The sign of the cross on the forehead is a reminder of baptism where we are marked as Christ’s.
A rough wooden cross stood before the congregation. Members lined up quietly, stepping forward to pairs of ministers on either side of the cross, who dipped their thumbs in a mixture of ashes and olive oil, drawing a small cross on each person’s forehead while murmuring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the gospel.”
This, my first experience of an Ash Wednesday service, was all the more significant as four Methodist churches – Aldersgate Methodist Church, Holland Village Methodist Church,
Holy Covenant Methodist Church and Living Waters Methodist Church – came together in this combined service on March 5 at the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). As Mr Joel Tan from Aldersgate MC later remarked, it was “a reminder that we are one universal church, in it together in preparing ourselves for Lent.”
What is Lent, and what part does Ash Wednesday play? Lent, as noted in a commitment form distributed to the congregation, is a time to prepare for Easter – a necessary prelude. “The death and resurrection of Christ are true whether or not I prepare for Easter. However, without my heart and life being ready, I may not experience the depth and power of Christ’s death and resurrection.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality (Gen 3:19) and the oil a symbol of the Holy Spirit and empowerment in Him. The sign of the cross on the forehead is a reminder of baptism where we are marked as Christ’s. Hence the ash cross points not only to our mortality, but also to our identity as Christ’s people (affecting how we live) and to the Easter resurrection life that will come.
The combined service was a drawing factor for many worshippers, with members from other Methodist churches asking to join in the service as well. Aldersgate MC set the ball rolling in 2012 by inviting Holy Covenant MC to join them, followed by Living Waters MC last year and Holland Village MC this year.
The Rev Dr Lorna Khoo, Pastor-in-Charge of Aldersgate MC, noted: “It is good for Methodists from the four churches to come together for the Ash Wednesday service. For many, it would be the first time their church is observing it. If they had it in their church, they might find only a small group of people coming for it and they might be discouraged from having it every year. But having a combined service means there will be a bigger community and shared resources.”
Mr Allan Lee from Living Waters MC agreed: “The combined Ash Wednesday service provided another avenue where we can be reminded of the larger Christian body, and served as a reminder for us to ‘detach’ from the world and ‘attach’ to Him.”
He was referring the sermon by the Rev Dr Khoo, who preached from Mark 10:17-22. She noted that the young man in the passage had asked Jesus what he must do “to inherit eternal life”. Did he sense a barrier endangering his chances or blocking him from inheriting eternal life?
In Jewish culture, a son is only disinherited for having a different god. The Rev Dr Khoo postulated that the young man’s love of his “great wealth” could have become a god to him.
She exhorted: “Look at your chequebook, your cell phone, your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and your conversations. What do you value most? That is your god or idol.” She noted that what Jesus asked each person to give up was specific to them: Nicodemus was to let go of his accumulated knowledge; Zacchaeus, his accumulated wealth; Paul, his accumulated reputation. “What is it that the Lord is asking you to surrender to Him?”
“God is not a killjoy,” emphasised the Rev Dr Khoo. “He gave us gifts, and enjoys seeing us enjoy them. But surrender them to Him, and He will make something even better out of it.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the gospel.”
Picture by Daniel Lie
Grace Toh is the Assistant Editor of Methodist Message and has been a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church for most of her life.