Certain moments in our lives leave us open to new beginnings. In each of these moments, we evaluate our lives and consider new habits and direction. We make space in our lives, letting go of old ways and initiating new ones.
I find these are good times for new people to visit church, and for established members to recommit to regular worship. New people visit our church almost every week, but these “new start” times see a much higher number of people in whom I sense an opening to become a part of our community, an opening to deepening their faith in love of Christ and service to neighbor.
Lent is such a time. Like Christmas or Easter, where many people either return to church, or consider worship for the first time, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent has a powerful attraction.
There is something very real and true about Ash Wednesday. No fake religious veneer is on display. No one is required to be shiny or happy. It might be the most authentic day of the church year. Nothing fancy. Simple austerity in the face of sin and mortality.
Lent continues that authenticity. It calls us back to the disciples of the Christian–prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. And although this may not seem like an opportune time to reach out and invite a neighbor or friend to church (focused as it is on disciplines), it is actually the best of times.
Some of the most meaningful moments I have ever spent in religious community have been at the invitation to participate in an Ash Wednesday liturgy with a friend at their church. Whether it was a small Episcopal parish in Pasadena, CA, or the ancient St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia, I remember more Ash Wednesday services than any other service I attend. The spiritual commitment of Lent–to give alms to the poor, to fast, and to pray–centers the community in that which is most meaningful. The confession of sin, and the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name, reminds us why it is we walk with this community week after week.
It also reminds us that God is with us. That God is with us is why can live in faith as we do.
And that simple inscribing of ash on our foreheads, “from dust you have come… to dust you shall return…” as serious as that is, is also full of grace and truth. It will mark you. It will move you. And it makes you into a walking fulfillment of Paul’s words, “As often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
It’s the kind of worship to which you could invite a friend, a neighbor, because you know when you invite them, you are inviting them to the core of what you believe and practice as a Christian. Often we fail to invite our neighbors to worship because we don’t know why we would. Ash Wednesday clarifies our faith, requires us to know.
So I encourage you to do so. Don’t just receive the imposition of ashes on March 6th. Invite others to join you. Tell them what it means to you. Let them in on a little bit of the mystery of this journey we are on together. The worst thing that might happen is they would say no. In which case your “ask” would go down in ashes like those written on your forehead.
Finally, by inviting, you would be living out Psalm 51. Penitence is not private, it is public. David sings his lament before his people, and his people have sung it ever since as one of the psalms. It is what we will sing in our congregation, and will be sung in all likelihood at any number of Christian congregations near you, dear reader. Consider yourself invited.