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10 February 2016
  Ash Wednesday
The Lenten Season Begins

The entire Christian life celebrates Christ's victorious Resurrection on Easter morning. However, from Christianity's earliest days, the actual Paschal season has received special emphasis. The Church has traditionally prepared for this, the greatest Feast of our Lord, through the season of Lent.

From ancient times, Ash Wednesday has marked the first day of Lent. There are forty days from Ash Wednesday until Easter. Sundays are not counted because the Sundays in Lent are not fast days; rather, each is a celebration of the Resurrection. The forty days of Lent are reminiscent of the forty days in which rain fell during the Flood, our Lord's forty days and Israel's forty years in the wilderness, Christ's forty hours in the tomb, and related periods of judgment, testing, and completion of divine activities. The Gospel readings of Lent focus on the temptation and trials that Christ underwent on his way to His suffering and crucifixion.

Many people observe Lent by fasting. This can take place in many ways: Physically, we may deny ourselves various foods and pleasures; liturgically, we may omit parts of the Divine Liturgy, such as Alleluias and songs of praise. The Fast increases in depth and seriousness as we move from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week. During the Sundays following Ash Wednesday, we follow our Savior as he puts himself "in harm's way" and prepares for his passion and death. As we continue through the Church Calendar, it is then during Holy Week that we fully focus on his suffering and death.

Along with fasting, two other traditional activities of the early Church remain part of many people's Lenten observance. These are increased prayer and almsgiving. All three of these are mentioned together in the Sermon on the Mount. A portion of this discourse in Matthew is the appointed Gospel in the three-year Lectionary cycle.

Ash Wednesday Ash Wednesday receives its name from the ancient custom of rubbing oneself in ashes during a fast or period of penance as a sign of humility and sorrow. In Scripture, we observe this happening among people as varied as Job, the king of Ninevah and the rest of the city, Daniel, and Mordecai.

These days, most believers don't cover themselves in burlap and ashes. Instead, in congregations that follow the old custom, ashes are placed on the believers' foreheads as their pastors say, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." The ashes remind us that we still daily sin and that all our grand and glorious deeds are nothing in God's sight. This is especially illustrated when they are taken from the burning of the previous year's branches used on Palm Sunday. The praises of the people, their "Hosanna to the Son of David" and "Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord," have fallen silent and are consigned to the burn pile of good intentions not followed through.

There are others who argue well that ashes are not only unnecessary but counter to the Gospel. It isn't that they deem repentance unnecessary but rather that receiving the ashes often leads people to think that they have done something extra to merit God's favor. Today's Gospel lends credence to this argument, since Jesus tells His hearers, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.... And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.... But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others.... (Matthew 6:1, 16a, 17-18a)"

However we observe Lent, we must take care to not assume a false piety by focusing on self. The believer keeps Lent extra nos (outside of self), following the lead of Hebrews 12:2 and "looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Yes, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance. However, it's not intended to keep us looking within. Instead, upon viewing our sins, we then focus on the One who takes them away.

Along with readings and collect, I also include the Litany, a responsive prayer appropriate to days and seasons of penitence.

Lection

Psalm 51:1-13 (14-19)
Joel 2:12-19
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Litany

God the Father, in heaven,
      have mercy.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
      have mercy.
God the Holy Spirit,
      have mercy.
Be gracious to us.
      Spare us, good Lord.
Be gracious to us.
      Help us, good Lord.
By the mystery of Your holy Incarnation;
   by Your holy Nativity;
   by Your Baptism, fasting, and temptation;
   by Your agony and bloody sweat;
   by Your Cross and Passion;
   by Your precious Death and Burial;
   by Your glorious Resurrection and Ascension;
   and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter:

      Help us, good Lord.
In all our time of tribulation;
   in all our time of prosperity;
   in the hour of death; and in the day of judgment:

      Help us, good Lord.
We poor sinners implore You
      to hear us, O Lord.
To prosper the preaching of Your Word;
   to bless our prayer and meditation;
   to strengthen and preserve us in the true faith;
   to give heart to our sorrow and strength to our repentance:

      We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
To draw us to Yourself;
   to bless those who are instructed in the faith;
   to watch over and console the poor, the sick, the distressed,
   the lonely, the forsaken, the abandoned,
   and all who stand in need of our prayers;
to give abundant blessing to all our works of mercy;
   and to have mercy on us all:

      We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
To turn our hearts to You;
   to turn the hearts of our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers;
   and graciously to hear our prayers:

      We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
      we implore you to hear us.
Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
      have mercy.
Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
      have mercy.
Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
      grant us Your peace.
O Christ,
      hear us.
O Lord,
      have mercy.
O Christ,
      have mercy.
O Lord, have mercy.
      Amen.

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