P: Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day the Church begins a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection. Our attention is especially directed to the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.Then followed the Litany, wherein we implored our Lord to have mercy on us, deliver us, help us, and to hear our prayers for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs.
From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.
Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of His beloved Son and in the power of His Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth.
After the Litany, the faithful were welcomed to the altar for the Imposition of Ashes. Ashes were traced on their foreheads in the sign of the cross as they were exhorted to "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," a most fitting way to begin this holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection.
Then we did something we had never done before, but will most definitely do again. We observed the rite of Corporate Confession and Absolution, which includes a lengthy confessional address delivered by the pastor regarding the Holy Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood, reminding the faithful of the true nature of this Most Holy Sacrament and of their need to examine themselves before receiving it. After hearing the address, the congregation joined in confessing their sins and then were asked by the pastor, "Do you believe that the forgiveness I speak is not my forgiveness but God's?" Upon declaring, "Yes," the pastor responded, "Let it be done for you as you believe," and invited the penitents to the altar to be absolved individually.
As I said, we had never done this before, at least not since I've been the pastor here. But what joy it was to place my hand upon the head of every penitent, address them by name, and say, "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." Several members commented how much they appreciated this after the Service. I can understand their appreciation - it is a tremendous blessing to be addressed by name and have your sins forgiven individually. While not exactly the same thing, this is akin to the great joy one receives by going to individual (private) confession and absolution, a gift I hope we are able to restore more and more as the years go by. Plus, at the risk of sounding like an emotional sap, I have to say that this experience (yeah, I know, "experience" is probably not the best way to describe this - deal with it) touched me deeply as a pastor, and it was difficult for me not to become overwhelmed with emotion. I love the people I serve and to be able to forgive them in this manner, which is quite different from the "general" pronouncement of forgiveness usually done, was very special.
After Corporate Confession and Absolution, we prayed the rest of the liturgy in the usual fashion, receiving the Lord's Divine Gifts delivered through His Holy Word and Sacraments. We are meditating upon the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13-53:12) during our Midweek Divine Services throughout Lent, and we began last night by focusing on the question, "Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom as the arm of the LORD been revealed?" (53:1) This series is based, in large part, on the excellent resource written by Rev. Christopher Mitchell, titled, "Our Suffering Savior" (CPH, 2003). I pray that it will be a blessing to us throughout our Lenten journey and am confident that it will be. This text from Isaiah is the most detailed and graphic depiction of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, with Psalm 22 running a close second, of course.
As I said, I couldn't be more pleased with how we entered the holy season of Lent yesterday. This was the best Ash Wednesday Service I have ever participated in. I know that sounds goofy. How can any Service be better than another, since our Lord always shows up to Gift us with forgiveness, life, and salvation through the blessed means of grace? But, you mean what I know. :)
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. Amen. (Collect for Ash Wednesday)