We’re all familiar with these words spoken at the committal of a deceased loved one. But Ash Wednesday isn’t about a funeral.
This discussion by Rev. Robert Eickmann may shed some light on what it IS about. If it raises questions, or doesn’t address the ones you already have, he’ll be happy to explore further with you. Regardless of that, you are welcome to join us at Prince of Peace at 7pm on Ash Wednesday…..
Ash Wednesday Ashes
As part of our worship on Ash Wednesday, we have the opportunity to receive “the imposition of ashes” upon our foreheads. This practice always raises some questions about both the purpose and the practice which I will attempt to answer.
The root of this practice is full of vivid symbolism. First, we are reminded that our creation is from the dust of the earth. In the beginning God formed our first parent Adam from the dust of the ground. God then breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living soul. Second, because of sin, we will return to the dust of the ground. As God told Adam, after he had sinned, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of this in the words, “Earth to earth, Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust” as we commit the body of those who have died to the earth.
Several times in the Old Testament mourning and lamenting and especially repentance are described in terms of “sack cloth and ashes.” Jesus also spoke of an outward expression of repentance in terms “sack cloth and ashes.” (Matt. 11:21)
“The imposition of ashes” upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday fell out of practice among Lutherans, for a time because of the thinking that it was “too Roman Catholic.” It is sad that we have denied ourselves such rich symbolism due to fear and misunderstanding. To clear up some of that misunderstanding please allow me to address some of the common questions that people have asked.
Do I have to receive the ashes?
Having the imposition of ashes is a part of our Christian freedom. They are offered simply as an opportunity for you. If they will assist you in your Lenten worship, please, receive them. If they will not, please, feel comfortable in not having the ashes imposed.
Are the ashes blessed? Do they give a blessing?
No, on both counts. The ashes are from palm branches used in worship on Palm Sunday. They are simply a physical symbol for us to use. Unlike the water in Holy Baptism and the bread and wine in Holy Communion there is no command, no promise, no Sacrament connected with the imposition of the ashes.
How long do I need to leave the ashes on?
You may wash the ashes off at any time. Again, this is also a matter of Christian freedom. When you wash the ashes off, remind yourself of your Baptism. Remember how in water of Baptism sin and death were washed away, not just ash washed from our forehead.
What about Jesus’ words “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. …But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others Matthew 6:16-18
As with all outward signs of faith, it is an issue of motivation. Do we do the outward act so that we “may be seen by others” or from our spiritual need? Do we go to church, bow our heads to pray, wear a cross, or wear ashes on our forehead because of our relationship with Jesus? Or do we do these things so that people will notice? If you want the ashes so that you will be seen by others, you should not receive them.
What if I feel uncomfortable about receiving the ashes?
Then don’t receive the ashes. No one ought to feel uncomfortable. More importantly, no one will be judged whether they receive the ashes or not. We want to provide this opportunity for those who desire the imposing of ashes as part of their Lenten worship. The is purely an act of personal devotion.
What if I still have questions?
If you still have questions, about this or any other topic, please talk to Pastor Eickmann. In our life together as a congregation, we care for all our members and want all to feel comfortable and informed about what we do.