Several days ago I was asked to help a community begin the Lenten journey by facilitating a brief Ash Wednesday service. In preparation for the event, I wrote a very brief liturgy all the while believing that I already had a packet of ashes from year’s past in a file folder. An hour before the gathering, I visited the file folder only to find that it was not there – yikes! As a fumbling Baptist, I’ve messed up many an Ash Wednesday service trying to prepare “authentic” ashes over the years; no time for that. What to do? Fortunately, I had a small “button” of balm in that same file.
Used by many other Christian traditions, this “balm of Gilead” is used in services of anointing or healing. I’ve never been real comfortable with those ideas, but I have become comfortable using the balm as a symbol of healing and our desire to be healed. Clearly, the balm or oil has no salvific or sacramental qualities, but receiving it on Ash Wednesday is a great postlude to the recognition that we are sinners and that we desire restoration. What’s more, it has a biblical precedent – a Baptist couldn’t ask for more. Receiving a dab of the balm on each palm of our winter-worn hands symbolizes our openness to receive; rubbing it in speaks to our willingness to let it go deep. Jeremiah asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The answer is Jesus.
After the litany of confession, I invited people to open their minds to the absence of ashes and the presence of balm. The important thing is that we recognize our sinfulness as we set out on this Lenten journey. As each one came with open hands, I dabbed a small amount of balm on each of their palms saying, “The balm of Gilead, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May the peace of Christ be with you, [name].” I invited participants to rub it in deeply – the hope and reality of forgiveness and restoration amidst sober reflection.
Should you wish to use this brief service, I’ve attached it here: Beginning the Lenten Journey. If you don’t have a button of balm, a small dish of olive oil will do. Take it easy, as with ashes, a little goes a long way. Whether ashes or oil, I hope that you will invite your folks to the Lenten journey.