But for many in the United States, maybe not quite yet.
Icy roads, impassable snow drifts, bone-chilling cold in places unaccustomed to such feats of winter have rightly led many congregations in the US to cancel Ash Wednesday services today. And even where they're not cancelled, there may be fewer who venture out to join those who do gather. What do you do when Lent begins with such intense cold, ice and snow when your area lacks the resources to manage it? Wait for it... wait for it...
If we take our cue from the first reading for Ash Wednesday, we simply wait. We wait until we can safely gather. For Joel, the act of gathering is essential to the season of penitence the Lord calls him to proclaim: 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. (Joel 2:15-16 NRSV, emphasis added).
Assembly, gather, congregation, assemble, gather, leave-- six words in 2 short verses all point to the same thing. If we are serious about repentance, we can't do this alone. We have to be together, gathered together in one. Not even being part of a wedding is excuse to stay behind when the trumpet sounds in Zion. The repentance we must enact is corporate. We can't do it individually in our homes or on our schedules. We have to be together to do this.
Note the context of this call to togetherness, no matter what. Israel's climate is temperate. And the season of the year when Joel calls for this fast appears to be near the time of planting or harvest, not a time known for dangerous cold, ice or snow. Joel does ask people to stop what they're doing and come. He doesn't ask them to risk their lives to do it.
So for many in the US today, there will not be a gathering for Ash Wednesday. That doesn't call for us to supplant our gathering together and use ashes at home or on a street corner or with a few friends and family nearby. What matters most as we begin Lent together isn't ashes or how we get them. It's the people of the church-- as many as possible-- gathering together as one, people of all ages and stages in life-- to embrace our mortality, confess our sin, and seek God's mercy and power to enable us truly to repent and walk in all the ways of God's kingdom as we vowed to do and to help each other do at our baptisms.
So the most important question isn't how will you get ashes today. The most important question is when can you safely gather next?
For some, this may be this coming Sunday. For others, it may be later yet, perhaps the following Sunday, since it's increasingly difficult to for many of our churches to gather in any critical mass during the week.
What then about ashes, if Lent has already begun and we missed Ash Wednesday?
You can still use them. But now use them as part of an opening rite of confession and penitence, while using the texts for the Sunday when you actually gather as the basis for the rest of the worship design and preaching that day.
If you think about it, it's not unlike what we do on Passion/Palm Sunday. We begin with the liturgy of the Palms, perhaps starting outside the worship space and processing in. Then we continue with the liturgy of the Passion.
In this case, simply begin the service with the Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline (The United Methodist Book of Worship 322) and proceed through the Confession and Pardon (323), then offer a Lenten hymn (Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days UMH 269, or Dust and Ashes W&S 3098) and proceed with the readings, sermon, and celebration of Holy Communion for that Sunday as usual. Assuming you are celebrating Holy Communion, give the full Invitation to the Table as usual, and then proceed directly to the Peace of Christ, since you will have already offered the confession and pardon as part of the opening of the service.
Be safe out there.
And whenever you can, as soon as you can, be gathered.
The work of repentance with which this season of baptismal formation begins is something we cannot do individually or in isolated pockets of family and friends. "There is no holiness but social holiness," John Wesley reminds. The holiness we seek only happens as God sanctifies us-- together.