Church history indicates that, in these islands, Ash Wednesday has changed, and lost much of the impact that it once had.
Once: individual penitents; made a public confession of their sins: and began a prescribed penance on the day. Around the 10th Century: this practice was replaced by the general penance of the whole congregation.
This was symbolized by the imposition of ashes, upon clergy and people. Very often, the ashes came from burning the branches, held over from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
In 1549: this form of penance was replaced: and the Church of England produced what it called ‘The Commination Service’.
It was full of exhortation, and finger wagging; as divine threats, against sin, and unrepentant sinners, were made very clear.
Over the years: there have been various changes to the service: which still forms part of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’.
Today: Ash Wednesday has little impact upon the general public. Some people may know that it marks the first day of Lent; but beyond that…they have nothing much to say.
What about Christians, and their expectations of the day?
Dictionaries of the Christian Church list the dates, times and places of Ash Wednesday’s history; but have little else to offer.
To a certain extent, we are left to make of it, what we will.
What do we make of it?
Some congregations hold services that include the imposition of ashes: but anything beyond that; is unusual.
Gradually, throughout the protestant church; in Britain; over many years, the day has lost much of its clout.
Along with Shrove Tuesday; Ash Wednesday was designed to make us all, as spiritually clean and tidy as possible: and prepare us for Lent, Palm Sunday, and Easter.
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday.
How many of us enquired afresh into; took aboard; and are now actually making something of; the meaning of yesterday?
A ‘hands-up-if-you-did’, request: is unlikely to produce much, if any, positive response.
The diminishing clout of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: may symbolize the wider and deeper neglect; today; of things the Church once held as precious, needful, and even essential.
We can be happy that the spiritual neglect of practical matters, by Christians; very long ago: places no blame upon us…
…but we could be even happier, if this Ash Wednesday encourages us to enquire into ways in which some of the loss might be restored.
This evening: we could have looked at how today leads us into Lent: and the meaning of Lent; but I felt that to be the province of the preachers appointed, between now and Easter.
Instead: it seemed right to consider that today, not only leads us into Lent, but, together with Shrove Tuesday; was intended to make spiritual preparation for Lent, and all that follows
Dictionaries of the Church may indicate that there is little to be said about Ash Wednesday of itself…
… but they do show it to be one of the few, official days: that highlights the need of spiritual cleansing, refreshment and preparedness, in our lives of faith.
Spiritual cleansing: not only looks at the things that ought not to be in our lives: but also considers what ought to be there; and, if some things are missing; how to find and restore them.
We can look beyond ourselves: to Christian life and practice: and ask why some good things that were once part of it, became lost…and whether or not, they can be restored.
The Book of Acts’ shows a vibrantly alive Church, exercising effective ministries; largely because it was all about Christ, and his followers, and not about managing buildings and systems.
The people had taken hold of a spiritual vision; realized that it was not for them alone…
…and through love, fellowship and sharing; made the vision common to all who met together in the Name of the Lord; and available to all who desired to find Christ for themselves.
Such commonality, and availability are not readily found, today. This may be because, largely; over the last 60 years or so; the corporate nature of society, has given way to individuality.
These days: vast numbers of people want to make their decisions about what they will or won’t accept; and to decide when, and how they may, or may not, set about doing things.
Such clear, over emphasized and even selfish individuality: has done much to fragment society, and to create a take-it-or-leave--it attitude to social order.
Christians; being part of changing society: must watch out against individuality creeping into their congregations, in such ways as to fragment them.
Where this does happen: then, for some people; ‘Church’ can become little more than a building; a place to visit; to fulfill personal requirements…
…rather than the deep fellowship; and shared commitment; of those nurtured by close communion with Christ.
Similarly: services of worship can, for some, be little more than a brief time of togetherness; within which they hope to experience glimpses of the ongoing vision…
…but from which; unless lovingly encouraged otherwise: they may simply go home, and remain as ‘individual’ as ever.
Individually minded Christians: may feel that attendance at services; regularly, or not, is a matter of personal decision.
But: going to church if, and when they feel like it: will do a disservice to the hopes and needs of the corporate body.
Even if little of this, actually applies to us: we must be vigilant; and ensure that over-individuality doesn’t take hold among us.
Today’s church, has moved on; and is a very long way from mediaeval understandings: but perhaps it has moved on a bit too far: for it appears to take a comparatively light view of sin.
What do we make of Christians who expect forgiveness: without the necessity of penitence.  
At Acts 3: 11, we find Peter talking to people who had sinned; but out of ignorance. He went on to show how they had arrived, at the point where they were at: and what to do, in order for them to be forgiven, and move on.
At Acts 3: 19. Peter says: Repent, then, and turn to God: so that your sins may be wiped out: that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’.
Repentance must come first …then spirituality, ‘times of refreshing’, and all other blessings, and desired things, can naturally follow; as our own lives bear witness.
We know that, although repentance includes sorrow: it goes far beyond that; and also beyond simply turning away from sin.
For the divine call is for Christians to recognize just where they stand, in relation to those things that offend God: and then…
… having repented, to turn back to God and to enter, once more, into prayerful dependence upon him.
Despite the historical neglect, that has affected the life of the Church: it remains as Christ called and commissioned it to be.
We cannot think of anything that has been lost to the Church, on its God-ward side: because all is there, and in place…
…but it does not take very long: to see that there are things to be restored, and loved back into shape, on the earthly and Christian side of it.
Where fellowship has become a bit shallow: our prayerful goodwill may be just the thing, to deepen it once more.
Consideration of the fellowship with Christ; that the Lord calls us into: may reveal that our understanding and experience of it; is in need of being refreshed.
Some of the deeper aspects of the faith that nurtures us: will require a deeper, wider searching, if they are to be revealed to us; and such enquiry can be a very worthwhile venture.
Most of the gifts and graces; effectiveness and blessing; that empowered the very early Church: are as open to us; and available to us; as ever they were.
God takes a positive view of his people.
He has not only accepted us; but also graciously called us into his service. To his mind: all those who truly seek to do his will; through Christ; are good and faithful servants.
May the best hopes and understandings that we have, of Ash Wednesday: not only lead us into Lent; but also encourage us to take a firmer hold on present blessings…
…and, where possible, to prayerfully help restore whatever past blessings: may have, for the moment; slipped just that bit out of our grasp.    Amen.