Great Stuff Found on the Web — Ash Wednesday by Pastor Karl Weber

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.[1]

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,
Pastor Weber

[1] 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.]

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,, 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.


Great Stuff Found on the Web — Ash Wednesday by Pastor Karl Weber — 11 Comments

  1. Where does Pr. Weber get the idea that the imposition of ashes is historically Lutheran? I do not remember any Lutherans doing it when I was a child. (I was born in 1952.) I think it is a recent innovation.

    I do not question Pr. Weber’s motives, but his argument remains unconvincing to me. I used to participate and just thought of it as an LCMS thing. I even tried to help my pastor burn some palm branches from the previous year (it didn’t work very well and the next year we ordered pre-made ashes).

    The year we didn’t have an Ash Wednesday service (our vacancy pastor wasn’t able to make it), I went to Pr. Bill Cwirla’s church and was surprised to see that he didn’t do it. He explained why and that explanation seems pretty convincing to me. For a few years after that at my own congregation, I participated, but seeing what the Scripture said, I immediately washed them off after the service. Now I don’t participate at all. My pastor (who is a good friend of Pr. Cwirla’s) is thinking of discontinuing the practice at our congregation because he’s having a hard time reconciling it in his mind with the Scripture just quoted (and is one of the readings).

    Martin Chemnitz speaks disparagingly about the practice. “Of these spectacles of public penitence, nothing now remains in the papal church save a certain shadow or, that I may speak more truly, a game and a joke. At the beginning of Lent they scatter ashes on their heads …”

    Pr. Cwirla used a longer quote than that and you can read it and the rest of Pr. Cwirla’s explanation at at

    See also:

    “However, Lutherans at the time of the Reformation did not choose to retain the Imposition of Ashes. The reasons for this are not entirely clear since there is very little written for or against this practice by Luther and his colleagues. Thus, although Lutherans began Lent with Ash Wednesday, they did not retain the use of ashes as part of their Ash Wednesday order of service.”

    It may not be clear to the person that wrote that article for the LCMS website, but maybe he didn’t read what Chemnitz wrote about it.

  2. @Stan Slonkosky #1
    It’s interesting that my Roman Catholic friends tell me everyone shows up to church on Ash Wednesday (even more than on Christmas and Easter) to parade the ashes on their foreheads as a show of outward piety. No doubt Lutherans (including myself) are guilty of the same thing too. Still, I would guess it’s not the external mark that’s the bad thing. It’s what comes out of the man, Pharisaical hypocrisy, pride, and vanity, that is unclean, not the ashes imposed on his forehead. Then again, I’m just a college student, so perhaps my view of the line between good visible reminder and hypocritical ritualism is a bit off.

  3. Quoting more from Pr. Cwirla:

    It isn’t my office to put soot on your foreheads, but to wash you clean of sin and death with the bloodied words of Jesus. It isn’t my office as a representative of Jesus Christ to put the mark of death on you. I’m an “evangelist,” a proclaimer of “good news,” Gospel, and a smudge of death is not good news.

    Now don’t get me wrong here. Our new hymnal makes provision of ashes under a “may” rubric, which means we’re free not to do it. (Thank God for “may” rubrics!) And I’m not going to condemn anyone for a symbolic gesture, but I reserve the right to examine a bit deeper what I show the world about our faith in Christ.

    Pr. Cwirla’s explanation simply makes more sense to me than Pr. Weber’s.

  4. Great article. It is a part of our church year, which really adds a lot as we go into the Lent season.

    Praise God for the symbols that we use which remind us of our woeful condition and our deep need for the forgiveness of our sins only found in Christ.

    As the article states, Ash Wednesday leads us into the Lent season (five weeks). What a great way to prepare for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday (Tenebrae Serice), and in the culmination of Easter Sunday.

    How barren, for churches to celebrate such days as the fourth of July, Fathers day, etc., and not the Church year calendar, which really enhances our worship of Christ!

  5. @Stan Slonkosky #3
    Actually, I think the pastor really is supposed to bring a message of death, at least at first. What does the Law do but kill us? Then he brings the Gospel, which raises us again. A smudge of death might be just the thing to knock those in carnal security from their sleep. The Law is a very good thing. It does not save, but it is a very good thing.

    Here’s an idea. Perhaps we should add washing as part of the ritual. What a reminder of Holy Baptism that would be! That would be both Law (ashes) and Gospel (washing), and it would completely remove the hypocritical look-at-my-ashes aspect of the ritual.

  6. Ash Wednesday is a great day in our Church Year calendar. One of the great things about our Lutheran tradition (along with being Biblical, historical, confessional and liturgical) are the symbols that we use to point us to the great truths that are found in the Scriptures.

    However, we need to be mindful of the fact that the placing of ashes on ones forehead by the pastor is a practice that is considered an adiaphora.

    I happen to believe that it is a great symbol to use and that it really prepares my mind for the Lent season. I am grateful that our pastor chooses to do it.

  7. @Lloyd I. Cadle #6

    I agree with Lloyd on this one — I am thankful that this is an adiaphora.

    I moved to a church that had the practice, and I frankly thought it was a little silly and didn’t participate in it. I’ve since moved to another church which never done this in the past; last year was the first year that I remember them having the option.

    It really helped me last year in preparing for the season of Lent, so I greatly appreciate the fact that my Pastors put in the effort to do this.

  8. I had never heard of this quote from Chemnitz. (Thanks, Stan (# 1).) However, I am not troubled by our practice of ashes. My own church holds Ash Wednesday as an evening service, so we mostly do not spend the afternoon with the mark on our foreheads. On occasion I will be unable to attend our evening service, so I have gone a few times to a parish near my office for their noontime Ash Wednesday service. On those occasions I have found the mark to be a conversation starter. I work in a Southern city, where there are few churches who follow the liturgical calendar, but lots of Christians from Baptist, Pentecostal, and “Non-denominational” or independent “Bible Churches.” Conversations about the Imposition of the Ashes with these colleagues have been pleasant and productive discussions, leading in to the Gospel and our different understandings of justification. Once, this conversation played out within earshot of an agnostic co-worker, who joined in with some questions (I am hopeful that seeds planted will bear fruit, but this guy transferred away and we are only in contact via strictly-business e-mails now.)
    So, I am in favor of this practice, based on my own experience.

  9. @Stan Slonkosky #1
    Where does Pr. Weber get the idea that the imposition of ashes is historically Lutheran? I do not remember any Lutherans doing it when I was a child. (I was born in 1952.) I think it is a recent innovation.

    Where do people get the idea that Lutheran history began with what they can remember!?
    I see WNDITWB [post-1960 or later] and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!

    [If it’s “we never had a sung service, so chanting isn’t Lutheran”, I want to cry! We missed a lot that our German grandparents had.]

    @Lloyd I. Cadle #4
    How barren, for churches to celebrate such days as the fourth of July, Fathers day, etc., and not the Church year calendar,

    I am grateful that our Pastors stick pretty closely to the church year!
    [Now that we have LSB we may have paraments colors for a “saint’s day” listed in it.]
    But secular observances stay that way. Mothers’ and Fathers’ day may get a mention in the prayers but not much more. Alleluia!

    I have a friend who values the practice of imposing ashes because (for one thing) he, with his youth group, helped his Pastor burn the previous year’s palm branches and make the ashes when he was young.

  10. @Stan Slonkosky #3
    I’m an “evangelist,” a proclaimer of “good news,” Gospel, and a smudge of death is not good news. –Pr. Cwirla

    That “smudge of death” remains to be passed through on our way to resurrection. In my youth, everyone knew this. The whole congregation attended funerals and passed by the open casket, including children of all ages.
    A generation which seldom attends a funeral (my second son left his family at home for his brother’s service… and I saw no other children there except the Scout troop honoring their leader) might need to be reminded of the facts. Once a year is not too often.

  11. I embrace this practice with joyful penetance. The fact that it is adiaphora means you don’t have to. That’s the freedom we have as Christians.
    This practice is so valuable because, like other visible things in the Church, it teaches. Here it proclaims Law AND Gospel, without mixing (perhaps I should say ‘confusing’) the two. The ash to remind us of our sin, the cross to remind us that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ and the salvation He won for us on the Cross.
    Whether a cross is seen on your forehead or on a chain shouldn’t matter; this tells us nothing of the person’s heart.
    Yes. It will get a second or third look in a way that a crucifix may not. Is that a bad thing? If you are seen with your ashes at work or in town and someone asks you about it, is that not a perfect chance to present the Gospel? The question you have to ask yourself is who are you doing it for; you or your neighbor?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.