Cross of ashes on a woman’s forehead.
Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash
Inviting others to join you on the journey of Lent
February 22, 2023
Certain moments in our lives leave us open to new beginnings. In each of these moments, we evaluate our lives and consider new habits and direction. We make space in our lives, letting go of old ways and initiating new ones. I find these are good times for new people to visit church, and for established members to recommit to regular worship. New people visit our church almost every week, but these “new start” times see a much higher number of people in whom I sense an opening to become a part of our community, an opening to deepening their faith in love of Christ and service to neighbor.
Lent is such a time. Like Christmas or Easter, where many people either return to church, or consider worship for the first time, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent has a powerful attraction.
There is something very real and true about Ash Wednesday. No fake religious veneer is on display. No one is required to be shiny or happy. It might be the most authentic day of the church year. Nothing fancy. Simple austerity in the face of sin and mortality.
Lent continues that authenticity. It calls us back to the disciplines of the Christian–prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. And although this may not seem like an opportune time to reach out and invite a neighbor or friend to church (focused as it is on disciplines), it is actually the best of times.
Some of the most meaningful moments I have ever spent in religious community have been at the invitation to participate in an Ash Wednesday liturgy with a friend at their church. Whether it was a small Episcopal parish in Pasadena, CA, or the ancient St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia, or a curbside imposition of ashes at the mall, I remember more Ash Wednesday services than any other service I attend. The spiritual commitment of Lent–to give alms to the poor, to fast, and to pray–centers the community in that which is most meaningful.
The confession of sin, and the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name, reminds us why it is we walk with this community week after week.
It also reminds us that God is with us. That God is with us is why can live in faith as we do.
And that simple inscribing of ash on our foreheads, “from dust you have come… to dust you shall return…” as serious as that is, is also full of grace and truth. It will mark you. It will move you. And it makes you into a walking fulfillment of Paul’s words, “As often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Don’t just receive the imposition of ashes on February 22nd. Invite others to join you. Tell them what it means to you. Let them in on a little bit of the mystery of this journey we are on together. The worst thing that might happen is they would say no. In which case your “ask” would go down in ashes like those written on your forehead.
It’s the kind of worship to which you could invite a friend or neighbor, because you know when you invite them, you are inviting them to the core of what you believe and practice as a Christian. Often, we fail to invite our neighbors to worship because we don’t know why we would. Ash Wednesday clarifies our faith, requires us to know.
So I encourage you to do so. Don’t just receive the imposition of ashes on February 22nd. Invite others to join you. Tell them what it means to you. Let them in on a little bit of the mystery of this journey we are on together. The worst thing that might happen is they would say no. In which case your “ask” would go down in ashes like those written on your forehead.
Finally, by inviting, you would be living out Psalm 51. Penitence is not private, it is public. David sings his lament before his people, and his people have sung it ever since as one of the psalms. It is what we will sing in our congregation, and it will likely be sung at any number of Christian congregations near you, dear reader. Consider yourself invited.
Lent as a spiritual season is an opportunity to commit (or re-commit) to core Christian practices.
Lent is first of all the forty-day journey beginning with Ash Wednesday (February 22nd) and concluding with Holy Week and Easter (April 9th). During the forty days, we journey with Jesus through the final weeks of his public ministry, setting our faces with him towards Jerusalem and the cross.
Traditionally, Christians commit to three practices during the season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Often, this includes using a daily devotional resource for prayer; fasting from certain foods or activities; and almsgiving, that is, giving to the poor.
Many congregations host Wednesday evening services during Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, a special service focused on repentance and meditation on our mortality. The remaining Wednesdays of Lent, Christians are invited to find ways to fast and give during this season. One way to model this in the congregation: consider fasting from coffee and treats on Sunday mornings. At the regular coffee station, in place of coffee and treats, place baskets for offerings featuring hunger ministries. This practice combines fasting with almsgiving, and it’s something you might also try in your own homes, perhaps donating to a hunger ministry what you otherwise would have spent on meat or dining out.
Finally, the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and leads to Holy Week. Even many active members of congregations have seldom attended the special midweek services. If you are unfamiliar with these special services, I very much encourage you to check them out this year. At Ash Wednesday, we receive a sign of the cross on our foreheads, reminding us of our mortality and one-ness with the dust of the earth. Holy Week includes Maundy Thursday observance in memory of Christ’s last supper, Friday around the cross on which he died, and Saturday Easter Vigil with the new fire welcoming new members and celebrating the resurrection light and the gift of baptism. Having observed all the days of Christ’s journey through death to resurrection, the Sunday morning of Easter, we pull out all the stops with celebratory worship—and often Easter egg hunts.
For additional devotional resources and ideas during the Lenten season, consider praying the daily offices, for example using this simple online tool. Take Lent for what it is, an opportunity for introspection and renewal, joining Christ in his faithful journey.
Twentieth-century Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said, “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened…What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”[i]
Faith is the cross. Lent is the season that centers us in this gospel truth.
Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.