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A Service of Penitential Devotion - Ash Wednesday - Psalm 103, Isaiah 53, Luke 19

Suggestions for introducing Ash Wednesday to your congregation and a sample Ash Wednesday service.

Calvin Institute of Christian Worship - Ash Wednesday: A Service of Penitential Devotion 2003

“If we claim to be without sin,
we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins
and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
1 John 1:8,9

A Word about Ash Wednesday

Perhaps you are considering the possibility of observing Ash Wednesday in your congregation.  Or perhaps you have a long history of it.  An Ash Wednesday time of worship is an ancient practice in the Christian Church.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, not on Sunday, and so a time of worship has often been an integral part of the beginning of Lent.  If Lent is to be a time of penitence, discipline and renewal, then in an Ash Wednesday service we are to be reminded of our sin and mortality, make confession, and experience forgiveness through Christ's death and resurrection.

The imposition of ashes is usually a central part of the service.  Ashes, which often are the burnt residue of last year's palms from Palm Sunday, are both a sign of our mortality and our penitence and repentance.  The ashes are mixed with a little water and carried in a small dish.  As the minister goes from person to person, or as they come forward to him, he dips his finger in the ash, and makes a cross on the forehead of each person (“imposition”).  He usually says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”, but you may also choose an alternate statement such as, “Consider yourself dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ”. 

The aim of this service is that we leave in confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and we are safe in Him!

We have made this service available to the congregation on a voluntary basis for those who desire an opportunity to begin Lent in a quiet devotional time.  We've encouraged parents to come with their children and have found that a number of them do and the children find it very meaningful.

Prelude:  “Christ, the Life of All the Living”

Words of Welcome and Introduction

God's Greeting and Congregational “Amen”

Song:  “Christ, the Life of All the Living” PsH 371


Almighty and Everlasting God, who, through your Son Jesus Christ, provided a way of redemption for all who repent and turn from sin:
Create in us a clean heart and renew a steadfast and willing spirit, that we, acknowledging our sinfulness, may live an upright and holy life by the power of  your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Readings from Scripture:

            Psalm 103:1-14
                        Silence for reflection

            Isaiah 53:4-6
                        Silence for reflection

            Luke 19:1-10
                        Silence for reflection

An Invitation to the Observance of Lent

I invite you, in the name of the Lord and His Church, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer and sacrificial giving.  I also invite you to strengthen your disciplines of reading and meditating on the Word of God, and to make a right beginning to walk in newness of life. Therefore, I invite you to bow before the Lord, our Creator and Redeemer.

The ashes here are a symbol of sorrow and repentance for sin.  They are a sign both of our mortality and of our intention to die to old ways and live a new life in Christ.

The Imposition of Ashes

(Those who desire may come forward for ashes to be imposed on their forehead as a symbol of their sorrow and penitence and their desire to live a new life in Christ.)

Responsorial Psalm:  “Psalm 51” SFL 41
                                 or with alternate refrain RN 181/2, SNC 49

The Assurance of God's Pardon

I can assure you that on the basis of God's promises and in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!

Song:  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PH 100/1, PsH 384, RN 292/3, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213

The Prayers of the People

(While intercessions are made, worshipers will be invited to mention those with special needs.)

*The Benediction and Congregational “Amen”

*The Passing of the Peace

(The worshipers turn to one another with the greeting, “The peace of the Lord be with you!”)

Postlude:  “Go Now in Peace” PsH317, SFL 79
                                                            * - you are invited to stand

Music Notes:

Glossary of Hymnal Abbreviations:
PH        The Presbyterian Hymnal (Presbyterian Church USA; Westminster/John Knox Press)
PsH      The Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
RL        Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America; W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
RN        Renew! (Hope Publishing Company]
SFL      Songs for LiFE (children's songbook; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
SNC     Sing! A New Creation (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Christian Reformed Church,      Reformed Church in America; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
TH        Trinity Hymnal (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America; Great        Commission Publications)
TWC     The Worshiping Church (Hope Publishing Company)
WOV    With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress)

Music Level Key: E = Easy, M = Medium, D = Difficult

  1. This is a service that should be marked by a spirit of simplicity and “spareness”.  Worshipers should gather in silence which can be broken by a brief prelude. You may wish to consider using only piano and possibly two or three instruments for this service. We have used violin, oboe and bassoon at times and violin and flute at other times.
  2. The prelude has consisted of each instrument playing a voice part off the hymnal page with the piano highlighting a part that the instruments do not take. Perhaps you may decide to repeat the hymn with a different doubling of the parts.
  3. The imposition of the ashes can be done in silence or you may wish to have the instruments play quietly as the people move forward.  Use Lenten hymns that are familiar and reflective in nature, employing the same type of pattern as was used in the prelude.
  4. The Responsorial Psalm can be sung with the refrain as printed in SFL41 or you may wish to use the alternate refrain as printed in RN 181 or SNC 49.  In either case you may wish have the pianist play underneath the reading of the Psalm.  This should be done simply (with a minimum of chord changes), just enough to provide a continuity of thought between the spoken and the sung words of the people.  You may consult your own hymnal for other settings of Psalm 51.
  5. The postlude is taken directly from the hymnal.  The melody was played by each instrumentalist in different octaves and then combined in a canon.  The piano provided underlying chords built on the Orff patterns given in the hymnal.  The calmness and quietness of this piece ended the service with the “flavor” of the benediction and the passing of the peace.