Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart...
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights...REFLECT:
Today we begin the journey that is Lent, a forty-day season before Easter (excluding Sundays). During this time, we follow the example of Jesus who was led by the Spirit to spend forty days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. There Jesus fasted and prayed in order to learn what God was calling him to do. He walked in the footsteps of the Israelites who wandered not just 40 days but 40 years in the wilderness before entering the land God had promised them. Why might time spent in the wilderness be such an important theme throughout the story of scripture?
Trace your finger slowly through some sand, making a path through it. In what way are you moving through a wilderness? How might these 40 days of a Lent be a time for you to listen for God's call? What promises are you waiting to see fulfilled?
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.REFLECT:
Lent is traditionally seen as a season of penitence and returning, which may be why this reading from Joel is part of most Ash Wednesday services. Old Testament scholar Esther Menn writes that “to “return” in Hebrew means literally to “turn” around, to change one’s direction by halting the walk away from God and beginning the walk toward God. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the site of deliberation and commitment. Turning to God with one’s whole heart therefore involves changing one’s mind, reconsidering one’s actions, and orienting oneself entirely toward God” (workingpreacher.org). These words from long ago are challenging as we prepare our hearts for this season of turning.
From what do you need to turn? About what do you need to change your mind? What acts do you need to reconsider? Write or sketch these things on a paper heart. Then, “rend your heart” (tear it) as a symbolic act of confession and expression of your desire to return to God.
READ: Jeremiah 18:1-6
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” says the LORD. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
REFLECT:At times sin is described in the Bible is as a “hardness of heart.” Do you ever feel that your heart is hard, that it is inflexible, not pliable, judgmental? Do you keep your guard up in your relationships with others and/or with God? What would it look like this Lent for you to let your heart rest soft and moldable in the hands of God?
Take a piece of clay. Warm it in your hands and knead it until it becomes pliable. Give it a new shape – perhaps a small bowl which could symbolize receptivity to God and to God’s forgiving love, or something else that has meaning to you. Let it serve as a reminder of your openness to God’s reshaping this Lenten season.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.REFLECT:
Just as we often spend spring cleaning our houses to rid them of cobwebs and make them ready to receive gifts, so in Lent we take time to examine our lives in preparation for our encounter with the risen Christ at Easter. Are there closets where you store past resentments? Is there a sink full of dishes with the residue of negative behaviors? What would it look like to clean these up and out?
Dip your hands into the water in the bowl on the table before you. As you do so, reflect on what your life could be like, thoroughly immersed in God’s love. Take a clear stone with you as a reminder of God’s cleansing love.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning--great is your faithfulness.REFLECT:
The author of Lamentations spends much time lamenting (hence the name!) the world’s afflictions and his own. Only one thought gives him or her peace: the steadfast love of God. The knowledge of God’s unshakable love, even in the midst of trouble, is finally the grease which makes the squeaky wheel of lamentation fall silent. It is that which makes it possible to go on, even in the worst of circumstances.
Dip your finger in oil and smooth it onto the back of your hand. As you do, reflect on the parts of your life which are stiff and squeaky – places where you are stuck, places which cause you to lament time and time again. Consider how the love of God might come into these parts of your life, renewing and making them usable in a way they have not been before.
READ: Genesis 3:19
…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.REFLECT:
There is evidence that the practice marking the face or body with ashes on the first day of Lent began in the 6th century. At first it was done only by people required to do public penance for notorious sin before being restored to the community. Then clergy began to try to comfort and encourage these penitents by submitting themselves to the same public mark. Eventually, all began to wear the ashes as a sign of their need for restoration.
For our spiritual ancestors, the people of Jewish and other Near Eastern cultures, wearing ashes was a sign of mourning and lament. Ashes were usually associated with sackcloth, the clothing worn to mourn the death of a beloved or to lament a personal or communal disaster. Humans are the only species we know is capable of contemplating their own death, yet few of us do. Ash Wednesday challenges us to reflect on our own shortcomings and our death so that we can truly embrace life.
Dip your finger in the ashes and make a cross on the back of your hand or your forehead. Press firmly. Reflect on the gift of life over death symbolized by the cross. Know that you are dust, and indeed to dust shall you return; yet in all things, in your coming and going, in this life and the one beyond, the God who makes all things new is with you and has marked you as God’s own.