Pastor Karl Weber wrote this for his March newsletter and gives his permission to share it wherever. Feel free to copy it or modify it for your own newsletters if it’s not too late, or sending it to friends. BJS has posted articles on previous Ash Wednesdays in 2010 and 2009.
Greetings in Christ Jesus!
Ash Wednesday will soon be here. As in past years the imposition of ashes will be offered to those who so desire. In our age of Botox and our culture’s pursuit of perpetual youth ashes made in the sign of the holy cross + are a good reminder we are mortal; and in Christ that is ok; we will live.
Every now and then I am asked about the use of ashes in light of what the Holy Spirit says through St. Matthew.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:16-17).
I invite good questions such as this for it shows we are still learning and that is a good thing.
Regarding the use of ashes the key in the passage would be “… that their fasting may be seen by others” (16). That is, if one is interested in showing others their piety, he already has his reward. In fact, that’s what Pietism is. But Jesus’ remarks here ought not be construed as a proscription against any use of ashes, any more than “go to your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) could be taken to mean that we ought not worship and pray together in church.
Some people go to church for the express purpose of being seen. To use the words of our Lord, they do so, so they “… may be seen by others” (16). Jesus responds saying they ought “… not be seen by others” (v. 18). Does that mean they should not go to church? Not at all! The corrective is we go to church but not for the purpose of being seen by others. We go to church to receive the forgiveness of our sins.
What would Jesus say if a person had their babies baptized in order to be in the lime-light? Or, to use the words of our Lord, so they “… may be seen by others” (16). Jesus would tell them the baptizing of their babies ought “… not be seen by others” (18). Does that mean we ought not have our babies baptized? Hardly—that would a terrible corrective. The corrective is to understand we have our babies baptized to forgive their sins, not so they may be paraded about in front of others.
As said earlier, to do things to win the praise of people is called Pietism. And when you have the praise of people you have your reward. It’s as simple as that. We may do the exact same thing as people who look for the praise of men. The motive is the key. What we do ought to be in conformity with Jesus’ will and receiving of Jesus’ offered gifts. The imposition of ashes upon the forehead reminds us of our sin and mortality as we enter the holy season of Lent. Ashes made in the sign of the cross proclaim that our hope is not in some medical breakthrough rivaling some fountain of youth.
The Scriptures frequently proclaim the use or imposition of ashes:
- … daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes… (Jer 6:26).
- … and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes;… (Eze 27:30).
- The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes… (Jonah 3:6).
And then from Jesus himself:
- Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Mt 11:21).
Though the imposition of ashes may be new to some people, much like making the sign of the cross + as Martin Luther encourages, or use of a crucifix, or even every Sunday Communion is new for some; it is Biblical and historically it is Lutheran.
But most importantly it’s helpful. When the ash mark sits on our forehead we feel marked because, well, we are marked. The ashes designate that we are real sinners and this is something the world refuses to hear. It’s embarrassing to go around town that way on Ash Wednesday, but that’s the point, isn’t it. And then, at the end of the day, do exactly what Jesus says: wash your face.
The prophet Ezekiel placed a mark upon the foreheads of the faithful in his day so that they lived (Eze 9:4). In addition to marking us as sinners, ashes made in the sign of the + cross proclaim that our hope and confidence rest in Christ the crucified who rose on the third day for the forgiveness of our sins. And because of this we live!
Blessing in Christ,
 Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt contributed guidance in the writing of this newsletter article. [Burnell Eckardt is the Pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Kewanee, IL., and is the editor-in-chief of Gottesdienst: the Journal of Lutheran Liturgy since 1995.]