“What good is it to live long when we improve so little? A long life does not always improve us; in fact, it often adds to our problems. Would that we could spend even one day well in this world. Many people count the years of their lives in Christ, but often not much comes of their attempts to change their lives. If it is frightful to die, perhaps it is more dangerous still to live a long life. Blessed is that person who always has the hour of death before his eyes and who is daily prepared to die!… Always be ready, therefore, and live so that death my never find you unprepared… How happy and wise is that person who strives now to be in life what he wishes to be found in death… Keep yourself as a pilgrim and stranger on earth, a person to whom the affairs of the world mean nothing apart from Christ.”
– Thomas A’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.
I have come to believe that Ash Wednesday is one of the more important observances of the church calendar, because it is the one day of the year when Christians insist upon actually think about our own death. I think considering our own death should happen much more often, and for me it certainly does. But I think most people try to avoid the subject. It’s strange because it really tends to draw our life and our faith and our soul into clearer focus.
At Redemption Church we have a tradition of holding an Ash Wednesday prayer event. It’s a come and go as you please event we hold in our sanctuary. We turn all the lights out and fire up literally hundreds of candles all over the room. We set it up in four discrete prayer stations, outlining each one with a circle of chairs. We play some Ólafur Arnalds or Sigur Rós in the background, and allow people to come and spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour in prayer, culminating in the imposition of ashes. We’ve also designed the prayers to be kid friendly, so that families can come take part together. Each station has some sort of tactile exercise.
I wanted to just put this out there in case anyone is interested in copying or stealing. If you can’t make it out for an Ash Wednesday service – turn on some music, light some candles grab some supplies (a piece of clay or playdough, a tea light, a notecard and pencil, some ashes). and use this.
This is the copy which is printed on big foam core signs at every station:
WELCOME TO ASH WEDNESDAY PRAYER
Redemption Church – Olathe, Ks (at entrance)
Welcome to Ash Wednesday prayer at Redemption Church. This space is here for you to begin the season of Lent with prayer and contemplation. Each station will lead you in a different activity. Take your time. Don’t be constrained by the directions. If you are here with others, please whisper quietly as you reflect together.
STATION ONE: A Call to Worship
This is our call to worship. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Quiet your mind and still your body. Let your eyes to adjust to the darkness, and become aware of God’s presence around you. Submit yourself and this time to God. Linger. Listen.
If God spoke to you what would sound like? A voice you can hear? A voice in your head? A feeling you have inside? Part of hearing God’s voice is learning how to listen. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds in the room. Tell God that you are listening, and want to hear God’s voice.
Take a peace of clay from the table. Notice how it is cold and inflexible. Slowly warm the clay in your hands, gently working it until it becomes soft and moldable. We come to pray, often feeling cold and tough inside. If we can become still and allow our hearts to warm, they will grow soft and moldable again. Take the clay with you, and place it somewhere in your home to remind you of this call to worship.
STATION TWO: On Considering One’s Own Death
Everybody dies. Today we are here; one day we will all be gone. For centuries Christians have paused to consider their own mortality on Ash Wednesday… not to be morbid, but to remind ourselves that we hope in the resurrection. We also do this to be reminded that every day is a gift. If you only had one more day to live, what would you do? Take a few moments to think about all that you hope to do throughout your life.
Who is the oldest person you know? The youngest? Most people lived to be about 80 years old. How old do you think you’ll live to be? Name a few things you’d like to do during your life. Spend a few moments wondering what Jesus might want you to do with your time on this earth.
Each candle before you represents a person’s life. Light one candle to represent your life. Watch it burn. Thank God for lighting the fire in your soul. Spend a few moments pondering your own mortality.
STATION THREE: On Considering our Lenten Practices
During the 40 days of Lent we remember Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. Lent is the church’s yearly wilderness experience. A Lenten fast is where we take something away from our normal lives, in order to make a new space for God to come and fill. What activities do you plan to engage in for Lent? Will you fast on Friday? Give something up? Engage in the Daily Readings? Prayerfully consider what God has in mind for you.
What do you want to “give up” for Lent? Think of a few ideas – you’ll want to make it something that you enjoy and will miss, at least a little bit. Remember you are not trying to punish yourself. You are trying to clear a space in your life for God. Talk to your parents about what would be okay for you to do.
Each person write down your plan for Lent on a note card. Kneel at the bench in the center and ask God to meet you in these practices. Place the card in the basket.
STATION FOUR: The Imposition of Ashes
At this station you will receive ashes on your forehead. The ashes are meant to remind us of our mortality. They are also meant to give us a sense of humility and repentance. As Christians we don’t follow the ways of the world around us, and we no longer follow our own way. We follow Christ. We have forsaken our own agenda for our lives and have given ourselves to Jesus. The ashes remind us that our old self has passed, and we are now alive in Christ.
Jesus must have had desires and dreams for his own life. He once asked for a different calling. But in the end, he submitted his life to the Father. Spend a few moments in prayer, considering your own life. What are you holding back from God? Acknowledge these things to yourself and to God. Ask God to help you surrender everything to Him. When you are ready, step forward to the altar and kneel to receive the ashes. When you are done, feel free to linger here in the room as long as you’d like. Revisit other stations, or kneel at the altar to pray.