The Australian Ash Wednesday Fires

On February 16 1983 (the middle of Australian summer), fewer than ten major bushfires swept through the states of Victoria and South Australia.

Seventy six people lost their lives, 2,545 homes were destroyed and over 390,000 hectares of land was razed. 360,000 livestock perished (no doubt millions of native animals as well), 3,700 other buildings were lost and 20,000 km of fencing demolished. The damages were estimated at $A960,000,000.

Bushfires on this scale are a natural part of the Australian environment - the bark on many eucalypts have adpated to it and some seed pods even require the intense heat before they open. Every day in summer you can switch on the news and see the numerous fires around the country. However, Ash Wednesday was a day when the unthinkable happened.

Home owners would point a garden hose at a twenty metre wall of fire. The CFA (Country Fire Authority), represented only by local volunteers, would battle endlessly using what appeared to be toy trucks in the face of such an inferno. People would just have to stand and watch as all their lifelong possessions were burnt to the ground.

Should we contemplate the seeming stupidity of timber houses in hot dry forests? Should we wonder about the powerlines strung through the trees? Should we question whether society is correctly addressing pyromania?

Bushfires are going to keep happening. Community awareness is very high in danger areas - largely due to catastrophes such as Ash Wednesday. Advertising campaigns, with similar horror to those of the TAC seem to be working. We just need to ensure that no one forgets. It can't be unthinkable anymore. It is inevitable and we just need to be prepared.

It was the first Ash Wednesday service I'd ever attended. The mood within the church was solemn, reflective, the liturgy spoken in quiet voices. There was only a handful of people present -- Ash Wednesday isn't a big time like Christmas Eve or Easter morning and not everyone wants to walk around with a cross drawn in ashes on their forehead.

We came forward and knelt for the ashes and the Eucharist. The priests moved back and forth, stopping before each person. The first daubed the recipient's forehead with the ashes of the palm leaves we carried in celebration last Palm Sunday, almost a year ago now. "Dust thou art," he murmured to each of us before passing on, "and to dust thou shall return." Another priest placed the communion wafer in our upturned hands. "The body of Christ," he said, "the bread of Heaven." Then one came with a chalice of wine: "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation."

I waited my turn and listened to the soft litany, the words repeated over and over, life shading into death, death giving way before life:

Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.
The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.
The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

I emerged from the church blinking in the sunlight. My lunch hour was up and I had to go back to work. I thought about washing the ashes off my forehead. Some people do that, and there's nothing saying you have to walk around with ashes on your head all day.

But I realized that Ash Wednesday would be over for me then. I would wash away the timeless moment I'd glimpsed during the service and surrender to the world of ringing telephones, pressing deadlines, and endless paperwork.

The world can wait another day, I thought, and I went back to work with a bit of eternity on me.

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is its strong liturgical bent. The same words are said year after year, taking on another layer of meaning each time I hear them until they develop a lovely patina like antique metal. If you have a favorite book, maybe you understand what I'm talking about.

In case you were wondering what happens in an Episcopal Church on Ash Wednesday, I have taken this from the Book of Common Prayer and explicated it a bit in an attempt to make it more understandable to non-Episcopalians.

A subset of the usual suspects will be there. It will be nowhere near as many people as you might find on a Sunday. The Celebrant (which for this service may be a bishop, a priest, a deacon, or even a lay reader, but is usually a priest) begins the service with a salutation. On Ash Wednesday, you're mostly likely to hear this one:

Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.

The people reply:

His mercy endures forever.

The Celebrant then adds a little opening prayer, called a Collect. On Ash Wednesday, they usually use this one:

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 wretchedness, 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, for ever and ever. Amen

Various bits of Scripture are then read.

From the Old Testament: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103, or 103: 8-14
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

And then there's the sermon. In the Episcopal church, the sermon is based on an idea in one of the day's readings.

After the Sermon everyone stands up, and the Celebrant or Minister appointed invites the people to the observance of a holy Lent, saying:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Silence is then kept for a time, all kneeling.

If ashes are to be imposed, the Celebrant says the following prayer:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.

The ashes, which are made of burnt palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday, are used to gently mark a cross on each forehead. The following words are said as the ashes are imposed:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Psalm 51 is sung or said, and then a Litany of Penitence is said. The Celebrant and People together, all kneeling:

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

The Litany continues, responsively, with the Celebrant saying the words in plain text and the congregation replying with the words in italics:

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

The Bishop, if present, or the Priest, stands and, facing the people, says:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.

Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A deacon or lay reader leading the service remains kneeling and substitues the prayer for forgiveness appointed at Morning Prayer:

Almighty God have mercy upon us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

The Peace is then exchanged. The Celebrant says "The Peace of the Lord be always with you." And the people respond "And also with you." Then the people greet each other in a similar fashion, saying "Peace be with you" or "The Peace of the Lord" or just "Peace." In some churches, this means that people greet the folks sitting nearest them and maybe they shake hands. In my church, people get out of the pews and walk around exchanging the Peace with anyone they can get their hands on. There's lots of hugging. Our priest breaks it up when she hears people making plans to go to lunch together after church.

After this, the service will probably continue as if it were Sunday with Communion (but without music).

Originally noded under BCP - Ash Wednesday

Ash` Wednes"day (#).

The first day of Lent; -- so called from a custom in the Roman Catholic church of putting ashes, on that day, upon the foreheads of penitents.


© Webster 1913.

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