Practicing Lent: Ash Wednesday as a Way of Entering In

Click for guidance on using the lectionary

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.” 

Book of Common Prayer 

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

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).
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] 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 […]

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

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

Thank you so much for this teaching & sharing.

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.

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.

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

Amen to that!

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

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.

Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders

Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.