Return to the Lord your God,
who is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days (not counting Sundays) before culminating in Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday is on February 17 this year. Easter Sunday is April 4.
On Ash Wednesday, Episcopalians, along with many other Christians in different traditions, typically wear a smudgy cross of ash on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality. This ancient ritual links us to countless generations who have turned humbly to God for help in absorbing the knowledge of our inevitable death in a way that will shape our living. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days (not counting Sundays) before culminating in Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday is on February 17 this year. Easter Sunday is April 4.
Even today, in the age of COVID, with ashes a memory rather than a personal act of piety and repentance—as always, the Ash Wednesday liturgy will mark the beginning of forty days of sitting with the knowledge of our mortality. We remember that our knowledge twinned with the astonishing promise of our redemption.
This year, because of the pandemic, we have had daily reminders of our mortality. Ash Wednesday takes on an added poignancy as we sit with the knowledge that COVID has claimed the lives of more than 470,000 Americans since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Countless more have been affected by the loss of family members and friends, the loss of jobs, the impact on schooling, and on daily life. We continue to endure the suspension of worshiping together in person.
So, this year, we will acknowledge the austerity of the pandemic while exploring our obvious, even contradictory, feelings of hope, grace, courage, resilience, grief, and anger, not necessarily in that order. It will remind us that even in the wilderness, we never are alone. It will allow us to step into and walk through Lent focused on the hope of Easter.
Celebrant Blessed be God.
People And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.
Celebrant 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.
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts; that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our inability to be as good as we would want to be, 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, forever and ever. Amen.
Let us pray: God of the desert, as we follow Jesus into the unknown, may we recognize the tempter when he comes. Let it be your bread we eat, your world we serve, and you alone we worship. This we ask through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.
Let us pray: Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Call forth our prayers and acts of kindness. Strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, now and forever. Amen.
First Testament: Joel 2:1-18
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.
Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course. They do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track. They burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. The earthquakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
Psalm 51, responsively
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”