GRACE member Terry sent an e-mail to the rest of the gang soliciting Ash Wednesday service ideas. Several in the group shared ways their churches have observed Ash Wednesday services in the past. But I enjoyed the response from GRACE member Pat who not only offered some pretty nifty ideas, but a funny story to boot. Here is Pat’s response with ideas for Ash Wednesday services:
Originally, they used to make the ashes by burning the dried palms that were left from last year’s Palm Sunday, but I don’t recommend that. The new pastor at Epiphany insisted on doing it for a morning Ash Wednesday service without a practice run. We had a church full of little kids from St.Edward/Epiphany school and a lot little old ladies. He put a huge pile of dried palms into a turkey roasting pan and put a match to it. Black, greasy smoke instantly filled the entire church and he had forgotten to put a fire extinguisher nearby. The kids were hacking and making noises as kids do and the little old ladies were cranking up their oxygen tanks, while the choir got so choked up that they couldn’t sing for the evening service. I was busy looking for a camera to record the sacred moment. At the end of the service, the pastor discovered that the Fire Marshal had attended, and they several words in private after the event. I’m sure all of you have had days like this. If you can find a way to burn the palms on a tiny scale, it does create a nice symbolic effect, but the resulting ashes are greasy and not very good for blessing people. I’ve known folks to burn a single palm branch and then quietly swap out those ashes for a pack of ashes purchased from Religious Goods bookstore on Belmont St. in Carytown. But then, I guess you guys don’t do palms on Palm Sunday either.
On Ash Wednesday, we usually use the liturgy to set the entire theme for Lent, and we give away an item that the participants take home with them.
One year when we used a Potters’ theme, we gave everyone a small wrapped ball of clay and invited them to create something with it during Lent and return it on Holy Thursday during the offering of gifts.
One year, we gave everyone a 2” square of burlap with a black cross etched on it and a safety pin attached. We invited everyone to wear it or carry it on their person throughout Lent to remind them of their scriptural call to practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
One year we gave everyone a nail that they were to reflect and pray with through Lent. They brought them back on Good Friday and nailed them to a cross in silence as they entered the church. As everyone waited for the Good Friday service to begin, you could hear the hammering in the background.
One year, we gave them a walnut sized rock to carry around all during Lent as they reflected on the burden of their sinfulness. On Good Friday, when they brought the rocks back, they found a sledge hammer at the door of church. They were invited to use the hammer to smash their rocks as a beginning of the celebration of Jesus destroying our sins by his death on the cross. (the kids loved it). The loud banging that replaced the typical prelude music set a very profound mood to the service.
You can also do some nice things with the service music. The best I’ve seen is to replace the opening hymn with tolling chant. A single cantor carries one of the larger handbells and, starting from the back of the worship space, begins to toll the single bell about once every 30 seconds as he/she processes in. After tolling several times, the cantor begins a simple, one-line chant in a minor key, such as a Kyrie, a “Lord Have Mercy” or any penitential chant from Taize, etc. that the cantor leads and the congregation echoes. So the only music is this single tolling bell and the echoing chant.
A lot of Catholic churches end the Ash Wednesday service and all the Lenten Sunday services with complete silence instead of a closing hymn. They are reminded that the service is not the end of their worship, that their worship should continue throughout the week by transforming their prayer into practice.
In New Orleans, where I come from, the entire city thinks Ash Wednesday is a major Holy Day because it is the day after all the excesses of Mardi Gras and school is still out. On Ash Wednesday, everyone is Catholic for a day, and goes to the nearest church to “get their ashes” and re-establish their priorities after the previous days of excess. The interesting part was the issue of what to do with the Ashes on your forehead after the service. Some folks wear them as a badge of honor (the local newscasters display ashed foreheads on the evening news), while others worry about risking the fires of hell if they wash them off before returning to work. Each year, churchgoers all over the city face a major moral crisis when they try to decide if they will publicly proclaim their faith by displaying their ashes throughout the day, or wash them off to blend in with the unchurched of the world. That moral dilemma alone has been the basis for many Ash Wednesday sermons.
Pat Clement, D.Min., is Director of Religious Education, St. James Parish and a member of GRACE (Greater Richmond Area Christian Educators).