Gathering with the Sacred Assembly
Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast…” Joel 2:15-16
I remember the first time our oldest daughter received the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. She was less than a year old, our nearly perfect, beautiful firstborn. We took her forward to the altar where the rector made the sign of the cross on her forehead with ashes and said, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”
The smudge of the black ashes was startling, so out of place on her innocent face. Of course, I knew she had received a fallen nature, but she had hardly evidenced it at that age. It was a sobering realization that this child, like me, would need the cleansing and covering offered through the death of Jesus.
A significant first occurred for Karis that day: it was her first time to be gathered into the “sacred assembly,” a community of broken people in desperate need of a Savior.
In our Protestant framework, and perhaps in our American independence, confession is dealt with on an individual basis; it’s my life, my problem, and my sin. And so it is. But Scripture shows us another form of confession– the corporate confession of a community. Everyone was called to the sacred assembly in the passage above– the priests, the servants, the bride and the bridegroom preparing to marry, and the children including the nursing infants. Clearly, God knew something significant happens when we gather together as a body, collectively expressing our repentance and need for his offering of forgiveness and peace.
The Church is not designed to be an individualistic experience. When God laid out the annual feasts for the Jewish people, they were communal celebrations of spiritual realities. The trumpet would sound to announce a gathering whether it was for a feast of thanksgiving, a feast to remember what God had done, or an assembly for fasting and repentance, and all would participate.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Many Christians around the world will gather in a ‘sacred assembly’ to mark a season of fasting and repentance from now until Easter. These rhythms give space to practice the postures of humility and sacrifice. Lent is the historic church’s practice of corporate repentance.
Sometimes, we practice these rhythms in our smaller communities as well. Our organization had a Joel 2 season a few years back. We were at a critical moment of development, poised for significant growth. But at the same time, there was a sense that we needed a season of consecration– similar to the instructions Joshua gave the people as they stood at the edge of the Promised Land. “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you” (Joshua 3:5). So at one of our worldwide gatherings that occurs every four years, the theme of the conference was “Set Apart.”
Interestingly, the highlight of that conference was in many ways, an evening set aside for corporate grief. That year we had lost three people from our community. Once that space was created, griefs of all sorts came out: disappointments in unanswered prayers, ministry frustrations, theological questions, and sadness from the numerous losses of ministry life. Personal grief. Buried grief. Corporate grief. Cleansing grief.
At the end of that gathering, however, I somehow found myself disappointed. I have a prophet’s heart which has deep longings to see broken hearts for our broken ways. Grief is good, but just not what I expected in the midst of consecration.
Quite literally, on the way out the door, I ran into Dave Miles, a guy who works with churches in various forms of crisis or rebuilding. I asked what he thought about the gathering, and he assured me that signficant things happened – particularly in the session on grief. He said that repentance often is prefaced with an acknowledgement of our own hidden grief, anger, and hurt. Perhaps we can’t begin to grieve with God’s heart until we are honest about our own grief and loss.
Four years later, at our next worldwide conference, the leaders led us through a time of corporate repentance. Prayers of confession were spoken in different categories: men repenting to women; women repenting to men; young to old and old to young; different groups within the organization repenting to one another. We confessed many things on behalf of our nation: our neglect of the poor, our forms of unhealthy national pride, poor stewardship of our wealth and power, our treatment of Native Americans, our participation in racial divides. Then space was given for individuals to reconcile. The evening ended with a meaningful celebration of communion. (Yes, my prophet heart was happy!)
A decade later I can honestly say that we are still reaping the rewards of that season of consecration. We are experiencing God’s power and movement in extraordinary ways across our organization. Repentance fuels health and humility. The posture of humility becomes more comfortable and we see how desperately we need God’s grace not just in our wayward hearts, but in every arena of our lives. As we are poised at this extraordinary moment in Church history, we need to return to the Biblical practices of consecration and corporate repentance.
If you have never journeyed from Ash Wednesday to Easter intentionally exploring your brokenness before God in humility, I encourage you to consider it. It will not be easy. It is often not a feel good experience. Find someone else to walk with you. But spiritual house-cleaning has marvelous rewards.
I also highly recommend the daily lenten emails from the Center for Christian Culture and Arts out of Biola University which combine Scripture, art, music, and writings each day leading up to Easter. Or consider joining a Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran or Orthodox church for their lenten practices this year.
Today each of our daughters will again wear the mark of ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads. Our fasting during lent has given our family a needed structure to remind us of our ever wandering hearts and undisciplined appetites.
But they also know that in a little more than 40 days, we will gather again in another sacred assembly. This one is full of joy, celebration, and freedom. Easter morning we will say– “He is risen! And so are we!”
Easter is always much more deeply savored when we have remembered from whence we came. Each assembly is necessary, because each symbolizes a different spiritual reality.
Lord, hear the prayers of this prophet today:
May all the streams of the Christian church return this year to the practice of corporate repentance.
May we embrace an ever growing posture of humility towards you and towards others.
Give us your grace to count the cost of your sacrifice this lenten season.
And may the magnitude of your love overshadow our frailties and sins.
We remember today that from dust we have come, and to dust we shall return.
A Blessed Lenten season to each of you.
Rend your heart and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.