Ash Wednesday service starts penitent Lent

Willimon spoke at First Presbyterian
Feb. 14, 2013 @ 11:37 AM

Happy Ash Wednesday from Will Willimon. That’s what the retired United Methodist Church bishop, former longtime dean of Duke Chapel and prolific author said to a colleague on the first day of the Christian season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is a day to mark, literally with ashes on foreheads, a time of penitence, reflection, fasting and study in the days leading up to Easter. Willimon delivered the meditation at a community Ash Wednesday service at First Presbyterian Church Wednesday afternoon. He has recently returned to Duke Divinity School, where he previously taught for 20 years. Willimon is professor of practice of Christian ministry.

Willimon told the congregation that he offered the “Happy Ash Wednesday” wishes on a somber day because “it is, in its own way, and you have to be a fellow Christian to know why, a happy day.”

In a culture of denial, the church at its best is where Christians come to tell the truth to each other, he said. Willimon talked about a student who came from a tradition where everyone assumes everyone, including themselves, are sinners. The truthful act of the church on Ash Wednesday is putting ashes on the foreheads of penitent sinners, Willimon explained.

“Jesus Christ has given us the theological ability to tell the truth about God,” he said. The counterculture truth, Willimon said, is that “we came from dust and to dust we shall return.”

Congregants lined up as Rev. Taylor Mills of Trinity United Methodist Church and Bishop Elroy Lewis of Fisher Memorial United Holy Church imposed ashes on their foreheads. The clergymen drew an ash cross on each forehead while saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Lewis gave the closing prayer.

“Dear God, we are grateful to you and we ask you to be with us as we begin this journey of 40 days…Always make us mindful we are teachers and preachers of righteousness that lead to moments of reconciliation,” Lewis prayed.

The people sang “What Wondrous Love Is This” before heading back out into the dreary day.

Mills dismissed them with: “May this blessing of ashes remind you we are those God created and redeemed. Amen.”