10 ideas for a more meaningful Ash Wednesday

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky gives ashes to a visitor to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site as part of an act of repentance. File photo by Ginny Underwood.
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky gives ashes to a visitor to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site as part of an act of repentance. File photo by Ginny Underwood.

Ash Wednesday is an important day in the church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, a season of preparation for the celebration of Easter.

This holy day is not a holiday from work, school, or most other obligations, so if we are not intentional in our observance it is likely to resemble any ordinary Wednesday.

To help us find ways to remember the holy in the midst of our routines—something we should strive for every day—we offer some ideas to consider.

Imposition of ashes outside of a McDonald's.

The Rev. Stephanie Vader of Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Scaggsville, Maryland, offers the imposition of ashes in a McDonald's parking lot. File photo by Alison Burdett, Baltimore-Washington Conference.

1. Worship

Many congregations offer worship services on Ash Wednesday. In a typical United Methodist service, expect times of prayer, singing, confession and pardon, a sermon, and the imposition of ashes. The somber tone helps us reflect on our own mortality and the need for us to confess our sins.

If your congregation does not offer Ash Wednesday worship, Find-A-Church will help you locate United Methodist churches that do.

2. Serve

On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are part of the human family, making it a great day to serve others. If possible, find a place to volunteer for the day. Or simply use your lunch hour to hand out sandwiches and sports drinks to the homeless in your city, take an hour to mow a neighbor's lawn, or shovel the snow from their driveway.

3. Give

We encourage you to give to your congregation, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or a service project advance.

Alternately, leave your server an above-and-beyond tip. Put money in the instrument case of a street musician. Purchase a paper from the homeless woman on the corner. Find ways to bless others with that which God entrusts you.

4. Abstain/fast

"Giving something up for Lent" is a common practice for many Christians. Often, we give up a favorite food or try to kick a bad habit during Lent. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is when this begins, but don't confine yourself to food or habits.

Can you abstain from gossip or complaining for Ash Wednesday? What about defensive attitudes, fear, or anxiety? You probably won't be perfect at this, but when these attitudes begin to take hold of your day, pause for prayer.

5. Pray your day

Pray for the drivers of the vehicles and fellow mass transit passengers with whom you share your commute. Pray as you pass the hospital, police station, and government offices. Lift up the trash collector and mail carrier. Offer sentence prayers throughout the day thanking God for your coworkers.

6. Make something

Some of us reflect and pray best when our hands are busy. Get back in the workshop and spend time cutting, sanding, and gluing. Sit at a piano and let the music flow. Take out the paints, glue, clay, and other supplies to create a work of art. As you create, give thanks to our Creator who longs to be in relationship with you.

7. Be still

Others find meaning in stillness. Light a candle and pause before the presence of God. Take a holy yoga class. Enjoy a cup of coffee on your deck. Listen for the voice of God.

8. Clean something

Ash Wednesday is a good day to get a jump on your spring cleaning. Spend an hour with the junk drawer, that cabinet at work, or organizing the files on your computer.

As you remove things you no longer need and reorder those you do, be mindful of the ways God "cleans" us. The Bible tells us "As far as east is from west—that's how far God has removed our sin from us" (Psalm 103:12, CEB). As we get things in order, we remember that Jesus gave his life so that we might be free from our sins and know new life.

9. Burn something

When you finish cleaning, take some of the papers you no longer need to the fireplace. Light them and watch as they turn to ashes. 

The ashes in the fireplace are not the same as the ones used in worship, but can serve as a similar reminder that your sins are forgiven. As the smoke rises up the chimney, know your prayers are rising to God as well.

10. Forgive and seek forgiveness

As we pray for God's grace, we should also seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. Ash Wednesday is a great time to go to those you have hurt.

It is also a wonderful day to forgive another. Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us" (Matthew 6:12 CEB). Maybe while you are burning those old papers, you might also burn a grudge. If appropriate, let the person know you forgive them. Remember, however, that forgiveness has much more to do about us than the one who offended us.

*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.

This story was first published on February 21, 2017. Updated January 2021.