Ash Wednesday: Crossing the Threshold into Lent

Guidance on using the lectionary.
Lectionary readings for February 10, 2016: 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?”

Honest to God
Ash Wednesday initiates this season in which we are called to be as honest as we are able about the ways we have “left” God and slipped into spiritual mediocrity. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51 points out, “Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”

As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition, we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold.

The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday (which are the same for Cycles A, B, and C) provide a good introduction to some of the concrete disciplines that have the potential to loosen the grip of sin and distraction in our lives—prayer and fasting, hiddenness, self-examination and repentance, forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and storing up treasure in heaven by giving generously to others.

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.

Longing for God
The purpose for engaging in Lenten disciplines is that we would become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us face the hold that our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God.

As we wrestle with our awareness of the grip our attachments have on us, we enter into the godly grief that leads to repentance, so we can receive forgiveness and walk in new levels of freedom.

God’s Steadfast Love
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 Christ there is the power to pass from death unto life in the places where we ourselves are in need of resurrection.

“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. 2015. Not to be reproduced without permission. This is adapted from Lent a Season of Returning  (Transforming Resources, 2015.)

Transforming Resources for a meaningful Lent

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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[…] end Lent with some Holy Week activities to help us focus on Jesus more completely.  I received an email about the personal spiritual significance of Lent and I thought it was well worth sharing.  If you are so inclined, Ann Voskamp has such a great […]

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Hello Ruth and All,

I am touched by the thoughts here very much! I am currently a nursing student in a rigorous and fast paced program. It allows very little time for anything but school, and I find myself just trying to ‘survive’ for these few more months until graduation! I also lead a small group of believers at my school in fellowship/prayer each week. When I think of Lent, I find it difficult to find something to ‘give up’. Do you have any encouragement or thoughts on some simple ways that I myself, and the small group at my school, can implement to ‘return to God’ and ‘become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our heart’? Thank you!

It’s really helpful to let yourself feel how deep your desire to “return to God with all your heart” really goes. Then, notice anything in your life that distracts you from that or prevents you from making choices that are congruent with that desire. It could be anything, really–mindless television watching, addiction to social media, using food or alcohol for comfort or distraction, staying up too late, certain relationships or activities…the idea is eliminate whatever we feel might be distracting us so that in the tiny bits of space created by what we are eliminating, we can add practices that foster intimacy with God–solitude, silence, prayer, self-examination, service. Given what you describe about your current life situation, I think anything you could eliminate that would create even 10 minutes a day for silence and resting quietly in God’s presence would help you “return” and get in touch with the longing deep within. (I go into this a lot more fully in Lent: A Season of Returning.) My heart is stirred by your honest seeking and I am praying that God will use whatever Lenten practice you choose to help you return to Him wherever you have felt distant.

[…] Ruth Haley Barton says, the […]

I sit here and reflect on how I can draw closer to God. Yes, if I abstain from something, I will remember who I am giving it up for, but it may not personally draw me closer. However I think if I spend more time in the Word or serve in some capacity, I will naturally be abstaining from those other things that take up so much of my time. Drawing closer to God sounds wonderful to me right now.

Me too!

What a nice prelude to Lent. Thank you for your deep and thoughtful insight into the Scriptures.

The theme of ” a season of returning” has been a clear call to simplify and move, in these days of remembrance, to clear the chaff of life and focus on my sacrificial living and part in bringing the reign of Christ to my part of His kingdom. I look forward to the journey.

Yes, I love the idea of each of us seeking ways to bring the reign of Christ to OUR part of the kingdom. May it be so!

In order to create space for even more intentional and mindful awareness of God’s presence and action in my life, I am sensing the need to “give up” social media and “take on” exercise for the body. Lately, social media has been such a mindless, addictive way of wasting time and my desire is to not let it rob me from the readings that truly minister to my soul. Also, to make space for knitting which is one of the creative ways that I pray. Along with that expression, my body has been showing signs of lack of exercise, another creative way of praying. I ask for God’s help and mercy as I return to Him in these small “fastings” to know Him more fully and deeply.

Fasting from social media is a wonderful way to experience Lent! Until we separate ourselves from it, we really have no idea how much time and space it takes UP and takes AWAY from other important and meaningful endeavors–such as the ways of praying you describe here. I celebrate what God is leading you into.

I chose to remove two things from my normal daily routine this year. Both will leave a hole or a void where they once existed. Life will seem awkward, the void will cause me to pause. My expectation is for God to mend those holes with something else, something better. I know this will mean a new routine. The first week of Lent is always easy…….

You describe so well the purpose of Lent–to leave some of the spaces we usually filled with other things empty so God can meet us there. May God meet you in surprising and intimate ways…

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