Ash Wednesday: Crossing the Threshold into Lent

Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“‘And yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart . . .’” —Joel 2:12 

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks that are set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity. Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far.

The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?”  This begs an even deeper question: “Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?”

Search Me, O God

Left to ourselves, we probably would not choose to devote a whole season to such rigorous and demanding disciplines, but God knows we need it. As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we acknowledge our human finiteness and mortality. No matter who we think we are, receiving the ashes reminds us that, “You are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). This is not meant to be morbid; it is just meant to limit our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition we all share.

The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes. They are a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of our sin.  This, too, is good for us because we live in so much denial. With as much openness as we can muster, we invite God to search us and know us and (eventually) lead us into resurrection life.

Finding Our Way Back

Serious as the Lenten season is, it is also a time of great hope as we experience God’s steadfast love for us, even in the midst of whatever sin we are acknowledging. In the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection we are assured that there is forgiveness and cleansing for all who turn to him. In him there is the power to pass from death unto life in the places where we ourselves are in need of resurrection.

So let us pray as we enter the Lenten season together:

Oh God, let something essential happen to me, something more than interesting or entertaining or thoughtful.  

Oh God, let something essential happen to me, something
awesome, something real.  Speak to my condition, Lord, and change me somewhere inside where it matters.  

Let something happen which is my real self, Oh God.    

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2014. Adapted from Lent: A Season of Returning. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

Lent Calendar (Cycle A) and guidance for using the lectionary

For further reading on practicing Lent for leaders, read the post  Season of Returning: A Leader’s Journey into Lent

Question for Reflection:  How will you return to God with all your heart this season? 

Leave a comment below and/or follow us on Twitter (@transformingcnt) and join the conversation.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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I am involved in giving but this season I need to work on forgiving. I will work on allowing time and space to first feel the pain of some of the things that have happened, instead of a quick – oh it’s ok I am really blessed and then open myself to healing and fresh eyes from God.

You might appreciate Forgiveness: A Lenten Study by Marjorie Thompson. It’s new this year!

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, but I’m fascinated by it. I have found myself observing it the last couple of years bc I want to grow closer to God and I want Easter to be more than just another holiday. I want to lean in and allow God to move and work on areas in my life that need His gentle hand and attention. Bless you on your Lenten journey.

Thank you.

I echo your sentiments exactly…only I begin today. Thank you Ruth Barton, I am both blessed and excited to have found you and your writing/ministry. Thank you Alecia for your well spoken and well timed response.

I have been so blessed by your readings for Lent. Thank you for faithfully leading us into this season repentance, hope and transformation.

So grateful to hear it!


Some 24 years ago, I was pondering a career in missions. Psalm 139:23-24 was a theme passage for me. My anxious thoughts then are very different now, and yet somewhat the same … anxiety about the future, the Lord’s provision, am I (still) on the right path? I have decided this Lenten season to press in to return to God with all my heart, not looking back or settling into a new comfortable.

That sounds like an important thing to pay attention to during Lent. Praying for you and all of us…

I will practice waiting on God for guidance on matters that require His divine leading. I will pray and seek answers through the bible. I will turn over worry and fret to the Lord and begin a journey of replacing them with trust in God who has a plan for my life that will bring Him glory. I am part of His Plan A and I want to be obedient.


[…] Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20… […]

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