Find Answers in the Ash Wednesday FAQ


Today is Ash Wednesday, but what does that really mean?  There is an Ash Wednesday Service at First Church Longmeadow tonight at 7pm, but what happens there?  Read on for those answers and more:

What is Ash Wednesday?  

This is the first day of the church season of Lent. So called because the church has historically marked this day as one of reflection and introspection and confessing of one’s need for God’s forgiveness.   Ashes are a sign of our acknowledgement of our failures and indicate our human need for God’s love and forgiveness. Lent is the church season that leads up to Holy Week, Jesus’ death and resurrection.


I thought only Catholics celebrated Ash Wednesday?  

Throughout the world most Christians observe Ash Wednesday, although it is fair to say that some Protestant churches do not observe this holy day, and some denominations have only begun to observe this day in the past 50 years.


What happens in the Ash Wednesday service at First Church?

At First Church we will sing and pray, listen to scripture and celebrate holy communion as we consider together the love and grace of God and begin the spiritual journey of Lent.   It is a shorter service that does include imposition of ashes on the forehead (more traditional) or the back of the hand (more recent innovation).  Here is a link to one of the prayers that will be included in this evening’s service, together with an article describing some of the background.


If I attend the service, do I have to have ashes placed on my forehead?

Receiving ashes are an optional part of this service. Increasingly many of our church members are finding receiving ashes to be a deeply meaningful aspect of beginning Lent. But the invitation during the service is optional.


Can anyone join the service, or do I have to be a member?

Absolutely anyone and everyone is welcome at First Church. Our welcome statement is: “We, the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, strive to live out our stated mission to seek love and justice in our world. We welcome persons of every age, race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, mental, physical, emotional, economic and social status, and circumstance of life into the full participation and ministry of our church.” No matter who you are, or where you are on your journey, you are welcome at First Church Longmeadow.


I might want to come to the service, but I would have to bring my children with me. Is that ok?

Absolutely. Children are always welcome at First Church. The service on Wednesday is relatively short in duration, and involves music & singing, so there should be plenty to occupy little ones.


I cannot attend the service this Wednesday, but I would like to know more about activities during Lent at First Church. Where should I look?

There are many activities at First Church during Lent, in addition to the regular Sunday Morning Worship services at 10am. The full calendar of events with descriptions is available on the First Church Website’s Lent Section. There will be family friendly meals on Wednesdays during Lent at 6pm in the Buxton Room at First Church (at the far end of the hall on the first floor). These meals will include elements of worship while we are around the tables, including each week a brief communion liturgy. There also will be a devotional reading group after the meals on Wednesdays discussing the book Gifts of the Dark Wood. Copies are available for purchase in the church office for $13 and online. We also may have copies available on reserve at Storrs Library in Longmeadow. Childcare will be provided. For additional details, please visit the church website.

For several Sundays before church, beginning at 8:30 AM during Lent, our Adult Education Committee will be hosting a series of film presentations and discussions around race relations. We will view half hour installments of the film “Race: The Power of An Illusion” have conversation as we examine a look at what racism is in our country, the systemic institutionalization of racism in our housing, economic systems, education and more: How did it happen? Where are the entry points for change? What might we do to make change and space in all these realms for all people to flourish together moving forward?

Please check out the First Church website and calendar for more details.


If you have a question, please leave it in the comments below. You can also email your question by leaving it in our Contact Form. Thanks for visiting us & please stay tuned for more FAQs and event plans from First Church of Christ Longmeadow.

Celebrating 300 Years

The 300th Anniversary events & celebration are underway at First Church!   Where have we come from…  where are we headed?  This is an exuberant time – filled with possibility & hopes for the future.

Recently, MassLive published an article detailing plans around this momentous event:  MassLive Article on the 300th Anniversary


In this, our 300th year, we are not only celebrating this great milestone but we are also looking toward our future.  We will be using the wisdom of perspectives from our history to do some visioning about the future of the church. – Deb Garrity, Director of Communications

This weekend marks a Kickoff Event on the steps of the church & green.  Town & local officials will join in this festive entryway to celebrating 300th Celebrations.


The entire anniversary year is expected to be filled with a range of wonderful activities & spirit.


Have you had a chance to check out the interactive historical timeline on the First Church website?  There is so much history – so many stories – all of which are not only important to the history of First Church, but for our entire community.


Remember to mark your calendars – this Saturday October 3 @ 11am



Hope to see you at the kickoff celebration!

Paid in Full

I grew up in a post-war development neighborhood where every house was the same. In our cookie-cutter residence there was a short swath of flooring that joined four doorways which we cynically called a “hall.” In this poor excuse for a hall, sitting on a pedestal, was our family Bible. It was an Italian, Catholic, baroque behemoth, bound in red leather, awash with the most colorful artwork and photographs ever seen in a Bible and it had a smell. When you turned the pages clouds of stimuli triggered four out of five senses. It looked, felt, sounded and smelled like a holy relic. It still does.

I was convinced at the time that this effect was achieved by some legion of elves replicating the essence of “relic” in a workshop below the Vatican at the behest of Pope Paul. I figured he called them his “little paisanos.” I often conflated father figures like the Pope and Santa. It was this relic of a Bible however that piqued certain interests in me, an interest in art and an interest in the stories it told to name two.

I bring this up because the sources we have today for these stories are quite different. The splashing of stimuli across one’s senses has taken a quantum leap. When I was a kid there was one TV in the house and an antenna on the roof. This meant we all watched the same show, together, and at Easter time there was perennial selection which included the prototypical Hollywood epic. The usual lineup was The Robe with the incessantly overacting Victor Mature, The Shoes of the Fisherman which always put me to sleep, and The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner – two powerhouses.

In those grand productions there was no shortage of Aryan actors playing Middle Eastern parts, drunkenly exercising their power upon the ethnically-cast extras. This usually resulted in at least one gratuitous scene featuring a slave with a blood-curdling scream having some body part crushed under a turning stone wheel while the Roman Emperor barely flinched. Oh, the humanity. It was so predictable, it was almost lighthearted.

That is certainly not the case today.

A certain realism has flooded these Biblical stories today and not all of it is good. The good part is that there are more Middle Eastern or ethnic actors playing Middle Eastern parts and I like that for historical reasons. When we were young however we wanted our heroes to be of a certain ilk. We wanted them to not only be special but look the part as someone who was special. Whoever played Christ had to be impressive aesthetically. My brother and I both agreed at the time that the “best” Christ portrayal was in King of Kings by Jeffrey Hunter. Though we were two heterosexual boys, we recognized that was one good-looking Jew. And, that’s how you wanted your heroes – better than you.

So with the new realism, historical accuracy has become more important than aesthetics. Unfortunately, some of the dark sides have become far too real as well. I have been watching Nat Geo, the History Channel and CNN during the Easter season. This has resulted in some of the most gruesome and realistic crucifixion scenes one can imagine and I have found it very disturbing. In fact, some of the images and horrifying knowledge of Christ’s suffering on the cross, are unbearable concepts of pain. Some shows examined the actual science behind the suffering as if I need to be explained the excruciating pain behind having 10” nails driven through the thick part of my ankle bones as they become the only means by which to support my scourged, beaten body while I hung on a cross by nails through my wrists. I won’t go on. There is pain and suffering I can’t stand to further envision and I unfortunately can’t shut them off. I’m having a great deal of difficulty reconciling these thoughts with my belief that people are basically good. I won’t pass this on to you any further other than to say that we as a society are in a very bad place.

Is this what Christ really wanted us to focus on, His torture, the worse of humanity?

Are we meant to go through these thoughts over and over so that the guilt for our salvation becomes permanently embedded in our hearts? Is that what Christ would have wanted, a guilt-driven worship? I can tell you that the constant violent images has sent me into a dark place and it certainly doesn’t feel like a holiday should. Not being one who subscribes to a belief that we bear guilt for all of humanity that preceded us, are my feelings a subliminal reaction to understanding that Christ’s suffering paved the way for my salvation? I don’t know.

I can’t help but feel that society is engaging in a pornography of violence and that no one is outraged or even seems disheartened by it. Am I alone? I doubt it. I’ve tossed and turned at night and I can’t get the thoughts, images out of my head. My only solace is to focus on Christ’s teachings, his very words on the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Was that just for the Romans who murdered him, or the Jewish hierarchy who betrayed him, or for all of humanity? Pilate washed his hands but I can’t get my head clear. Easter has become a much different experience than when I was a child. My only solace lies in those words on the cross, those words of forgiveness, His forgiveness.

I’m learning that this is the antidote for darkness and the remedy for guilt.

In that family Bible I mentioned earlier I recently found a card, a payment card, filled out in pencil by my mother. It starts off like this:

Jan 1960 $2.50
Feb 1960 $2.50
Mar 1960 $2.50
April 1960 $2.50

Then there is nothing for 3 months and it abruptly resumes:

Aug 1960 $12.00

The entry missing from that ledger – that was so glaringly apparent to me or anyone in my family was:

July 1960 Francis Batchelor dead at 37, Catherine widowed at 39

The payments conclude through December then there is one final entry:

Paid in full

Italian-Catholic guilt is a gluttonous dish, served heavily on a platter of sin with the life-long wearing of black, the endless clutching of rosaries, the never-ending acts of contrition. Somewhere in my mother’s mind and in her heart was the belief that her husband’s death was payment due for having the disrespect of not staying current on an account for the Holy Bible, or at least that it played some role. That is how her generation thought. That is how their minds worked. Is this a proper legacy for those who would follow Christ, an inheritance in passing of guilt from one generation to another?

What are we teaching this generation? What frailties are we passing on as we accept, without the slightest equivocation, the onslaught of violent images, the desensitization of torture and our obsession with the graphic. Where are the lessons that matter? What is the lifeline to grasp in a time of constant affronts to our spirit?

The message and solace I take from this year’s Easter and the one I wish to pass on is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is payment in full, forgiveness of not just what others have done, but also forgiveness for ourselves. Forgiveness Mom, forgiveness.

Looking for Mary Magdalene

This sermon was given at Beneficent Congregational Church, Providence, Rhode Island, 5 April 2015 by Reverend Nicole Grant Yonkman.

Happy Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Early Sunday morning before the sun was even up, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see Jesus.  The Gospel of Luke and Mark both say the women brought spices, which was a way to honor him and take care of his body. Mary sees that the stone is rolled away and Jesus’ body is gone and she cries because she is afraid that Jesus’ body has been stolen, a further humiliation and dishonor of Jesus. Then Jesus appears to her and asks, “Why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus; her brain will not let her see his face and hear his voice and put to form the utterly unbelievable idea that a person who had died could be alive. After all, dead is dead. Finally when Jesus says her name “Mary” she recognizes him. Then Jesus says “Do not hold onto me.” The text does not say so, but Mary must have grabbed hold of Jesus. Not knowing how to believe the unbelievable, but touching Jesus, Mary somehow absorbs the reality of the moment. “Do not hold onto me!” Jesus says. “Give me some space.” How much time passes, we do not know. But eventually, Mary lets go of Jesus. She has a job to do. Jesus asks her to spread the word. So Mary goes and tells the disciples that Jesus is alive. A woman; the first preacher of the good news of Easter; that is how it all started.

That is the Easter story; the story of resurrection. The funny thing about resurrection is that there is nothing I can say or do to give you reasonable evidence that Jesus rising from the dead is true. God, the resurrected Jesus, the Holy Spirit, they are all a mystery rooted in faith, in belief. Mary was one person so moved by this experience, transformed even, that when she told her friends the disciples, they believed her. We do not have the benefit of hearing from Mary herself what she experienced. We have a story in an ancient book, but it’s not the same. Instead, as people of faith who have come many years after Jesus, we must rely on other evidence of the resurrection. And the main evidence for resurrection we have is Christian community. Mary turned her experience into a compelling testimony that in turn transformed the disciples who gathered into a larger and larger community. They grew and thrived against all odds of failure and persecution. Christian community is the billions of people worldwide who have heard the ancient stories and gathered together in common for these almost 2000 years. And Beneficent Church is one of the faith communities which traces its beginning to the resurrected Jesus and Mary and the fact that Mary did not keep it to herself, but she told the Good News. And that telling bound the people together in a special way that allowed the mystery of resurrection to take form in a living, breathing community.

For me, Easter compels me to think about where I trace my beginnings in the church. How did I get here? What is the connection between Jesus and Mary and me? Well for me, part of that story is my neighborhood when I was a kid. I lived in a neighborhood of 10 houses which was on a country road in Maine called Shaw Mill Road, named after an old mill that used to be on the creek. Most every house in my neighborhood had kids about the age of my brother and me. On a typical Saturday morning, we would get up early and watch the Saturday cartoons and then go outside to play. I would tag along with my big brother as he went from house to house getting the kids together to organize a game of ball. We would go to Kraig’s house, Peter and Kevin’s house, Willie and Angela’s house. We would play kickball or baseball or basketball. We had fights, we made up with each other, people moved out and others moved in. Our geography put us together and being a neighbor meant that you were connected. The grown-ups had coffee or drinks at each others’ houses, the kids played together, you could borrow a cup of sugar for a recipe or a tool for a home project, or get help on snow-blowing your driveway. And in the case of our next-door neighbors, the Hamiltons, they invited me to go to church. And I thought that would be cool because I knew Angela from the neighborhood. When I think of the neighborhood, I guess it’s kind of nostalgic for a time that is now gone. My kids have never really had that experience. I’m not in touch with anyone from the neighborhood. But the thing that I will always take with me is that is how I got connected with a church community. It was a small church with a small sanctuary and a part-time pastor. My Sunday School class was taught by Mr. Hamilton, Angela’s dad, in the kitchen in the basement. I was confirmed in that church and attended a few youth group meetings. That was basically it. But it was my first church community. It was my first experience of being with a group of people who cared for me who were not my family. And something connected for me. At that church I began to be in touch with a feeling that God had a special plan for my life. That special plan I came to understand as a call to ministry and that is what started me on the pathway that led me here to you today, about 35 years after my neighbor Angela invited me to church.

Recently, a couple of months ago, I tracked down my childhood pastor, whose name is George Frobig, who is now retired and living in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I called him on the phone and ended up making a trip to visit him. So I could tell you that Rev. Frobig said that even as a young child he could tell I would be a minister. But the truth is, he didn’t remember me at all. We remembered a lot of things in common about the church, the people, the events, but me, Nikki Grant, nope. He didn’t remember me at all. And that was OK. It really was because that was not the point for me. I wanted to tell Rev. Frobig what that little church and that little community meant something to me, and the role he played to make sure that the church was there for me, made all the difference. However small that community, whatever small part each person had that touched my life, it was enough to kindle the flame that would start me on the path to ministry.

There is a lot of research that has been done about how the nature of community has changed in American culture. Some of you may have heard of the famous book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam which brought to light something that really resonates with Americans as a whole: people don’t join bowling leagues, lodges like the Masons, and even churches, like they used to. There is something that has fundamentally changed about the way we interact with one another as a community. Most recently in 2014 Marc Dunkelman who works for a Brown University think tank on Public Policy published a book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. And through a year-long program I am part of called Leadership Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to meet Marc and talk about this phenomenon of community today. In a nutshell he says: despite the technological advances including email, facebook, and skype, Americans are actually connecting with fewer people in community in deep and meaningful and face to face ways. So even though we are hyperconnected to a worldwide network, people are lonely, disconnected, and yearning for community like never before. And it just so happens that churches are one of the few organizations whose primary mission is connecting people in community.

So what is it that churches offer that is so valuable? What I value is the day-to-day relationships, working through issues, figuring things out together, and seeing us grow and change together. For me that is what community is about. Yes there are meetings, and yes they happen on weeknights sometimes, and yes sometimes we have “issues” that are complex and seemingly unsolveable. But week after week, year after year, people show up, the volunteers especially, to make sure that this community continues and to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart and body for YOU! What builds community is not rocket science. It hasn’t changed with technology. What builds community is time on the ground. What builds community is showing up; it’s being there for one another, and perhaps especially for the people whom you do not know who happen to walk through the door. This is the place where you learn and grow, where you have Sacred Conversations, and where you learn to love people whom you would never have met if you had not been part of the church. And the reason we do this is our common mission to be like Mary Magdalene and share the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You are here today, at least many of you, because you are seeking a community, you are looking for Mary Magdalene, a person transformed by the resurrection. At Beneficent, we are a very diverse place, and we do not ask that everyone believes exactly the same thing. Some of us are comfortable talking about God and Jesus and the resurrection. Some of us are doubters and seekers and questioners. But the point is that this community is all pointed in the same direction: and that direction is new life. That direction is forgiveness. That direction is hope. Because death is not the end; death does not have the last word. And as we are all pointed in that direction, somehow, amazingly, on good days, we manage to make a step together. That is community. That is resurrection community. It’s bigger than all of us. And through the miracle of the resurrection, I trust that I am making a difference in the world because I can see it in front of me everyday in you. In your lives.

This story of me coming to church as a child invited by my neighbor I think is kind of perfect for Easter. Because it’s nothing so flashy as Mary Magdalene having this face-to-face meeting with Jesus and running to tell the disciples. It was a regular group of people in a community in church in a small town who went about the business of church just because that is what the gospel called them to do. And that to me is the miracle of the resurrection. We go about our work of being the church, trusting that the time and effort we take to lovingly and carefully gather a community of believers and seekers and questioners. Sometimes we may be able to see the impact we have on individuals or on the community, but most of the time we do not. We cannot. Thousands of people come through our doors every year, and we do not know how important it was for an usher to smile and greet you after a tough week, or a song from the choir that touched your soul, or for your prayer to be shared in public, or the opportunity to teach the children in Sunday School, or grill the hotdogs for our community lunch. Or maybe a little girl who shows up with her friend for Sunday School one day. You do not know. And that is the mystery of the resurrection: the living breathing community of faith that is bigger than any of us, that is more than any of us can accomplish on our own, that changes people we do not know or even remember in remarkable and transforming ways.