Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. The biblical witness is found in the opening epic of the human story: "you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19). In the tenth century the use of ashes was employed in visibly reminding worshippers of their mortality as they began their Lenten "watch by the cross."

This first day of Lent reminds us (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer #88) that two things are involved in genuine repentance: "the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new." The way to Easter is the way of the cross. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). New life with Christ involves a daily surrendering of the old life. The first step of this Lenten journey invites us to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness by the imposition of ashes.

Traditionally, the ashes for the service are prepared (well ahead of time) by burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. The ashes should be ground to a fine powder and mixed in a shallow bowl with a little water or oil. (It is also helpful to have a damp towel available for the hands of those who impose ashes.) As each worshiper comes forward the ashes are imposed on the forehead in the sign of a cross and the words of Genesis 3:19 are repeated each time: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." The imposition of ashes is often preceded by a call to confession and followed by a litany of penitence or a corporate prayer of confession, calling to mind the words of Job, "I repent in dust and ashes."

Imposition of ashes can be a deeply moving, though sobering experience. If imposition of ashes is likely to be new and unfamiliar to people in your congregation, care should be taken in introducing the practice and in preparing the congregation for their participation. There should be adequate explanation and ample opportunity for discussion and decision by the worship committee and consistory. If the consistory decides to include imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service, no worshipper should feel compelled to come forward to receive ashes, nor should the practice be seen as a way of displaying one's piety before others. It is simply a vivid and tangible reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our utter dependence upon the grace of God and the power of Christ's resurrection.

An Order of Worship for Ash Wednesday

Opening Sentences

  • God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
    so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
    God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
    but in order that the world might be saved through him. --John 3:16-17


  • O God the Father, creator of heaven and earth,
    Have mercy on us.
    O God the Son, redeemer of the world
    Have mercy on us.
    O God the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide,
    Have mercy on us.
    Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity,
    three persons and one God,
    Have mercy on us.
  • Loving God,
    whose glory it is always to have mercy:
    Be gracious to us who have gone astray from your ways,
    and bring us again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith
    to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word,
    Jesus Christ your Son.


Prayer for Illumination



Invitation to Observe a Lenten Discipline

  • Sisters and brothers in Christ:
    Every year at Easter we celebrate with joy our redemption and renewal
    through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    The season of Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration
    and to make room in our lives for the Spirit of God to renew us in this mystery.
  • We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance
    and our need for the love and forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ.
    I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a Holy Lent,
    by self-examination and penitence,
    by prayer and fasting,
    by practicing works of love,
    and by reading and reflecting on God's Holy Word.
  • Let us begin our Lenten journey by together confessing our sins and seeking the forgiveness and new life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 51, Litany of Penitence, or Prayer of Confession

Imposition of Ashes


  • Almighty God,
    you have created us out of the dust of the earth.
    May these ashes be a sign of our mortality and penitence.
    and a reminder that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life;
    through Jesus Christ our Savior.


  • Gracious God,
    you created us out of the dust of the earth
    and breathed into us the breath of life. 
    By your hand we live and to your hands we return when all our days are done.
    Grant that the awareness of our mortality may lead us not to fear, but to faith. 
    In our weakness teach us to look to you for strength,
    in our failures to turn to you and find forgiveness,
    and in our dying to await the gift of everlasting life;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord.

People are invited to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. During the imposition of ashes suitable psalms or hymns may be sung, or silence may be kept. The worship leader marks the forehead of each person with the ashes, using the following words:

  • Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,
    but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

Responsive Reading:  Psalm 103



Charge and Blessing

Written by John Paarlberg, pastor of First Church in Albany, New York

Option 2


Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. 
Psalm 139:23, 24


The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 
Psalm 51:17


Rend your hearts and not your garments;
turn back to the Lord your God
who is gracious and compassionate,
long-suffering and abounding in love. 
Joel 2:13

Prayer of Confession

Have mercy upon us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies, blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sin. For we know our transgressions, and our sin is ever before us. Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Adapted from Psalm 51 (or one of the musical settings of Psalm 51)

Hymn Suggestions:
"Have Mercy on Us, Living Lord"
"Piedad" ("Have Mercy, Lord on Me")
"Psalm 51"
"Be Thou My Vision"
"Change My Heart, O God"

Written by John Paarlberg, pastor of First Church in Albany, New York

Option 3

2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10
Matthew 6


Blow the trumpet in Zion and let the people tremble, 
for the day of the Lord is coming. The God of glory is near. 
Never has there been such darkness and never have we imagined such glory. 
The ruler of all ages will triumph with greatness and power. 
This is our Lord who is above all others.

The earth quakes and the heavens tremble. 
The sun and the moon are darkened; the stars no longer shine. 
The Lord utters his voice and all hosts are commanded. 
Truly, the day of the Lord is great. Who can endure it? 
Hallelujah! Only God can endure it!

Adapted from Joel 2

Call to Confession

"Even now, return to me," says the Lord. 
Quiet your heart and pay attention. 
With fasting, weeping, and mourning 
We fear the Lord and respond to his greatness.

Adapted from Joel 2:12-13

Prayer of Confession

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. 
You are compassionate beyond comparison, 
loving beyond imagination, 
and faithful beyond our betrayal. 
Just as the psalmist declares, "our sin is ever before us." 
We, too, admit our transgressions: 
we have become stained with wrongdoing, 
sacrificing the goodness of your love for the demise of this world. 
We have abandoned your law, 
caring less for your creation and more for our own ambition. 
Wash us clean, God of mercies, and deliver us from bloodshed. 
Help us to hear your voice calling us back, 
remind us of your love bringing us home, 
and renew our spirits that we might believe the covenant again. 
For the sake of Jesus Christ, we pray in our hearts...

(Silent reflection)


Assurance of Pardon

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; 
You shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:9

Prayer for Illumination

Our hearts burst for Jesus Christ; 
Our thirst cries out in awe. 
The one who has broken bread for us 
Was broken without flaw.

And blood was poured to quench our lives 
Never as we had thought 
But salvation came and taught us love. 
We reflect upon our lot.

"We Reflect Upon Our Lot" by Katherine Lee Baker

Suggested Hymns and Songs of Praise

"Before the Throne of God Above" 
"Bless the Lord, My Soul" (Taize) 
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"

by Katherine Lee Baker, M.Div.