A Service for Ash Wednesday

Lent is about to begin and there will be a short Ash Wednesday service in the Chapel on February 22, 2023. We will gather between 4-4:15 pm est.  The service will be approximately 20 min and then we will have an optional time of fellowship afterwards. You can get onto zoom by clicking HERE.

We ask that you bring your own ashes as there will be a time to mark yourself with the cross. If you do not have ashes, then you can use some water or olive oil instead. Or, if you prefer, you can simply close your eyes and pray during that part of the service. 

Reader One

(A prayer of Moucan)

O Lord, you are my strength
	I will love you completely
Protect me under the shadow of your wings
	Have mercy on me Jesu, son of David

Open the eyes of my heart by your mercy
	I call out to you like the Canaanite widow
Because of the wound in my soul
	Even dogs eat the scraps which fall from the table

You are the health of the whole world
	Speak and my soul will be healed
Forgive the wickedness of my sin
	If I reach out and touch the hem of your robe
       I will be saved from my sin, Amen


(Homily written by Justin)

As we enter into this season of Lent, you may ask yourself how a spirit of penance makes sense in a world view of original goodness. It is certainly a question I have asked myself. The way that penance has been taught to many of us is in direct odds with the idea that we are created good. If we are good in our essence, then why do we need to apologise for our existence?

I would like to briefly unpack that question before we begin. The first thing I want to point out is that the act and attitude of penance can exist within different theologies. If you believe that human beings are inherently sinful creatures, undeserving of love, incapable of goodness without God’s direct intervention, then penance becomes a punishment. It becomes a ritual act of acknowledging our own worthlessness and begging God to fix us. But there are other theological frameworks in which a spirit of penance makes sense.

The teaching of original goodness does not mean that there is no sin. The great teachers of the past who argued that human beings are good by nature were never so naïve as to think that we are all perfect just the way we are. All of us struggle with sin. All of us are touched by it in some fashion. The question is, where does this sin come from and how do we heal it?

If we accept that we are born good, created in the image of God, then we must ask ourselves why humanity so often reverts to war, slavery, genocide, and all the other great evils we see around us. The answer which Pelagius gives is that we are creatures of habit. We act out of our subconscious as much as our conscious mind. From the time of our birth we are immersed in a world of dysfunction and we bring that dysfunction into ourselves, acting it out in the world without even realising it. 

While most of us do operate on autopilot, unconsciously imitating the evil of the world, we are not without hope. These habits can be overcome partially through intentional effort to form new habits and partially by drawing from the hidden wealth of nature inside us. Because goodness is our nature, we can always return to it and draw forth healing from the mystical and infinite well within us. 

Penance, in this theological model, is about unlearning the bad habits we’ve picked up. It’s about acknowledging when we have lost our way and making a commitment to return to the good. Penance, as a spiritual practice, helps us to clear away all the tarnish which has accumulated on the priceless jewel which is our heart. We cannot return to our original goodness if we do not admit the ways in which we have become lost. 

Lent is traditionally a season of fasting and it is in ascetic practice that we are best able to undo our bad habits. Fasting brings us face to face with the fact that we operate on autopilot. It can help to illuminate the fact that we are acting out of habit. By learning to overcome the habits of our body we are able to learn to overcome the habits of our hearts. By learning to conquer hunger, we also learn to conquer anger. Penance is a medicine which heals us.

Psalm 51, which I will read momentarily, is traditionally read on Ash Wednesday and it is also often used as a proof text for original sin. The psalm is attributed to David, who is lamenting the fact that he has killed Bethseba’s husband in order to sleep with her. In it he says “In transgression was I conceived, and in offence my mother spawned me.” If one is looking for a proof text for original sin, this isn’t a bad place to start. One way of reading it is that David is saying that his sin was programmed into him from the moment of his conception.

That’s only one way to interpret the text, however. And indeed, there is no reason to think it’s the right way. Another way to interpret this short and ambiguous passage is that David means he was born into a world of sin and learned it from his family. We inherit sin from our parents through our imitation, intentional or otherwise, of their way of being. This would make perfect sense in the context. 

The lines immediately after this say “Look, You desired truth in what is hidden; in what is concealed make wisdom known to me. Purify me with hyssop, that I be clean. Wash me, that I be whiter than snow.”

David says that he was born in sin but then he goes on to describe the hidden truth within him. This hidden truth within him is a source of wisdom. He only needs to be washed clean in order for that truth to be revealed and gladness and joy to return to him. If we can be washed and made good then that means we were good all along. Sin is nothing more than dirt and grime which has accumulated on the surface of who we are. The hyssop is a metaphor for a spiritual cleansing which washes away all that grime. Hidden underneath the muck and junk is a beautiful jewel, created in the image of God. 

In this season of Lent we enter the desert of our own hearts and, just as Jesus did when he went into the desert, we find both demons and angels, dysfunction and truth. By entering the desert we confront those demons and invite the angels to heal them. Today, on Ash Wednesday, we begin that journey into the barren land by confessing our sins and seeking the medicine of penance to heal them.

Psalm 51

(Translation by Robert Alter)

Grant me grace, God, as befits your kindness
	With your great mercy wipe away my crimes
Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
	And cleanse me from my offense

For crimes I know
	And my offense is before me always
You alone have I offended
	And what is evil in Your eyes I have done

So you are just when You sentence
	You are right when You judge
Look, in transgression was I conceived
	And in offense my mother spawned me

Look, You desired truth in what is hidden
	In what is concealed make wisdom known to me
Purify me with hyssop, that I be clean
	Wash me, that I be whiter than snow

Avert Your face from my offenses
	And all my misdeeds wipe away
A pure heart create for me, God
	And a firm spirit renew within me
Do not fling me away from Your presence 
	And Your holy spirit take not from me

Give me back gladness of Your rescue
	And with a noble spirit sustain me
Let me teach transgressors Your ways
	And offenders will come back to you

Save me from bloodshed, O God
	God of my rescue
       Let my tongue sing out Your bounty
O Master, open my lips
	That my mouth may tell Your praise

For You desire not that I should give sacrifice
	Burnt offering You greet not with pleasure
God’s sacrifices - a broken spirit
	A broken, crushed heart God spurns not

Show goodness in Your pleasure to Zion
	Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem
Then shall You desire just sacrifices
	Burnt offering and whole offering
	The bulls will be offered upon your altar

5 min silence

In the story of Eden we are told that Adam was made of the dust of the earth and had the spirit of life breathed into his nostrils. We have a physical nature and a spiritual nature, one made of dust and the other made of breath. Our bodies are formed from the dust of the earth and one day they will become dust again. The acceptance of our own mortality is one of the ways that our hearts are washed clean. To accept that we will one day die and that our physical existence will fade into dust reorients us. We no longer concern ourselves with the accumulation of wealth, which is only for our body, but instead we store up treasures for ourselves in heaven, which is a goodness for our spirit. Our time on this earth is fleeting. What will you prioritise in your short time here? 

You may now mark yourself with the sign of the cross on your forehead, your own image on zoom works like a mirror to help you get it right. 

Imposition of Ashes

The cross of death leads to the resurrection of new life. You are dust and to dust you shall return. You are spirit and to spirit you shall return. Amen

Reader Two

(An old Irish lament)

As the executioner plucked her son from her breast, 
One of the women said:
Why do you tear from me my darling son,
The fruit of my womb?

It was I who bore him in my womb
It was at my breast he drank
My womb carried him about
My vitality he suckled

He filled my heart with love
He was my entire life,
'Tis death to have him taken from me
My strength has ebbed without him
My words have been turned to silence
My eyes have been blinded

Then another woman said
It is my son you take from me
I did not do the evil deed
But kill me—instead kill me!

Please do not kill my son!
My breasts are sapless and dry
My eyes are wet, my hands shake
My poor body totters with grief

My husband no longer has a son
And I no longer have any strength
My life feels to me like death
O my own son, O God!

My youth will be without reward
My birthless sickness will continue
Without requital until Doom
My breasts are silent now
My heart is wrung and saddened

Then another woman said
You are seeking to kill one
You are killing many others
Infants you slay, the fathers you wound

The mothers you kill as well
Hell is full with your deeds
Heaven is shut to you
You have spilled the blood of guiltless innocents

And yet another woman said
O Christ, please come to me!
Quickly take my soul along with my son’s!
O great Mary, Mother of God's Son

What shall I do without my son?
For Your Son my spirit and sense are killed
I have lost my mind without my son
After the piteous slaughter
My heart is a clot of blood
From this day until Doom

Reader Three

(A prayer from the Stowe Missal)

Grant your people, by the prayers of your servants, the healing of their souls for which we pray, that you may fulfil their desires. Grant, almighty God, for us who beseech you, forgiveness to those who seek it, mercy to those who ask.  May the name of Jacob’s God protect them, send them help from the holy place, and from Zion may they be protected. Look mercifully, O God, on their sacrifice, and may their prayers be pleasing in the sight of the saints. Grant them their holy desires, and strengthen their will entirely to good, that they may be found just in your sight, through Christ Our Lord. O God, who purifies the hearts of those who trust in you, and who breaks the bonds of sin in those whose consciences accuse them, grant forgiveness to sinners, give medicine to the wounded, that having received remission of all their sins they may remain henceforth in your sacraments in sincere devotion, and may suffer no harm to their heart or mind. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.


(Inspired by Gregory of Nyssa)

Sisters and brothers, lovers of peace and mercy, this is the true perfection of the human being: not to avoid evil because, like slaves, we fear punishment, nor to do good in hope of reward, as if by means of a contract we could purchase the life of virtue. On the contrary, without concern for our own hopes and worries, we consider losing God’s friendship as the only thing we fear and we consider becoming God’s friend the only object of our desire. Therefore, go out into the world with the fire of friendship kindled in your hearts. Let your peace be known to all and give mercy to everyone you encounter. Be humble. Be kind. Be courageous. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and allow the light of heaven to guide you on the path eternal, the journey into God which never ends and is always new. Amen

If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends or on your favourite social media. If you would like to explore spiritual direction with Justin then click HERE to learn more about it. If you have any questions then feel free to contact Justin at justin@newedenministry.com or if you are receiving this in an email, simply respond to the email.

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