As I'm sure you know, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It is one of two major fast days on our calendar (the other being Good Friday) during which we are called to observe a fast - to not eat or to eat far less than normal - for the day. Also on Ash Wednesday we will hold our traditional services for the day, at noon and at 7:00pm. Both liturgies include Holy Eucharist, and both will also have something particular to the day - the imposition of ashes. Members of the congregation are invited to come kneel at the altar rail and to have a small smudge of ashes placed on their foreheads, generally in the shape of the cross. You are probably familiar with both of these if you're accustomed to coming to Ash Wednesday service.
According to the Prayer Book, the ashes serve as "a sign of our mortality and penitence;" we acknowledge when we receive them that we know we are not going to live for ever and also that we have sins for which we need to ask forgiveness. As Madeleine L'Engel so eloquently put it, those ashes are nothing less than the first handful of dirt thrown onto our grave. We receive the ashes during a portion of the service known as "An Invitation to a Holy Lent," and that is what i want us to focus on for a moment.
During that invitation, the priest tells the congregation about the origins and meaning of Lent, how it was historically a time of preparation for baptism and a time of restoration of those who had been "separated from the body of the faithful," or put out of the church because of some notorious sinfulness on their part. This restoration was made known to the congregation at large, and the penitents often were required to perform some public display of penance as part of it. (I suspect many of us are thankful that nowadays we tend to deal with sin and penance more quietly.) The whole church, then, was aware of Lent as a full season and not just a collection of Sundays leading up to Easter. The Prayer Book invites us to observe the holiness of that full season and not just think about Lent on Sundays. That observance is marked "by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Getting ashes rubbed on our forehead isn't the essence of Lent or even of Ash Wednesday; it is only a "right beginning." We come up for those ashes only if we intend to dedicate ourselves to observing the season of Lent, not just because it's a special day.
The Prayer Book lays out three ways to observe Lent properly: 1) Self-examination and repentance - we look honestly at our lives, our words and our actions, and where we are amiss, we make amends; 2) Prayer, fasting, and self-denial - this is what we generally think of as our Lenten Discipline, something that we normally do that we abstain from for this season as an intentional sacrifice to God. (That's why i can't give up kale or coconut for Lent; doing so would hardly be sacrificial on my part); and 3) Reading and meditating on God's Word - reading and reflecting upon God's Word as contained in the Scriptures. Our Presiding Bishop has offered us a vehicle to do just that by reading Luke and Acts throughout the Lenten and Easter seasons, something he's calling The Good Book Club; (click that link for more information.)
However you intend to observe the season of Lent, I hope that you will do something. If you have questions about it, talk to Fr. Kevin or to someone else you know with a serious spiritual life. Come to Stations of the Cross on Fridays or the Wednesday healing mass - or both. Lent is our time to reset the pattern of our spiritual life, to increase its depth and scope. Ash Wednesday is certainly a good beginning, but we remember that it is only a beginning.