In our Texts for Common Prayer, the worship service for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, this year being tomorrow, February 14th) is described thus:
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent: a time of penitence, fasting and prayer, in preparation for the great Feast of the Resurrection.
The season of Lent began in the earliest days of the Church as time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The forty days refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are never fast days, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten Fast.
Throughout the Old Testament, ashes are used as a sign of sorrow and repentance, and Christians have traditionally used the same to indicate sorrow for our own sin, and as a reminder that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Like Adam and Eve, we have disobeyed and rebelled against God, and are under the same judgment, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b).
But as we are marked with ashes in the same manner that we were signed with the cross in Baptism, we are also reminded of the life we share in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (Romans 5:17, 6:4). It is in this sure hope that we begin the journey of these forty days, that by hearing and answering our Savior’s call to repent, we may enter fully into the joyful celebration of his resurrection.
One of the options for the Old Testament reading, which was traditionally assigned for the Daily Office rather than the Communion service with Ashes, is from Isaiah 58. This chapter, along with the Gospel lesson from Matthew 6, teaches an intrinsic unity between the spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Isaiah masterfully deconstructs the notion that fasting is meritorious on its own, arguing instead that a “true fast” is abstinence in union with charity, or giving of alms, and also sanctified in prayer. To this day, these three disciplines are considered part and parcel one with another, and form the devotional basis upon which the observance of Lent is built.
Thus, on Ash Wednesday, we spend a great deal of time on prayers of penitence. Rather than confining our penitence to a brief “Lord have mercy” near the start of the service and a confession prayer near the middle, this day sees a whole litany of penitence following the confession. It is easy to say we are sinners, and even easy to say we are sorry for our sins, but sometimes it behooves us to reflect upon just how deep sin runs within our hearts. And so this day’s liturgy assists us in that process, walking us through the various ways we offend against God and neighbor.
With this in-depth confession and penitence in place, we are then brought back to that place of forgiveness and absolution and, hopefully, awakened to pursue the heightened disciplines of the Lenten season with renewed ardor and devotion. After all, we want to offer God a truly contrite heart (as Psalm 51 puts it), rather than the mere lip service denounced in Isaiah 58.