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Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield

Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield
Location
Newcomerstown, Ohio, USA
Birthday
December 28
Title
Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield
Company
Retired
Bio
Retired Protestant Pastor and Theologian, jointly credentialed in the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church. Education: BA, MA, M.Div, Thd. Public Service: NY State Office of Executive Development, Management Intern; Federal Exec. Branch: Executive Office of the President, Budget Examiner, Bureau of the Budget; Interior, Director of Energy and Minerals, Bureau of Land Management; Non Profit: Ford Foundation, Deputy Director, Energy Policy Project; Congressional: Director, Office of Special Projects; Director, Division of Energy and Materials, General Accounting Office; Private industry: Vice President, Grow Group, Inc.; Chief Executive Officer, US Paint; Owner, the Energy Center, St. Louis. Christian service: Pastor, First Congregational UCC, Ottawa, Illinois; Pastor, St. Paul's UCC, Port Washington, Ohio; Pastor, Moravian Church, Gnadenhutten, Ohio.

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FEBRUARY 20, 2009 3:09PM

Ash Wednesday: What is it About?

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Ash Wednesday: What is it About?

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Season of Lent.  Protestant Christians often don't know much about Ash Wednesday.  Some know its the day that Catholics get that smudge on their foreheads. But, increasingly, in some Protestant denominations, ashes are imposed.
 
A few know that we get the smudge as a reminder that we are all mortal and will die. That is true. But how does that fit into Christian faith?  This post hopes to help us figure that out.  This post is not a "Reflection."  It essentially offers a teaching moment to remove some of the mystery from Ash Wednesday.

For those who do not understand the symbolic importance of ritual and liturgy in worship, most of what is written from here on may seem odd; so I invite you to either decide to learn something with a positive and tolerant attitude, or to just avoid this post and move on to something you do enjoy.
 
There is something about Ash Wednesday that people tend to shy away from. In fact, in America the beginning of Lent is upstaged by the day before: Fat Tuesday. Never heard of Fat Tuesday?  Try it in French:  Mardi Gras.  Ah! Of course! 
 
Mardi Gras arose as a big party for all those folks who were getting ready to give up Starbucks, or any of a multitude of things they like, and eat fish on Fridays, and other types of fasting, all as a proof that we can give up worldly things, show repentance, and return to God during Lent.  And, generally, it is true that Mardi Gras is a whole lot more fun than Lent, and certainly a lot more fun than Ash Wednesday, particularly if you are hung over from Mardi Gras.

Let's take a look at this uniquely Christian Holy Day, this Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent, and take a bit of the mystery out of it.
 
First, what is it with the ashes?  Biblically ashes are sometimes used in purification rites, but, much more commonly, as a rite of penitence. There are many scenes in the Bible telling of the tearing of garments and the heaping of ashes on oneself as a sign of repentance.

The ritual of the application of ashes on Ash Wednesday symbolizes this penitential recognition that we are but human and cannot live without God. This ritual has been used in the church since the tenth century.
 
The ashes are traditionally made from the dried palms leaves which were the fresh green palm leaves that were handed out the previous Palm Sunday.  Like us, the palm leaves wither and die.  That is the symbolism of using the palm leaves. 
 
In my churches the members would save the palms that they received on the last Palm Sunday and bring them to the church on the Sunday before Lent.  I would burn these palms  and filter the ashes, and then hand mash them into a very fine powder for use in the application of ashes to the foreheads of the faithful.

After the Reformation most Protestant church denominations, while recognizing Ash Wednesday as a holy day, did not engage in the imposition of ashes. Many Anglican, Episcopal and some Lutheran churches did continue the rite, but it was mostly reserved for use in the Roman Catholic Church. 
 
During and after the ecumenical era that resulted in the Vatican II proclamations, many of the Protestant denominations encouraged a liturgical revival in their churches and the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes was encouraged.  Today the imposition of ashes in Protestant churches is generally left to the discretion of the pastors of the individual local churches. 
 
Having come from an Episcopalian background before going to seminary, and being used to the meaningful symbolism of the imposition of ashes, in my churches I have always had an evening Ash Wednesday service that includes offering the imposition of ashes.

Because Ash Wednesday has been so poorly understood, I decided about 15 years ago to write a liturgy for the Ash Wednesday evening service that actually explains the origin of the day and the season of Lent.  The entire service is deliberately informative of what makes it holy and why we are doing what we are doing. 
 
You might be surprised how much people who have gone through the motions of church for years and years without knowing why they are doing what they are doing appreciate participating in a service that tells them.
 
I believe that you will understand it better if we walk through an Ash Wednesday service, using my actual liturgy which is printed in the Ash Wednesday Bulletin as a guide.  I will explain the meaning of various parts of the liturgy that might be unfamiliar to you.
 
[Comments will be in italics and enclosed with these parenthetical brackets.]


An Ash Wednesday Liturgy,
redacted by the Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield.

A Service of The Word and Sacrament

[an asterisk * indicates that those who are able should stand]

Preludes

Introduction

     Pastor: Let us pray.  Almighty and everlasting God, you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our sinfulness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

A Reading from the Holy Scriptures [chosen by the pastor, often is Psalm 103]

* A Hymn of the Passion  [ normally a hymn about the Cross of Christ]

* Our Confession of Sin  [This long pastoral invitation to Confession concisely explains the ancient history of the season of Lent, the reason for the season, and the symbolism of the imposition of ashes. The first year I used it in a new church I always asked the congregation to silently read along with me from the Bulletin. In most churches this information is not printed in the bulletin.]

Pastor:

Dear People of God: the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. 

This season of Lent provided a time in which the converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.  It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. 

Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. 

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Christ, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word,. 

And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as mark of our mortal nature, to confess your sins and to receive the ashes of repentance.

Let us pray.  Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that our confession and the imposition of these ashes may be to us a sign our own mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.


Let us now together confess our sin before God and one another.  

All: Almighty God, maker of all things, judge of all people: we acknowledge and confess our manifold sins, which we from time to time have committed, in thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty.  We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these, our misdoings.  The remembrance of them is grievous to us.  Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful God; for the sake of our Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us all our sins and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your Name.  Through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

* Pastoral Assurance of Pardon

* The Imposition of Ashes

[ The assembled congregants come forward to receive ashes. Imposition of ashes is optional in all Protestant churches.  It was my experience that when the reasons for and symbolism of the ashes was explained almost all came forward. Those who could not come forward because of physical limitations were taken the ashes by the Pastor.
 
Before I applied the ashes I always asked the Chair of the Board of Elders to first apply them to me. Then I would apply the ashes, dipping my right thumb into the small bowl of ashes held in my left hand, and apply the ashes on the forehead, making the sign of the Cross with the ashes, and saying, by name, like this:  "Helen, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  That language is from Genesis 3: 19.]

[This is the symbolic low point in the service. At this point, powerful symbolism, in which you participate, has pointedly reminded you of your coming, inevitable death.
 
I have always felt that services that end with the imposition of the ashes lose all of the positive aspects of the faith.  If we are merely dust to which we return when we die then the joy of the Gospel remains unspoken.

For this reason every Ash Wednesday service I have ever lead ends with Holy Eucharist: (Eucharist means "thanksgiving;" it is also called "Communion" or the "Lord's Supper".) 
 
The Holy Eucharist is the most important sacrament of the Church. It is the recognition that Christ has offered for us His Body and Blood upon the Cross, which reconciles us with God, who promises, through our faith in Christ, total forgiveness of sin and redemption for the sake of Christ.
 
By the sacrament of Holy Eucharist Christians share once more in the belief that death is overcome and that eternal life is assured to the believer. 
 
So symbolically, in this Ash Wednesday service, by the imposition of ashes we go through the valley of death, returning to dust.  And from there the Eucharist lifts us up as heirs to the Kingdom of God and inheritors of eternal life. We go from the lowest low, death, to the highest high, life.
 
Thus the service continues with the Eucharist ]                                                                                     
The Eucharistic Feast, redacted by the Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield

The Holy Eucharist - Ritual for Year A*

(Please remain standing for the beginning. 
The Children may come forward.#)
 
[ * Ordinarily the Eucharist begins with a Confession of Sin, but that has already been done prior to the imposition of Ashes, so we begin with the introductory Praise of God. I have written four separate Eucharistic liturgies, one for each of the years recognized in the Revised Common Lectionary adopted by Protestant ecumenical partners after Vatican II.]

[  # In most Protestant churches the children do not take Communion before they go through Confirmation at about age 12. I allow Communion by any child whose parents approve. However, since most parents will not allow it, I encourage all children to come and gather around the communion table for the beginning of the Eucharist. This integrates the children into the service, instead of ignoring their presence, which I find intollerable.  Jesus said, "Let the children come."]

Pastor: Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and blessed be His kingdom, now and forever.  Amen.  Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastor: Lord have mercy.
People: Christ have mercy.
All: Lord, have mercy upon us.  Amen.


Pastor: Jesus Christ, our Lord, on the first day of the week overcame death and the grave, and by His glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.  Therefore we praise you, Almighty Father, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name:

* All:    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
        Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
        Heaven and earth are full, full of your glory;
        Hosanna in the highest; Hosanna in the highest!
        Blessed is he who comes, in the name of the Lord.
        Hosanna in the highest; Hosanna in the highest!

                                (You may all be seated.)

Pastor:  Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.  He stretched out His arms upon the cross, and offered Himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

        (Raising the bread) On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took bread; and when He had given thanks to you, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, "Take, eat.  This is my body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me." (Raising the cup)  After supper He took the cup of wine; and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me."

        Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of our faith:

        All:  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!

Pastor:  We celebrate this memorial of our redemption, O Father, recalling His death, resurrection, and ascension; and we offer you these humble gifts. (Touching the bread and the wine) Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the body and blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him. Sanctify us also, that we may faithfully receive this Holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and, at the last day, bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.  This we ask through your Son, Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever.  Amen.

Pastor:
(Raising the Bread and Breaking the Bread)  This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

    Pastor: (Raising the Cup) This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

Pastor:  Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us!

People: Therefore, let us keep the feast! 

Pastor:  The gifts of God, for you, the people of God.  Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

Sharing the Bread and the Wine (The bread and the wine will be served separately; please hold them and we will consume them together.)

[There are many different ways to actually serve the Communion elements.  In the Moravian tradition the Pastor, acting as a servant to the people, takes the bread into the congregation and hands the host to each individual communicant. It is my habit to hand out the elements, identify each person and address them by name where possible and say one of several statements, such as "Bill, this is the body of Christ, broken for you and for many; whenever you eat it remember that Christ died for you,"  The members hold the bread; and the wine is served in the same way. When both are served, the congregation stands and the Pastor invites them to consume the elements together.]

        Pastor:  (Raising a piece of the bread) This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.  Take and eat. (All eat)
        Pastor:  (Raising the Chalice) This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.  Take and drink. (All drink)

Our Prayer of Thanksgiving (In Unison, standing)

        Eternal God, heavenly Father: you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ; and you have fed us with spiritual food in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.  Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you - with gladness and singleness of heart.  Through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Pastor: Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit!

People:  Thanks be to God!

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I hope that this takes a bit of the mystery out of Ash Wednesday. Because it happens in the middle of the week the number of people attending Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches is usually relatively small.
 
In my last church Sunday worship was about 100 to 140. Ash Wednesday services were about 40 to 60.  But for those who understand its symbolism and who intend to actually spend Lent in repentance and reflection on the importance of turning back to God it is a service of great liturgical significance with deep symbolism.

One final note for those who have asked for Lenten Reflections. First, thank you for asking for them.  I will be presenting a series of four Lenten Reflections called "The Death of the Messiah" starting just after the first Sunday in Lent, and thereafter about one every 10 days. I hope that you will find these Reflections interesting and helpful.

Monte
 
 
 

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We have a bizarre religous history in our family. My mother was Catholic, my father - Southern Baptist. My husband's mother is Methodiest, his father - Jewish. Isn't that crazy!!!

We have fluctuated between the Methodist church and the Episcopal church our married lives depending on where we lived and on the traditions of the churches we've found in those places because to me, if you haven't said the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed, you haven't had church ... and blah, blah, blah ...

Back to the point ~ the meaning of Ash Wednesday is something we've really put a lot of energy into explaining and nurturing with the children. I appreciate your thorough explanation here because it is sometimes a little difficult to explain, but the liturgy itself is quite clear.

Thanks for this piece Monte, I know it was a lot of hard work and means a lot to you.

:) Ann

ps ~ I gave up "Days Of Our Lives" once ... that isn't going to come back on me is it??? haha!
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
1IM: I think you are safe having given up "The Days of our Lives." Sue gave up "General Hospital" and lived through it. We, too, have a mixed up situation. Sue grew up Catholic and switched to my Episcopal church before we got married. I started Disciples of Christ, went to Episcopal and then we both went to the United Church of Christ and then Moravian. Ironically we both are still UCC and Moravian, since I had to be an active ordained pastor in the UCC to become an appointed pastor in the Moravian Church, so both denominations looked away from the "sin" of joint membership and that is what we both have. Denominationalism is a big pain in the patooti from my point of view.

Monte
coogansbluf:

Sicut erat in principio et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

Monte
You have help me have a better understanding of Ash Wednesday. Thank you very much.
You are more than welcome, fireeyes. I learn from your posts too. That's the best way, isn't it?

Blessings,

Monte
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Are you sure you're not Catholic?
My darling Lutheran husband has adopted the Catholic church and we do try to get to Ash Wednesday services together whenver we can.
Lovely that you are sharing this important tradition and providing reflections for the season. Will look forward to those.
Yes Learning from each other is the best way to learn. I have learned a lot since I have been on OS.
I loved this, Monte. It's always good to be reminded why we do what we do and have the opportunity to rediscover it.
A word about lent if I might. I have a dear friend who is a priest and he encouraged me to make my lentin sacrifice a positive thing instead of a negative thing. Instead of giving up something we should do something. One of my lentin sacrifices was to pray everyday for someone I didn't like. It has actually changed my life. I still pratice it to this day. Except, amazingly, it has become increasingly difficult to identify anyone I truly dislike.

rated
Thanks, Cathy. From Lutheran to Roman Catholic today is not that big a jump and I am sure your hubby felt pretty much at home after a few visits. Sue's jump from Catholic to Episcopalian was pretty painless for her. Going into a much "lower" liturgical church in the UCC I just took my Episcopalian ways with me and everybody seemed to love them so they stuck. Even in the Moravian Church which is a very liturgical church, my services were "higher" than the norm, but, again, everybody loved them and so they fit right in. Actually, since I have left the pulpit in my home church several people are mourning the loss of the higher liturgy since the new fellow, who is a fine pastor, has gone back to the lower original liturgies of the Moravians. They will adapt to that, and so will I.

Monte
John, your priest friend is actually on a better ground theologically than the traditional "give up something" concept. I am exactly where your friend is. And I do not recommend "giving up" something for Lent, but to "give" something of yourself to others for Lent.

Here is how it goes theologically. It all hinges on the meaning of the word "repent." Traditionally it has been interpreted as "turning away from sin." Hence, the "giving up" of some sin for Lent. Usually that means to the individual some little easy to do thing, like giving up french fries means you are avoiding gluttony, etc. Which is silly but people actually do that and think they are doing something "holy."

But the actual meaning of the Greek that is translated "repent" is to make a complete turn, back to God. So, yes, you do turn away from sin, but you keep turning, back to the One you sinned against.

And, having turned back to God you are then free to do things for others consistent with Christ's admonition to "love one another." Repenting fully, then, allows us to become more Christ like, and to follow his statement in John's Gospel that we are to do even more than his miracles did.

I find that a refreshing and a freeing of Lent from something always somber and forbidding to a reopening of our hearts to God, and refreshed by that, to opening them to others by doing good deeds for others in behalf of Christ.

Tell your priest friend that I applaud what he is doing, especially in the Catholic Church where old habits of the parishioners die slowly.

Monte
Thank you, JK: I appreciate your comments and respect where you are with your own spirituality, which is very much an individual thing. We all must find our own paths to faith.

I would be delighted if you were to add me to your friends list and I will do the same with you. I hope it lasts long beyond the Lenten Reflections series. Our paths seem to cross a lot here on OS and that should tell us a little bit about our interests.

Thanks again. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Monte
Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
Qui fecit caelum et terram.
Ite missa est.
Thank you, Coogan. You are pushing my Latin to the brink ;-)

, so I think I should just let my tired old gray cells take a rest and say,

Deo gratias.

Ah, my friend, there was a time when a couple of the ancient languages did not exactly come easily, but I was well enough acquainted to get by with a small pocket sized dictionary. No more. I have learned several languages including Spanish and French, but with me language is very much "use it or lose it".

But I enjoyed this little trip you took me on, back to some early beginnings.

Monte
Kudos Monte for all the hard work and caring put into this post.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge and faith.
(rated)
This is what comes of having been an altar boy and having had Latin pounded into your head by Jesuits. Most of the time I didn't know what I was saying, I just said it. I am glad that they are bringing back Latin into the mass in some churches. A really beautiful liturgy.
CB
Monte, thanks for posting this. While we marked the passing of Ash Wednesday, we didn't make much of it so I'm fascinated to learn a couple more "nuggets" about it. As always it's very enjoyable. I prefer to come to your OS church for Lent this year.

As for either giving something up or doing some sort of service, I spent innumerable Lenten seasons in extra rehearsals to practice all the beautiful music for Easter morning church services. Somehow, I think the Lord and I are pretty square in our accounts.
Thank you for the work you did on this. I truly appreciate your
devotion and willingness to express it. You live your beliefs.
Thanks, Greg. I knew you would understand where this was coming from and why. I always appreciate that you will read and get something out of the things I write.

Coogan: I can imagine that you memorized the Latin Mass and didn't, at that time, know what it meant. And I too would like to see more of the churches offering the Latin Mass. There is a mystery to it that is both its beauty and its problem.

But I see no reason why it could not be offered for people like my mother in law and many others, like you, who miss the beauty of it.

When we were Episcopalians I liked to go several times a year to an Anglican Episcopal Church that used "the 1928 Prayer Book." It was not in Latin but in the beautiful English of the early 1600s. And the Eucharist was called the Mass and was sung. To this day I can go to one of those and just get lost in its beauty. I think that not only have we lost something by giving up the Latin, but we have lost something when the Mass is not sung.

I learned to sing the Eucharist but was never in a congregation where they were comfortable with it. It was "too Catholic." Go figure.

Monte
Thank you, COS: Of course you are invited to the Lenten Reflection Series here at the "OS Church." (?) But, Hey, "when two or three are gathered together....."

I do remember all those extra Choir rehearsals. The Choir NEVER gets the credit it deserves for the sacrifice of otherwise private time in order to offer to God the best of the gift of music that we can.

Thanks, DD. I am glad that you enjoyed this post. And, yes, I live my faith. I cannot say that I did all of my life. There were too many years when I was "going through the motions." So sometimes during those years I did try hard to live what I believed, but there were other years when I just let it slide and got into the rhythm of just doing "the church thing" without thinking about it. After I quit drinking and went to seminary I worked hard to change that.

Today, that can happen to me, but the difference is that I catch myself doing it and get turned around sooner. Anybody who says that they live their faith every second of every day is engaging in self delusion. But we can try. Thanks so much for your comments.

Monte
Hi, Kay, and thanks for reading and commenting. That is a pretty big contrast between Lutheran and Assembly of God. That gave you a pretty good idea about the higher more liturgical form and more free church form of Christianity as practiced in the US. Some Lutheran churches do practice the Imposition of Ashes, but that is usually at the discretion of the Pastor.

Glad this gave you an idea of how the actual service goes. I thought that actually including the liturgy itself would be a far more memorable thing than if I just talked about it. It helps to see the actual Bulletin liturgy for yourself.

Monte
Thank you for this.

I enjoyed it and found meaning in it.
Hi Monte, Thanks for the excellent post. I am a Catholic who also was blessed for many years to have had a pastor who emphasized taking action during Lent, rather than "giving up" something. For this and many other reasons, I love love love the Lenten season. And I detest the Advent season, commercially corrupted and all about waiting, something I'm not good at! I relish the opportunity and encouragement to step back and examine my life during Lent. I'll be back for your Lenten Reflections.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, dicea.

And, overworkedtiredandnumb (what a great handle!) : It is really great when we have a Pastor or Priest who understands that returning to Christ opens us up to God's love, fills us with it and sends us out to offer it to others, not through trying to proselytize our faith, but to help others who may be hurting, lonely or otherwise distressed.

We have a good homeless shelter here and I encouraged our members who wanted to do something positive to volunteer a few hours a week there, or at our hospice, or at one of three food pantries, or visit our members who are shut in.

There are so many things we can do, so many people who would love to have someone visit and just be with them. I am so glad that your understanding of Lent has allowed you to open your heart to God and to others.

Monte
I'm half Jewish and half Catholic and understand almost nothing about both religions! I've been learning slowly my whole life. This piece is fascinating! I always am touched (don't know why exactly?) when I see people walking around with those little ash smears on their foreheads. (and btw, very impressed with the Latin conversation you and Coogan have going on here! I took one semester: sum, es, est, sumus estus, sunt. That's phonetic since I don't even remember how to spell the conjugations!)
I shall try this again...evidently someone did not like what I posted and would not allow me to complete it.

Thank you for inviting me to read this. I was raised an Episcopalian. I was baptized and confirmed as such. I was in church every Sunday until my fourteenth year when my father left my family for a much younger woman and my mother saw that day as God betraying the six of us for the whore. From that day until the day I found myself alone and afraid in the Vietnam War, I never called on God and to me religion was only a means of control. But on that day in Vietnam when I faced the end of my life, I realized the my life was in God's hands and I accepted Jesus as my savior. However, I did not and do not accept the many religious beliefs people try to tie around the neck of those to be saved. I look at God as "Supreme" and Jesus as his son, and I accept the Spirit of the Holy Ghost for I truly believe and can feel it in me. It gives me wisdom when I am dumb and strength when I am weak. It heals me of my cancerous evil and cleanses the filth from my thoughts.
But I do not believe any group of people stand before God as one. I believe each stands alone, to be judged accordingly, just as no on tree produces perfect fruit, God will sort out the ripe from the rotten.

May God bless you my friend, in these tough times there is no one else left to save our souls.
Aw, this takes me back to my Catholic days. Thanks for the background information on Ash Wednesday, Monte. Sadly, when I was actually attending these services as a young Catholic, I had no real idea of their meaning. As a Quaker, I sometimes miss these rituals. I look forward to your Lenten series.
Hi, DVC, thanks for reading and commenting. We do our children a great disservice by not explaining why we do the things we do in church or in synagogue. When I was pastoring I insisted that the Sunday School teachers spend time with the kids explaining each major season in the church calendar and each major holy day. And it was important to me that the children knew I thought those things important; so I would take the children's time during the service to do the same thing. Over time it begins to settle in a child's brain that it is not just smoke and mirrors but is something that makes sense in worship. A child who knows what is happening and why will be far more content in church, and will feel that s/he is participating too.

Monte
Hi, Ted: sorry things on your comment didn't get through the first time. It wasn't on this end. Late yesterday I was having trouble with OS. When I would try to post a comment it would not load and would time out before the connection would be established. I think that they are still messing with the changes they were working on two days ago.

It sounds to me that you have now found a safe spiritual place for yourself withing Christianity that gives you the vital connection that you need to God. So many never find that. It was a hard way for you to do so but sometimes when we come to true faith in that way we never lose it.

I do believe that we never stand before God as a group, and that our relationship with God is ultimately a totally personal one that no one else can have for us. But I also believe that God calls us into community with other believers so that larger groups of like minded people can do as Christ wishes by being examples of the way the Kingdom of God can be when we work in concert for the things Jesus taught us. I also believe that even when we do not participate in organized religion God makes available opportunities where we can and do share our faith, even when we are not formally organized. This thread is one such example.

I don't have to tell you that the organized church has often fallen short of those goals. No more than have individuals, but it is far more easy to see that happen when it is an entire congregation or denomination than when individuals fall by the wayside.

Either way, when all the dust settles, God brings us into this world alone, calls us to him individually, and when we accept that call we do that individually. Likewise, we go out alone, hopefully a little wiser and with appreciation for the gift of life. And when we do make it to our eternal home then I am hopeful that we will once again be called into community once more to see our loved ones and to reestablish relationships, not only with God but with those we love.

So much of what we believe continues to be veiled in mystery, but we see enough to know that we can hold on to our beliefs and accept the promises of Christ.

I continue to wish you well and pray for you and others here on OS who bear burdens that can at times be heavy. For me at least, even with my current medical problems, I can say that God has been good to me and cared for me for long periods of my life when I did not. That is amazing in itself.

Thanks for your comments, and God bless.

Monte
Lisa: Thanks for reading and commenting. As you sometimes miss the rituals of the church with its more liturgical forms, I often wish that I could spend time in the simpler forms of worship where the imtimacy with God is striven for.

I have never even been to a Quaker service, though I have studied the way of the Friends, brother Fox, and read the Journal of John Woolman several times, as I do admire him so much. But there are times in my life when I seek a quieter place, a different atmosphere to seek a closer connection to God. I am glad that you have found that place.

Monte
Monte - this is a beautiful piece, and much appreciated. One of the things that really struck me was that you allowed the children to come forward and gather around the altar table at the beginning of the eucharist. What a wonderful practice. I am with "overworked" in preferring Lent over Advent. It is a much more meaningful time, and I look forward to your coming reflections. They are a gift of self certainly, and thank you!
I'm a little late to the trough on this one Monte. I'm like a believer that doesn't attend organized religious happenings. I know that is a bit weird.
I do love your writing on the subject. You don't mince words or try convince anyone that you are right and everyone that doesn't agree is wrong. That has always been a turn off for me.
Your passion is also very commendable and shins through in your writing as I imagine it does in your sermons.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I admire you and have a great deal of respect for you for these informative posts. I had no clue of the meaning of Ash Wednesday. Thanks for making it so very clear.
Monte - thank you for sharing your wisdom. Having been raised Catholic and now a UU, I didn't know that Protestant religions acknowledged Ash Wednesday. I like your explanation.

One big part of our Catholic interpretation (at least as I understood it growing up) was that the Lenten season was modelled after or paralled Jesus' time in the desert. It was a time for him to not only fast and repent but also to come to terms with his humanity and accept God's plan for him. In stark terms, prepare for death.

But, in spiritual terms, people didn't give up candy or Coke so they could get more for Easter (ok, we did as kids) but so that their souls would be cleansed and able to receive God's grace. The ultimate form of this was through death and resurrection.

***
I agree that ashes at the end of the ceremony are depressing. But, in the Catholic interpretation, as I learned it or absorbed it, there is a heavy emphasis on death - "only through dying shall we live" - and seeing human life as a valley of darkness that one must wade through to embrace death and resurrection.
Thanks, Dusty for the comments. I think that leaving children out of meaningful participation in worship leads to disinterest and a feeling like they are second class citizens. I have always believed that children are not "the future of the church;" rather they are "the church." Glad you picked up on that with the Eucharist. I would rather that when they were in the first to third grade the children who want to commune would be taught the meaning and allowed to do so.

Sorry to get to your comment so late but I didn't get the usual email alert that there were more comments.

Monte
Mike: let me start with the same apology to you as to Dusty. Sorry to get to your comment so late but I didn't get the usual email alert that there were more comments.

I am glad that you get something out of these Christian posts. They are not for everybody, but I think I enjoy knowing that people like you who are not church going but have faith are reading and better understanding is as important to me as when people who are fully versed in the church and it ways read these posts. Thanks for your kind words, and I appreciate that you see that what I write is to lay out why I believe what I believe, never why YOU or anyone else should believe what I believe. If you come to that conclusion then that has to be your conclusion, not mine.

Monte
Hi lpsR: Thanks for your comments. Sue was raised Catholic in a very practicing Catholic family and her understanding of Ash Wednesday and Lent was very much what you describe.

If ones primary metaphor for the season is of the 40 days in the desert then it is possible that some could get the idea of cleansing and preparation for death. But I have never thought that that metaphor could be gotten out of the testing in the desert. Nothing in that the language of the time of testing indicates that it was a time of preparation for death, and I have read in in the Greek and in a dozen or more English translations. So while I know of that teaching I could never incorporate it into my liturgy.

Be that as it may, and no one would ever prove who was "right" on that one, the main thing I wanted to emphasis for both the initial Lenten service of Ash Wednesday and the subsequent Lenten sermons, etc. is not the preparation for death but the preparation for living as Christ who would have us live. That is what leads me to advise people to no give up something for Lent but to give something to others. I have no problem with people giving up things for Lent. Actually, I always do, but I urge them to move beyond doing just that and turn totally to God for his guidance on how to live as Christ like as we can.

Monte
Monte - I meant to add that I like your interpretation much better.

I had many reasons for leaving the Catholic Church, but the emphasis on death, violence, and sin was a strong factor. It was not the emphasis I wanted to teach to my children.

I also didn't mean to imply that the Catholic interpretation was strictly correct either. My knowledge of theology is imperfect, at best. In the way we learn things - I had always sort of assumed that Jesus' time in the desert was immediately before his crucifixion, but it seems that it was an earlier time in his life?

For whatever reason, perhaps just the timing of the season, they had been absorbed as commingled in my brain.
Hi, again, lpsR: we are on the same wavelength. I was not trying to criticize traditional Catholic theological interpretations even though I think some of them are wrong, as much as to explain why I can't agree with them. They have worked for over a thousand years for Catholics.

It is true that the 40 days of testing happened immediately after John baptized Jesus and immediately before Jesus began his ministry, and long before he was killed. So this happened somewhere up to 36 months before his crucifixion, depending on how you count. In any case his ministry was a very short period, something that many don't realize.

The Holy Spirit actually intentionally drove Jesus into the desert to be tested by Satan. I interpret that to mean to be tested before his ministry so that he would be strong when his ministry started, having been tested by the one who could most easily convince him to not be a minister of God's Word.

Regardless, he clearly met the tests, and immediately upon coming out of the desert he began his ministry.

One other thing that I find fascinating and you might also is that the term "into the desert" is a common metaphor in the Bible meaning to go to a place which is without God.

If that is the meaning of the metaphor here, and I strongly think it is, then what this signifies is that Jesus, without the support of the Father, is sent on his own by the Holy Spirit to see if his faith is strong enough to withstand Satan when God is not protecting him.

Again, he passes this test and even lectures Satan as to why he refuses to be seduced by Satan.

Thanks for the further clarification. I did understand that you were reporting on what you remembered about your Catholic upbringing and not saying that you were endorsing everything you remembered.

Monte
Relating to Lpsrocks and the Catholic parallel between the 40 days in the desert and the temptation by Satan and Lent--

John Milton's most famous work was the epic poem "Paradise Lost," about the fall of Adam. What a lot of people (outside of English geeks like yours truly) don't know was that he wrote ANOTHER epic poem, a sequel called "Paradise Regained," about the salvation of mankind. Interestingly, he does not write about the crucifixtion or the resurrection...he writes about Christ's temptation in the desert as being the pivotal moment.
Very interesting, Leeandra, I read both Milton pieces ages ago and did not remember that. Actually, I remember only the vaguest outlines of either.

I think that the Temptation of Christ has held the imagination of many in the arts for centuries. I know that when C. S. Lewis wrote an allegory on Milton he also spent some time reflecting on the Temptation, but I don't even remember what he said about it. My little gray cells really need folks like you to help them recover, if recovery is possible!!

Thanks much.

Monte
This is beautiful. I'm glad I read it, even if it was a bit belated.

I love the fact that you have the ashes administered to you yourself first. This reminds me of the Jewish Kol Nidre service in which the rabbi first asks forgiveness of the congregation for any sins he might have committed over the past year, and the congregants ask the same of him and of each other.

In my mysitical book group last week, we talked about sin. Some members are completely put off by the idea that we are all sinful. This has never been a big problem for me; I come from a liberal Protestant background in which it was not drummed into my head; it was more about the idea that we're all sinful and selfish, nobody is perfect etc. But others found this oppressive.

Then one member of the group (he happens to be a Hindu) said that the confession of sins is an expression of humility -- and that made so much sense to all of us.

I think the ashes remind us to be humble -- Nothing we do, not our accomplishments or our nice houses or anything, lasts forever.

Also, Monte, I love that you greet communicants by name. I've never been to a service where that was done.

Thanks for another illuminating post.
Thanks, Faith, and one is never late to reading something like this. These reflections take up a substantial chunk of time and often we don't have many of those laying around.

I appreciate your positive comments on how I do liturgy. I will do anything I can to have the congregation participate as fully as possible in the worship. Liturgy literally means "the work of the people," not the work of the Pastor or Priest.

As to sin, you would be amazed how many people here on OS get all upset at the idea of sin. They particularly think it cannot apply to children and that all people are basically good. I won't get into any long argument about that, but let's just say that they get so angry and filled with it that if they would just look into a mirror at that time they would see the proof of it. Of course, to them it is righteous anger. Don't see that changing much around here.

Thanks again,

Monte