Turning “Have To” Into “Get To”, by Dan at Necessary Roughness

Dan at Necessary Roughness has a post talking about Ash Wednesday and our attitudes towards this season.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. — Genesis 3:19

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. My church will be imposing ashes this evening.

Lent comes with significant changes in the rituals of some: forgoing meat on Fridays, imposition, not singing Alleluia in the liturgy or the hymns during worship.

The temptation exists that such behaviors should be enforced upon Christians for their own good. That would be the easy way to encourage such behaviors, but that’s the way of the curse. It’s like telling kids that they have to eat their meal, not because doing so will help them stay alert or grow properly, but because you told them to eat.

Nor should any practices be allowed to imply that one is holier than another. The point of many of our rituals is to remind us that we are in fact not holier or better than our neighbors. Unless a pastor can paint a cross on a forehead with the skill of a tattoo artist, ashes do not make anyone more attractive.

Ash WednesdayThe Church offers practices not to enforce its authority but to tie people back to the Word and to their God. Anyone can burn a palm branch and mark their foreheads, but we also quote the latter half of Genesis 3:19: “Remember, O man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Anyone can choose to eat less — I, too — but we should remember the Word in doing so: “The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Ps. 145:15-16, as found in Luther’s Small Catechism). God has chosen to communicate to us through his word, and having His word in what we believe and think draws us closer to Him.

Thus our rituals move from having an appearance of “have to” to a motivation of “get to.” It is good that we acknowledge our dependence on God in this world where we do not control very much ourselves. We trust in God not only for our food but for our salvation. He provides all these things, both through our neighbor and through Christ crucified and resurrected.

Fast, hold back the alleluias, mark your foreheads, confess your sinfulness in humble piety and receive absolution, et cetera, all in Christian freedom paid for by the Word made flesh. Lent is a gift.

Read more from Dan at http://necessaryRoughness.org.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Turning “Have To” Into “Get To”, by Dan at Necessary Roughness — 9 Comments

  1. That is very well put Dan.

    Here is something that the Rev. Dr. Scott Bruzek wrote on the matter a few years ago. It is so good that I was tempted to make it my sermon this morning and tonight. (Instead I wrote a sermon based on the Joel reading – OT Joel, not “Osteen” 🙂 )

    Today, with the beginning of Lent, come the ashes. This soot applied to foreheads on the first day of the purple season — Ash Wednesday — can be a rich symbol.

    It is a gift of the Middle Ages, when Christians sorry for their sins came to the church as Lent began, barefoot and clad in rough cloth. After the prayers, ashes made from palms (whose leaves had been saved for almost a year from the previous Palm Sunday) were tossed into to the air or sprinkled on the head.

    The ashes mark our sin. They remind us that because we sin, we die, and dying we return to dust, to ash. With the ashes we confess what we already know about ourselves, wearing our sins upon our brow.

    The ashes went wrong when they were linked to penance — something we must do that makes us suffer, as if our suffering could earn us some forgiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is his suffering on the cross of Calvary that saves, and his alone. If the ashes infringe upon the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, then they must be put away. And so they were, falling out of use in many Lutheran churches.

    And yet there was a time, you many recall, when ashes were a substitute for soap B something for cleansing and renewal. Now that gets closer to the truth, for we are Christians and for us the last word is never sin, or death, or ash. The last word — the endpoint, the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 10:4) — the last word — God’s Yes! (2 Corinthians 1:20) God for us (Romans 5:8), the fullness of the Gospel — is Jesus Christ.

    And so if you come near the altar this Ash Wednesday, the ashes will be traced upon your skin where Name and water once graced you at baptism. They will be given to you in the sign of the cross, reminding you that you belong to Christ, that He alone forgives you, and that there is no penance you can do to save yourself, in part or in full. Free of charge, it is He who cleanses and renews you, He who saves you as a gift (Ephesians 2:1-10).

    The ashes mark our salvation. They remind us that because of Christ, we live, and living we return to life, to discipleship. With the ashes we confess what we already know about ourselves, wearing our salvation on our brow.

    This gift of ashes is a symbol, rich and deep, but nothing more. If you think that it will help your piety, your discipline, your rejoicing, your faith, then come to the front for ashes on this first Wednesday of the purple season. And, if you do not, or if you would simply like to pass it by this year, please do! Faith finds an aid — but not its ground — in this ancient custom. The only ground of faith and life is Christ.

    Always remember: with the ashes or without, you are free, as you are Christ’s. Happy Lent!

  2. “Thus our rituals move from having an appearance of ‘have to’ to a motivation of ‘get to.'”

    As the good Dr. Nagel would respond, “Riiight!”

    Each year we seem to get more and more of the talk about Lenten requirements such as the idea that if you wish to be a Christian you have to fast, it’s not optional, etc, running things in the way of the law. And you know where that gets you…

    No, we GET to do these things.

  3. And in a time where everything is taxed–and it is tax season–who wouldn’t want a free gift?
    It surprises me why there aren’t more Christians in this world sometimes.

  4. Thank you Norm Fisher and Pastor Rossow for your great articles on Ash Wednesday.

    We will be celebrating the ashes applied to our foreheards and the Lord’s Supper at St. Thomas, in both Goodyear and Phoenix, Arizona, our two campuses.

    Blessings to all my fellow Lutherans, on this special night!

    If you’re in the area, Soup supper is at 6:00.

  5. I just finished listening to Issues, Etc. Pastor Wilken had on Dr. Paul Grime, talking about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. Great program!

    Amazing, how silly American churches celebrate the 4th of July, Mother’s day, and Father’s day and the like.

    How blessed that we follow the Church year. It creates a lot of excitement for us Christians, as we focus on Christ and His Works and His righteousness which He imputes to us! We can see the active and passive obedience of Christ during this great church year.

  6. Pastor Rossow,

    Thanks for your comment (1). It caused me to reflect on our congregation’s practice of imposing ashes as we enter the nave.

    The reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return preceeds the invocation. For, in thename of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we were baptized. And, in Baptism, Christ washes away our sin and raises us daily to walk in newness of life. (Tit. 3:5, Eph. 2:6-7, Rom. 6:4)

    /Today, the ashes are gone. Yet, the evidence of our sinning remains. Still more prevalent is our Lord’s continuing promise of forgiveness as He daily recalls us to our Baptism.

  7. After reading Pr. Cwirla’s article at http://blog.higherthings.org/wcwirla/article/2543.htm a few years ago, I began to have doubts about the practice and thought it best to wash the ashes off as soon as the service was over. Last year, I noted that one verse (Matt. 6:16) from the Gospel reading seems to speak against such a practice and I decided I would no longer participate.

    Pr. Cwirla’s quote from Chemnitz certainly makes it appear that Lutherans did not impose ashes at the time of the Reformation. During my youth it was not done in any church I attended, though that was in a different synod, the ALC. I was away from anything Lutheran for about 3 decades, so my guess is that the earliest Lutherans started doing this was in the 1970s. I’d be interested in knowing when and why this started among Lutherans.

    I realize that the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is an adiaphoron.

  8. “During my youth it was not done in any church I attended, though that was in a different synod, the ALC.”

    Okay, it was not done in churches you attended, limited to one synod.

    “I was away from anything Lutheran for about 3 decades, so my guess is that the earliest Lutherans started doing this was in the 1970s.”

    How did churches that you attended in one synod morph into Lutherans in general?

    Another perspective can be found here:


  9. @Anon #8

    Your guess is essentially correct. A footnote to a paper I was reading last night says that the imposition of ashes was reintroduced in American Lutheran churches during the trial periods in the development of the LBW/LW. (Pfatteicher, Philip H., Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:… Minneapolis, Augsburg-Fortress, 1990)
    It is a custom among Christians dating back to the ninth century. That it has had periods of disuse among Lutherans is no reason to dismiss it.
    IMO, bringing back treasures of ritual and music from our Lutheran heritage would enrich our worship much more than duplicating what the people down the block are doing. this week (or did last decade).

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