10 Ways to Preach on Ash Wednesday

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In David Roseberry’s ongoing series of posts on 10 Ways to Preach Liturgical Events, we come to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.


If a congregation gathers to observe Ash Wednesday, it will likely include these dramatic liturgical moments:

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  • a silent procession or entry, an official invitation to the observance of Lent,
  • Scripture readings (from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, or only 8:14, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10, and Jesus’ teaching on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21),
  • a sermon,
  • the imposition of ashes,
  • a public reading of Psalm 51,
  • the Confession and Litany of Penitence and Absolution,
  • a reading from one or all four of Cranmer’s Comfortable Words,
  • and then, in some churches, Holy Communion.

It is a deep and profound service; as you can see, it can also be very long.

The fascinating Anglican history of the Ash Wednesday service tells us that the Imposition of Ashes, widely practiced in most of our churches, is a recent addition, or reinstatement, of an ancient rite going back to the Old Testament. The practice was eschewed for extended periods following the Reformation because it was considered too Popish. Anglican luminaries such as Latimer, Cranmer, and Andrewes denounced the sprinkling or imposition of ashes, as it was too closely associated with Rome. Read about it here.

However, the elements of an Ash Wednesday service, while lengthy, are compelling. Nevertheless, a Gospel sermon should be preached. In other words, your congregation will be told, in Scripture, through reading, by ashes, and by kneeling, that they are mortal sinners on their way to death and bodily destruction and to judgment. If for no other reason than pastoral love and care, they need to hear some Good News.

Here are Ten Ways to Preach the Ash Wednesday Service

1. Repent, and be saved

Clearly, the readings from the Old Testament call for God’s people to recognize their sins and misdeeds and to repent. Imagine the scene in the Old Testament: a plague of locusts had come and devoured the crops. The land was stripped bare. The people were starving. Amid that national crisis, where people had deep and overwhelming concerns about their security and future, Joel called for a time of repentance, mourning, weeping, and fasting. We don’t want to make a one-to-one connection between God’s people in the Old Testament and the nations of our modern world, but the story of national anxiety and calls for the Lord’s intervention will preach itself.

2. Ashes to ashes

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are not sacramental. They are holy in that they represent the reality that awaits us all. In the end, we are all ashes. Retelling the story of our fallen nature from Genesis 3 would be very helpful and quite powerful. The first humans were exposed. Their sin had been discovered. And they were reminded that they came from the dust of the earth and would return to it. Read the powerful verse from the King James Version: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In other words, as we were all reminded on our childhood playground during recess, “Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.”

3. Sacrifice

The idea of giving up something for Lent is very popular. However, people use this fasting tradition for all kinds of wrong reasons: weight management or attempts at self-mastery as they finally put sweets, chocolate, alcohol, or sleep in their place. Warn your people. That practice is a righteousness trap. Tell them they should not attempt to succeed at Lent. If we ever do achieve perfect self-discipline in ordering our unruly wills and affections, remind them all—and take heart yourself, preacher—that the mother of all sins, pride, is crouching at our door. It desires to have us. In fact, tell virtually any story from Genesis 1–11 (the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah’s culture, the Tower of Babel) to prove the point about the poison of pride.

4. Benefits of belief

The first few verses of Psalm 103 are the perfect elevator speech of what benefits accrue to the believer. Remind your people that believing in God is not a long slog through the mud, day after day. There is a joy and blessing as we focus on God and walk daily by faith. Read Psalm 103. Remember, David is talking to himself in this psalm. He speaks to his soul the way we can (and should) talk to souls. And he is telling his soul to give thanks to God for the amazing benefits that are his. David is speaking of his own life, but he believes there is great joy in having faith. Here is what faith in God entitles the believer to have and to hold:

who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Do you see the six-point list? Forgiveness, healing, redemption from death, steadfast love and mercy, and a deep sense of well-being (good) and personal renewal. In other words, remind your people, even as they begin to walk the Lenten journey, that the Lord is good. Very good. And he is good for us!

5. Forgiveness

Even though the Ash Wednesday service will remind us of our sinful nature and our eventual death, the Good News of the Gospel is that there is forgiveness for all our sins for those who love the Lord. Go back and exegete Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

Ask your listeners to consider how far the east is from the west. If the psalmist had said as far as the north is from the south, we would have a specific idea of how far our sins are removed from us. The actual distance is 12,430 miles if you were wondering how far north you have to go until you start going south. But David had an infinite distance in mind. East will never meet west. In other words, as I heard one speaker say when I was a young Christian, God takes our sins, forgets about them, and then forgets that he forgot.

6. The collect

I do not often recommend that a preacher exegete an Anglican Collect, but I might make an exception for the Collect for Ash Wednesday. Read it and know that every thought and idea is an article of faith from the Bible. Look what happens if you annotate the collect:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made (Wisdom 11:24), and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent (1 John 1:9). Create and make in us new and contrite hearts (Ezekiel 36:26) that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness (Psalm 51:3), may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness (Psalm 130:4); through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Pick a word, a phrase, or a sentence, and go for it. Remind your people that they could simply pray and memorize one collect every week as a Lenten study.

7. Hope

There might be much confusion about why Lent is a practice of the early church and what the point of the 40 days is. You can’t do better than reminding people of the first words they heard at the Ash Wednesday service. The 2019 Book of Common Prayer reads:

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent: a time of penitence, fasting, and prayer, in preparation for the great feast of the resurrection.

In other words, we begin the journey of Lent not as a despairing people without hope, comfort, and assurance. We start with the end in mind, as it were, the glorious resurrection.

8. Do Good

Outward action

Lent should not be just about personal religion or private faith. It is not just a time to ‘get in shape’ through spiritual exercises. There should be some outward and visible evidence and activity of sincere faith. In other words, don’t just stand there during Lent. Do something.

Read Isaiah 58:1-12 which Jesus undoubtedly had in mind when he issued the warnings found in Matthew 25.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

It is a call to action.

But be advised. It is never good for a preacher to tell the people what they should do without helping them do it. Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 are very specific. What could you encourage your people to do—where to give, what to do, and how to serve and support specific, need-meeting ministries? If you don’t tell them how to fulfill a call to action, you are not preaching. You are scolding.

Inward growth

Jesus also gave his followers a different call to action, meant to focus their hearts not on their own good deeds but on their relationship with God.

It is not accidental that Jesus told his disciples to do three things: fast, pray, and give (Matthew 6). He warned them to do these things in secret, without the benefit of fame, notoriety, or a religious show. We know that much.

But he also encouraged his followers to do something. “When you fast…when you pray…when you give.” Help your people to see that these three things, when done privately and in secret, are ways to train the heart. Every spiritual discipline is intended to train the heart. In fact, there is no other way to train the heart than with specific behaviors.

When I was a rector, I encouraged the congregation to give freely (we had locked wooden boxes for people to put cash in, no checks, so there would be no record of the gift for tax purposes! It was a total secret, even from the IRS!). I taught them how to pray daily. And I called the entire congregation to three special days of fasting.

9. Silence

The instructions on page 552 of the 2019 BCP make a statement unlike any other in the Prayer Book. The Additional Directions call for silence: “The silence after the Invitation to a Holy Lent is an integral part of the rite and should not be omitted or reduced to a mere pause. Other periods of silence may be observed to allow for meditation, self-examination, and prayer.” As much as it hurts my evangelical sensitivities to suggest this, silence may be something the sermon warrants. The sounds of silence in a room full of people can make people a bit uncomfortable. Good! We should be antsy about it. The human noises of coughing, rustling pages, stirring children, and fidgeting hands serve as a sermon illustration in and of themselves. They teach us about our humanity, which was, as the prayer says, wonderfully created and must still be more wonderfully restored.

The Ash Wednesday service is among the most powerful in the Book of Common Prayer. People enter in silence, and they should leave in silence. They enter without a trace of mud or ash on their foreheads; they should leave bearing the mark of our humanity and our dismal prospects of redeeming ourselves. The sermon should meet the moment.

10. Heart Health

The Christian life is a long training regime to change the orientation of our hearts. And everyone knows how difficult it is to do that—to go from selfish to selfless, from me to Thee, from mine to Thine. And how can we do it? Simple. Show your congregation the place in Jesus’ most popular sermon where he writes out the prescription for changing the orientation of the heart.

“…lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… (because) where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

Do you see it? If we are ever to love God, we must first start by liking him, learning his ways, drawing closer to him, speaking with him, and spending time thinking about him. Lent is the time for the cardio work to begin, and Ash Wednesday is the front door of the gym.


Check out The Rev. Canon David Roseberry’s The Psalm on the Cross, his devotional journey through Psalm 22 for Lent, available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.

Also purchase the paperback and Kindle editions of David Roseberry’s new book with Anglican Compass, The Rector, the Vestry, and the Bishop now, exclusively on Amazon.

Preparing for Lent at home? Check out Ashley Wallace’s new book with Anglican Compass, The Liturgical Home: Lent. Purchase the paperback and Kindle editions now, exclusively on Amazon.


Photo by Thays Orrico on Unsplash.

Published on

February 7, 2024

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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