaithful, prideful, and hurtful in my thoughts and actions, and I have exploited other people for my own gain.
I have turned from the ways of love and mercy. I have held grudges and have not forgiven others as I have been forgiven.
I have had uncharitable thoughts about others. I have expressed prejudice and contempt toward other children of God, especially those who differ from me. I have not loved those I consider my enemy.
I have sinned against God, my neighbor, and myself by thought, word, and deed and in what I have done, and in what I have left undone.
For these sins, for these shortcomings, and for my lack of love, grace, and faith, I confess to you. Merciful God, and ask your restoration and forgiveness.
After a time of silence, offer the following prayer:Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin For I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.
Almighty God, you manifest your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon all your servants the Spirit of your love, that in companionship with one another, your abounding grace, faith, and forgiveness may increase among us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Solemn Prayer and Dismissal
Grant, most merciful Lord, to all your faithful people pardon and peace, that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve you with a quiet mind and faithful heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.