The penitential and catechetical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This year we will have Ash Wednesday Divine Service at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, February 26th.
We will have potluck supper beforehand at 5:30 PM in the fellowship hall.
Our service will be following the Ash Wednesday rubrics from Lutheran Service Book and will feature the voluntary imposition of ashes.
The imposition of ashes was mostly discontinued among Lutherans at the time of the Reformation. For a long time, then, this practice was associated with the Roman Catholic Church among modern day Christians. However, properly understood, there is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about it, so long as we do not make the ashes into a meritorious work or a sacrament. Recently, however, Lutheran and some Protestant communions have recently witnessed a renaissance of this ancient, medieval ceremony for the beginning of Lent. Two questions might occur to us:
- Is it wrong for Lutherans to impose ashes for Ash Wednesday?
- If it isn’t wrong per se, what does it mean or teach?
Truthfully, in Scripture, there is no ongoing command to impose ashes, but neither is there a command against the imposition of ashes. We are free to do so and free not to do so, when all things are equal. If we were being persecuted for not imposing ashes we might be obliged to continue omitting such. If we were being persecuted for imposing ashes we might be obliged to continue the practice to confess the truth.
The earliest references to ashes and dust in a Christian context may be found in numerous Scripture passages, bold Old and New Testaments. It is not difficult to observe, on the basis of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13, the primary use and meaning there was to provide an outward or ritual expression for the repentance of sin. It is this self-evident biblical understanding that carries over into the practice of the early church. The early church theologian Tertullian (ca. 150-225) described the use of “sackcloth and ashes” in the penance of an adulterer. In the fifth century the early church fathers Eusebius, Cyprian, and Jerome also associated ashes with public repentance. The last of the early fathers, Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636), described the practice of his day with these influential words: “It is good, therefore, that a penitent deplore his sin in sackcloth and ashes, for in sackcloth is harshness and the prick of sin; and the ashes, moreover, display the dust of death.”
In regard to ashes in connection with Lent, scholars have traced the origins of Lent to perhaps the beginning of the fifth century A.D. The earliest clearly datable rite directly associated with the opening day of Lent (as opposed to other occasions of public repentance and pastoral discipline) is AD 960, from a pastoral manual issued at Mainz, which became precedent for this practice. The practice had its Lenten origins in western Europe, rather than Rome. In the mediaeval era this practice became more standardized. In the 11th century the imposition of ashes for the beginning of Lent was commended by the bishop of Rome. Now it became to take shape as a cross-shaped mark made with ashes upon the forehead, and the words, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” recalling God’s words to Adam after the fall into sin.
Put in common terms, Luther’s approach to liturgical reform could be described as, “IF it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and any fixing that had to be done was determined according to the article of justification by grace through faith. This ceremonial conservatism would consequently shape and inform Lutheran theology and practice, and preserve the catholic heritage of the church among Lutherans, since they sought to be both “evangelical” and “catholic.” Liturgical scholar Frank Senn notes with regard to the imposition of ashes among Lutherans in the aftermath of the Reformation: “How and why the use of ashes fell out of Lutheran use is difficult to discern from the sources… [C]hurch orders don’t specifically say not to use ashes; they simply stopped giving direction for blessing and distributing them and eventually the pastors just stopped doing it.”
The primary concern of the Lutherans is the multiplication of sundry “blessings” upon “things” rather than “people” especially outside of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution. The primary concern wasn’t that Ashes or other items were wrong, but that they don’t need special “blessing ceremonies.” They didn’t want the clear gospel blessings obscured or confused by extra man-devised ceremonies that weren’t focused on salvation by grace through faith. And yet the Lutheran confessors steadfastly affirmed the maintenance and use of “accustomed rites” and customs and liturgical practices. Their critique of “human traditions” in no way implied abandonment of good catholic liturgical practice and ceremonies that did not confuse Law and Gospel. Rather, because of the clear confession of justification by traditional liturgical forms were best suited than newly made-up orders. Ceremonies were to teach the faith and inspire reverence in God’s House, especially during the Divine Service.
USING ASHES TODAY
In his Pastoral Theology, C.F.W. Walther, first LCMS president, states that when it comes to ceremonies that are neither commanded nor forbidden (mitteldinge), what at one time and place may be forbidden may at other times be used once again. Therefore, is it possible for Lutherans to once again recover the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday? From their use in Scripture, once must certainly conclude that the impositions of ashes is neither commanded nor forbidden and we are free to use such to teach the faith.
The imposition of ashes slipped out of Lutheran usage without much specific reflection or writing on the matter. Certainly Lutherans have gladly retained many other rites and ceremonies inherited from our rightful catholic heritage and interpreted them “in an evangelical way.” Certainly we do not need to bring along the “baggage” of what was problematic in the Roman Catholic use of ashes. For instance, Luther commends in many places the use of the sign of the cross, something that dates back to the early church. The abuse of a practice or ceremony does not invalidate its proper use. Just because something can be misunderstood or abused doesn’t mean it should be abandoned or forbidden.
The imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday certainly makes better sense of the day’s actual name. Not using ashes on Ash Wednesday (Aschenmittwoch) makes about as much sense as not celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. The words of the rite are certainly drawn from Scripture (Genesis 3:19), and ashes are mentioned in numerous places in Scripture in connection with repentance – an outward sign of the inward fact. Afterall, our mortality (death) is a result of original sin, and the only way through death to life is by death to self and selfishness (sin as being “curved in toward one’s self”) that repentance brings. In this way, the imposing of ashes can teach of Christ and His benefits given in Baptism, as well as in Confession and Absolution. The mark of the cross with the ashes suggests a correlation between the penitential character of Lent (and Ash Wednesday) and the Lutheran focus on the passion of Christ. The ashes are a reminder of the death sentence upon mankind since Adam and Eve. By allowing this ceremony, we confess our agreement with God’s truthful verdict upon sin. Yet the ashes, in the shape of the cross, show that our sin is covered and atoned-for by the death of the Son of God. Of course, all this must be taught repeatedly.
The imposition of ashes is neither commanded nor forbidden in its current usage but it does have meaning derived from biblical usages in times past. The imposition ashes is a symbolic reminder of important facts of our existence if understood properly. But it is not obligatory, not a sacrament, and not a good work that merits blessings nor salvation. Is is a ceremony and catechetical reminder with historic continuity with Christians gone before us. Our practice as confessional Lutherans is not based upon being “not Catholic” but affirming positively our confession while carefully distinguishing from errors, misunderstandings.