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Practicing Lent: Ash Wednesday as a Way of Entering In

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Lectionary Readings for Ash Wednesday Year B: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Today is Ash Wednesday—the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season.  At some point throughout this day, many of us will experience the symbolic gesture of receiving the imposition of ashes on our foreheads; in so doing, we will  acknowledge our human frailty, our finiteness, and our sinfulness.  The words we will most likely hear are, “You are dust and to dust you shall return”  (Genesis 3:19)—words intended to confront our grandiosity and put us in touch with the human condition we all share.

While it is tempting to reduce Ash Wednesday to a church service in which we kneel and receive the ashes before scurrying back to whatever comes next, the Gospel reading for today raises essential questions that can help us shape and sustain a Lenten practice that is truly life-changing. As we ponder Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, we might ask:

  • How will I give?  (v. 2-3) Lent is a time for “giving things up” balanced by “giving to” those in need.
  • How will I pray?  (v. 5-13)  As we “give up” some of our usual distractions, there is more space for prayer.  Is there a particular prayer practice (like fixed hour prayer, silent prayer or intercessory prayer) that God is inviting me to?
  • Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (vs. 14-15) Forgiveness creates a conduit for God’s grace to flow in our lives with others.
  • How will I fast?  (v. 16-18)  What distracts me from alert attention to my relationship with God? What do I need to abstain from in order to be more aware of my hunger for God?
  • What earthly treasures am I attached to and how can I let go?  (v. 19-21)  Is there any specific earthly treasure I am attached to—time, money, energy, success—that I am being called to steward differently or let go of entirely, at least for this season?

During Lent we are called to stop (or at least modify) whatever we are doing, no matter how important it might be, in order to enter more intentionally into disciplines of prayer, self-examination and repentance. Hopefully, as we kneel and receive the ashes today, we will come with some sense of how God is inviting us to enter into the Lenten season—the more concrete the better.

As we enter into this wilderness time, may we recognize a sense of anticipation about how God will meet us in the space we are creating for him.

“I invite you, therefore, 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 now kneel before the Lord, 
our maker and redeemer.” 
Amen.

Book of Common Prayer 

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

(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, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

10 Comments

  1. Giving Up? | A Voice in the Desert on February 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    […] is considering fasting, may I suggest considering these questions posed by Ruth Haley Barton on her blog earlier this week (commenting on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew […]

  2. Karen Gygax Rodriguez on February 18, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Hello, Thank you for these spirit provoking questions. I especially appreciate the thought of how I might “steward differently.” I was wondering how I might receive permission to share these questions in our Lenten services? Thank you

    • The Transforming Center on February 19, 2015 at 11:33 am

      Hi Karen, thank you for your comment. You can find our sharing policy at the bottom of this page. Please email permissions@transformingcenter.org to receive permission.

  3. Suzie@homemaker-mom on February 18, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this teaching & sharing.

  4. celese on February 18, 2015 at 10:12 am

    prayer and Gods word stands out to me. I have not spent time in solitude and silence and I miss my relationship with my Abba. I pray for God to move me into that time and space with Him.

    • Sarah on February 21, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      I’m sensing the same things celese. I’m scheduling myself to stop by the Catholic church prayer room once a week on my way to a weekly appointment.

  5. Cindy Kern on February 18, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Thank you so much for these helpful questions of reflection…lend themselves to a deeper response than perhaps just giving up chocolate 🙂 Blessings.

    • Ruth Barton on February 20, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Amen to that!

  6. David Underwood on February 18, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Ruth, those are six great questions for today. Wow, I needed that.

  7. Oscar on February 18, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Absolutely beautiful. What thoughts to consider and what struggles I may encounter during this season of Lent… and all that preparation and reflection to “recognize a sense of anticipation about how God will meet us in the space we are creating for him.”

    What a wonderful thought to consider and prepare for.

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