By Gwen Sisson
It is a time to remember and reflect. It is celebrated all over the world, and this Wednesday, the community is invited to participate in a variety of services for Ash Wednesday.
The Rev. Trey Harper, pastor of Eupora First United Methodist Church said, the Season of Lent is the time in which the church “slows down to prepare our hearts for the Passion of Christ and the Glories of Resurrection Sunday.” He said in Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of, the season of Lent, which begins 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays, because every Sunday is to be treated as a Celebration of the Resurrected Christ.
Harper said Lenten preparation is often marked by observing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, special worship, fasting, works of charity and repentance.
“The purpose of this set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ — his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection,” Harper said. “Most often the discipline of fasting involves ‘giving up’ something for the entire 40 days of the season. This practice reminds us not only of the sacrifice of Christ, but that all good things in this life come to us as a result of God’s abundant grace.”
“For me, Lent is when I take stock of my life,” Harper said. “While this is something I should be doing continuously, Lent gives me the nudge I need to really think seriously about things. The example of Jesus’ desert temptation, when he sorts out what he’s called to do, and prayerfully finds the courage to say no to things that are temptingly sweet but don’t fulfill that calling, is a powerful image for me.”
Harper said this time of reflection is not only on his personal spiritual journey; but also on his ministry as well.
“Thus, as my congregation is called to personal reflection in their individual lives; we as the church are called to reflect on our life together,” Harper said. “Another powerful image from Scripture for me is when Jesus cleanses the Temple following his Triumphant Entry which we celebrate on Palm Sunday.”
Harper said we need to use this time to allow the Spirit of God to drive out the cobwebs and the stuff that often overfills our lives so that we have less room for Him.
“Only then, can we become the people (and church) we were intended to be,” Harper said.
Finally, Lent also means that Easter is right around the corner.
“And regardless of how well or how poorly I’ve lived through the discipline of Lent, Easter will come as the assurance of God’s love, without condition and without exception,” Harper said.
Pastor Rochelle Ashford-Minor of Liberty United Methodist Church said Ash Wednesday is an important time in the life of the church.
“It is a special time for reflection, fasting and repentance,” Ashford-Minor said. “It is a time for remembering just what Jesus Christ has done for us.”
Scarlet Shepperd of Maben United Methodist Church said during Lent, we will set our faces toward the cross as we focus our sermons and worship around the aspects of our lives which are not always in line with the cross.
“The season of Lent is important to the life of the church because without remembering the cross and our part in the crucifixion we can never truly experience the wonder and joy of the resurrection,” Shepperd said. “Our journey through Lent helps us to personally accept our sin and our failures so that we can fully embrace the forgiving love and grace of Jesus.”
Raleigh Richter of Lebanon UMC and Bellefontaine UMC said the importance of Ash Wednesday is “God’s people focusing on the sinfulness of man and the sacrifice of Christ and, through grace, the two meet and learn how Grace is stronger.”
ASH WEDNESDAY SERVICES SET
Eupora First United Methodist will hold a brief service of prayer and reflection that will include the ritual of the Impositions of Ashes. The event will be held at 6 p.m. March 5 in the church sanctuary. The community is invited to attend. Nursery will be provided, although children are invited and encouraged to attend this special service.
Liberty UMC will host an anointing service at 6 p.m. March 5 that will include the imposition of ashes. Ashford-Minor said it will be a time for music, reflection, fasting and repentance.
Maben United Methodist Church will have an Ash Wednesday service with imposition if ashes on March 5 at 6 p.m. Shepperd said during Holy Week, Maben UMC will have a Maundy Thursday service on April 17 at 6 p.m., serving holy communion as we remember the sacrifice Christ made.
At Lebanon UMC, Ash Wednesday services will be at 7 p.m. Richter said they will have multiple stations of reflection, devotional thought and the placing of the ashes.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In the typical Ash Wednesday observance, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes. The pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is what God spoke to Adam and Eve after they eaten of the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin. Harper said these words indicated to our first parents the bitterest fruit of their sin, namely death.
Harper said in the context of the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, they remind each penitent of their sinfulness and mortality, and, thus, their need to repent and get right with God before it is too late. The cross reminds each penitent of the good news that through Jesus Christ crucified there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt, and all punishment.
Not all Christian churches observe Lent. Lent is mostly observed by the denominations of the various “reformed” traditions such Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, as well as the Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the six weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter.
The early Christians had introduced the tradition of Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Soon afterwards, a period of two or three days preparation, specially commemorating Christ’s passion and death – the ‘Holy Week’ part of Lent today – had been adopted by various Christian communities. But the earliest mention of Lent as we know it comes from the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. At the time of the council the Church was still united, therefore most Protestant churches recognize the authority of the early council as they church fathers sought to further unify and codify the theology of all Christian believers.
In addition to producing the “Nicene Creed,” the council issued 20 statements of a practical nature, dealing with various aspects of church life, and the fifth of these statements speaks of Lent. The word used for Lent in this document is tessarakonta (in the original Greek), which means ‘forty’. The length of time was adopted in imitation of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was famished (Matthew 4:1-2).”
Harper said as the practice of the Season of Lent grew and evolved, it became the practice that penitents, or those seeking to join the Church, would use this time of reflection and preparation to prepare themselves for baptism and the joining of the fellowship of believers. Within some modern traditions, the focus on individual spirituality over communal faith has led to the argument that the practice of Lent is overly “long and complicated.” But in light of the overly busy lives of the faithful, most people never take time to pause and reflect unless the Church requests it be done.
Harper said the tradition of Ash Wednesday, can be dated back as far as the 8th century. Although, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material) as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning is an ancient practice, it is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. What is probably the earliest occurrence is found at the very end of the book of Job. Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30 and Daniel 9:3.
In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Ironically, considering that “fasting” is one of the Lenten Disciplines, Eupora First United Methodist Church will be hosting the community for a series of lunchtime devotions during the season of Lent. Harper said this year’s speakers have been asked to reflect on the spiritual disciplines of Lent.
Lenten Lunches will be held from noon until 1 p.m. each Wednesday during Lent, with a light lunch of soup and sandwiches provided. Love offerings will be taken daily for local missions.
Speakers will include:
March 12: Jason Carson, First Baptist Church of Eupora – Spiritual Discipline: Prayer;
March 19: Jeep Pepper of McCool UMC — Spiritual Discipline: Scripture;
March 26: Travis Gray, First Baptist Church of Eupora – Spiritual Discipline: Worship;
April 2: Embra Jackson, Superintendent of the UMC Starkville District – Spiritual Discipline: Fasting;
April 9: Rochelle Ashford-Minor of Liberty UMC – Spiritual Discipline: Works of Love;
April 16: Raleigh Richter of Lebanon UMC and Bellefontaine UMC – Spiritual Discipline: Repentance.