Intrepid Lutherans — Imposition of Ashes

I found this over on Intrepid Lutherans, the WELS blog. Here is a letter from a pastor talking the Imposition of Ashes at his church on Ash Wednesday


Dear Christian Friends,

The Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent marks the beginning of this season of the Church Year. Lent is the Christian’s forty-day journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The forty days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Moses’ stay on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law, Elijah’s fast on his way to the mountain of God, and Jesus’ forty-day fast at the beginning of His ministry, among others. The forty days are counted backward from Resurrection Sunday. Since all regular Sunday worship services are an observance of Christ’s resurrection, and thus occasions for reverent joy, the Sundays during this period are not counted in the forty days of more somber remembrance of Christ’s Passion. This also explains why this season begins on a Wednesday.

In addition, for more than nineteen centuries the Christian believer’s Lenten journey has begun with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance through the placing of ashes on one’s head (Genesis 18:27, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). Ashes are a sign of spiritual cleansing, as in the Rite of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:17), in which the ashes of the calf, when mixed with water, had the ceremonial effect of purifying the sinner. (Hebrews 9:13). Thus, the first New Testament believers adopted the use of ashes as a symbol of sorrow and repentance over sin. This has been the normal practice of the Christian Church from the First Century onward.

It is this ancient practice of placing ashes on the heads of the faithful that gives Ash Wednesday its name. The ashes are a strong reminder of the need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and the redeeming grace of Christ. Indeed, we remember well the words from the Christian burial service: “. . . earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . . ;” words that will someday be spoken over us all.

The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusive practice of the Roman church. It was already being practiced hundreds of years before the church of Rome gained its current prominence. Today it is observed by faithful Believers in many Christian churches throughout the world.

Thus, Trinity Orthodox Lutheran Church in Sierra Vista has incorporated the practice of “The Imposition of Ashes” into its observance of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

The ashes for this ceremony are taken from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These palms are gathered, burned, and then sifted, and placed in a shallow dish for the imposition. After a brief introduction, the minister marks a cross of ashes on each person’s forehead as they stand or kneel at the entrance to the church’s altar area.

At 6 AM on Ash Wednesday, during the Noon hour, and again that evening, about fifteen minutes before the Communion Service, people are invited to the Sanctuary for the Imposition of Ashes. This ceremony is intended as a meaningful and useful physical aid in each individual believer’s spiritual preparation for and observance of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, Holy Week, and ultimately the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. If there are any questions about The Imposition of Ashes, please do not hesitate to ask.

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

Your shepherd under Christ,

Pastor Spencer


For an Ash Wednesday service and prayers, see Intrepid Lutherans.

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.


Intrepid Lutherans — Imposition of Ashes — 10 Comments

  1. What an absolute shocker to see in the February 2012 issue of the WELS magazine Forward in Christ a positive article about the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday complete with cover photo illustrating the rite!

    Not so much excitement about making the sign of the cross, though, in the June 2011 issue:

  2. Here’s another article on the use of ashes, this one from a 2007 blog of a Missouri Synod pastor, the Rev. William M. Cwirla, “Why We Don’t Do Ashes on Ash Wednesday.” It provides some historical perspectives. One quote from Rev. Cwirla’s article:

    “I guess you could say one reason we don’t do ashes on Ash Wednesday is that we’re not into contemporary worship around here. But there are better reasons.”

  3. For the past several years we have used an idea garnered from the Worship the Lord newsletter of the WELS. Every year, one of our members makes a banner out of burlap. Then we have a procession of two lines come to the front of the church to place the sign of the cross in ashes upon the banner.

    The first year we did it, people were pretty hesitant and not everyone participated. But now, the whole congregation comes forward to make the sign of the cross symbolizing their repentance and Christ’s forgivenss in that little ashen cross.

    The imposition of ashes takes about 15 minutes for everyone to go through. The choir is singing the Penitential or Hallel Psalms during the imposition. Then the banner is hung on the wall for the rest of Lent as we see 160 crosses from 4 year-olds to 94 year-olds.

    Instead of having an “ash-less Wednesday,” like I had when growing up, our people have come to really appreciate the solemn repentance and sorrow over sin expressed by ashes and sackcloth.

  4. My problem with imposition of ashes is that it is a practice that is nowhere mandated in Scripture and is not as ancient and widespread as Pastor Spencer (the author of the article) would like us to believe. The verses he quotes are all Old Testament (with one exception) and they are all descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In the ceremony of the red heifer, the ashes are used in the water of purification and the use of the ashes is actually tied more to the assurance of forgiveness rather than a symbol of repentance. Nowehere in the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are the people commanded to put ashes on themselves as a means of repentance. The incidents where we see people covering themselves with ashes are either a) a spontaneous act done by someone (and in many cases, the ashes were more symbolic of sorrow over misfortune than they were of sorrow over sin — Job is a case in point), b) a similar type of request made by a prophet for a specific time of repentance (Isaiah even specifically said that a mere outward application of ashes didn’t equal true repentance) or c) something commanded by rulers (either from Israel or from heathen nations) for a specific time of repentance or mourning over national tragedy.

    The earliest verifiable reference to the imposition of ashes the way we think of it isn’t found in the church until 960. As far as we know, it was used only used for those who were entering into penitential orders (and they can only find references to that dating back to about 600). This was not the common practice of the church the way that Pastor Spencer claims it was. By the time that it was put into practice, the Roman church was well on its way to becoming a works centered church. In my opinion, this is a Catholic and not a catholic practice.

    I think it CAN be used correctly, but I think you have to explain the living daylights out of it so that the people participating in it in our churches don’t get the wrong idea. This can so easily be misconstrued as something WE are doing to bring about our forgiveness. It can also set up a tier system in our churches with those who participate in the imposition thinking that they are somehow more sanctified by their participation in this rite.

    Just my two cents.

    Oh, and I wonder if Greg Jackson will be imposing ashes through the computer screen on Ash Wednesday. Sorry, that’s just me being snarky.

  5. @Joel Lillo #4

    Joel said, “I think you have to explain the living daylights out of it”

    That was not my experience. Then again, most of the people I serve have not been trained by previous pastors to have a negative knee-jerk reaction to anything that hints of Roman Catholicism (I wish they had for American Evangelical practices though). When we offer and receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, participation in the rite is voluntary. Some do not take part in it. And no one looks down on anyone else for either taking part in it or not taking part in it. No one is bragging. No one is working their way into heaven. No one confuses it with receiving Holy Communion. We come with correct motives for what the rite intends to teach. And it’s clear in our setting that the gospel predominates. It’s a simple gesture to teach a profound mystery.

  6. In Chapter IX, “Concerning the Outward Manifestations by Which This Second Repentance is to Be Accompanied,” of his book, De Poenitentia [On Repentance],” Tertullian wrote:

    “With regard also to the very dress and food, it [exomologesis] commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain—not for the stomach’s sake, to wit, but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God’s dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God). All this exomologesis (does), that it may enhance repentance; may honour God by its fear of the (incurred) danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God’s indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) expunge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you.”

    Jean, is this the reference for the basis of the practice you are referring to, or is there some other reference from Tertullian that your sources indicate?

    The “Second Repentance” is distinguished from the “First Repentance” of Baptism. Following the public penance of “sackcloth and ashes” of exomologesis the repentant would be allowed to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Tertullian doesn’t sound very Lutheran in this section.

  7. The statement made on several Lutheran websites/bulletin inserts is this: “The church father Tertullian (AD 160-215) writes of the practice as a public expression of repentance and of our human frailty that stands in need of Christ.”

    No source back to Tertullian’s writings were mentioned, however.

  8. It is a bad habit, for which even Lutherans need to correct themselves, of appealing on websites and bulletin inserts to the authority of early church writings (other than Scripture) without specific reference, as if the mere mention of the writer’s name would be sufficient to convince a reader. Regarding the imposition of ashes, Tertullian is typically mentioned because of another one of his writings.

    Following a successful military campaign, Roman soldiers were given a laurel crown of victory, which they wore when accepting their monetary rewards. At the start of the third century, a Roman soldier, who was a Christian, refused to wear the crown, and was court-martialled and executed. Tertullian wrote “De Corona militis” [On the military crown], in defense of the Christian soldier’s refusal to wear the crown. In Part III Tertullian mentions Christians marking their forehead with the sign of the cross.

    But consider Tertullian’s reasoning in this excerpt from Parts II-IV:

    II. … It is easy moreover to ask on the instant where it is written that we may not be crowned. But where is it written that we may be crowned? for they who demand the support of Scripture on the other side, already judge that their own side also ought to have the support of Scripture. For if it shall be said that we may be crowned because Scripture forbiddeth it not, it may be equally retorted that we may not be crowned, because Scripture commandeth it not. What shall Religion do? shall it admit both, because neither is forbidden? or refuse both, because neither is commanded? But (thou wilt say) that which is not forbidden is freely permitted. Nay, but that is forbidden, which is not freely permitted.

    III. And how long shall we go on, sawing backwards and forwards upon this line, when we have an old established observance, which, in preventing the question, hath decided it? If no Scripture hath determined this, assuredly custom hath confirmed it, which, doubtless, hath been derived from tradition. For how can a thing be used unless it be first delivered to us? But, thou sayest, even where tradition is pleaded, written authority ought to be required. Wherefore let us enquire whether none, save a written tradition, ought to be received. Certainly we shall deny that it ought to be received, if there be no precedents to determine the contrary in other observances, which, without any Scripture document, we defend on the ground of tradition alone, and by the supports of consequent custom. In fact, to begin with Baptism, when we are about to come to the water, in the same place, but at a somewhat earlier time, we do in the Church testify, under the hand of a chief minister, that we renounce the Devil and his pomp and his angels. Then are we thrice dipped, pledging ourselves to something more than the Lord hath prescribed in the Gospel: then, some undertaking the charge of us, we first taste a mixture of honey and milk, and from that day we abstain for a whole week from our daily washing. The Sacrament of the Eucharist, commanded by the Lord at the time of supper, and to all, we receive even at our meetings before day-break, and from the hands of no others than the heads of the Church. We offer, on one day every year, oblations for the dead as birth-day honours. On the Lord’s day we account it unlawful to fast or to worship upon the knees. We enjoy the same freedom from Easter Day even unto Pentecost. We feel pained if any of the wine, or even of our bread, be spilled upon the ground. In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.

    IV. For these and such like rules if thou requirest a law in the Scriptures, thou shalt find none. Tradition will be pleaded to thee as originating them, custom as confirming them, and faith as observing them…

    Giving the baggage of Tertullian’s attack on Sola Scripture, it is more easily seen why Lutherans leave participation in the imposition of ashes to Christian liberty.

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.