Ash Wednesday

Pastor Karl Weber wrote this for his March 2012 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.]

2 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday

  1. This working definition of Pietism is dangerously simplistic. Pietism is not simply wanting to be seen by others. I don’t know where such a definition came from. Pietism is much better characterized by judging one’s own faithfulness by one’s personal response to spiritual stimuli rather than on the objective truth and clarity of God’s word. The entire argument of this brief article is a great example, therefore, of Pietism since it finds the value of the imposition of ashes entirely in the subjectively meaningful reminder that one perceives, with no command in Scripture or promise of actual blessing. Who am I to say it has no value when so many assure me how meaningful it is to them. Therefore we are free to expect it to become a ubiquitous standard of Christian piety embraced by Lutherans? Meanwhile, pastors who gladly introduce this sentimental rite continue to choose Lift High the Cross and Onward Christian Soldiers instead of good Lutheran chorales. This is a more important front in the battle against the forces that undermine Lutheran culture and piety. Pardon the possibly false dichotomy. But if we’re going to blame Pietism for the abandonment of the imposition of ashes (which is patently false), both a clearer understanding of Pietism itself and a more zealous and articulate defense of actual piety is necessary.

    The imposition of ashes is not historically Lutheran. No argument is needed. It simply isn’t. (Like the definition of Pietism, I don’t know where this baseless assertion came from.) And it’s very silly to suggest otherwise. It’s not true. And it is a disrespectful thing to suggest, considering how many of our Lutheran forebears refused the practice, if they even knew about it. With no historical basis, we just accuse them who kept and bequeathed such treasures as we have in the Common Service and our repertoire of Lutheran chorales of being pietists? This is wrong and betrays ingratitude. To link the imposition of ashes to a lost heritage along the lines of the sign of the cross is also patently absurd, especially since this latter practice is intrinsically private while the former is necessarily ritually public and must be facilitated by an organized introduction of the rite that excludes and draws attention to those who would discreetly decline it (regardless of how nice you are about it). To link such a ritual to more frequent Communion is also very inappropriate. It is another proof of Pietism here –– as though the value of more frequent Communion were determined by the perceived meaning that one derives from it rather than the clear and ugent promise of our Lord. Unfortunately, I fear much of the success of increasing more frequent participation in the Sacrament owes itself to this. Pietism is dangerous. It undermines the surety of faith in order to favor the uncertainty of spiritual self-awareness. Recognizing a more thorough evil in Pietism beyond mere showiness is vital if we are to avoid the real danger this article leads folks into. But at least the end result of more frequent Communion (even if motives are not necessarily purely holy at first) is that God’s gracious promise and pledge might nonetheless by God’s grace strengthen faith and mortify sanctimony. The same certainly cannot be asserted of ashes.

    The imposition of ashes is a sentimental practice that recent Lutherans inherited from the pope and are now convinced is a visible indication of Confessional Lutheranism and reverent worship. But what folks are convinced of is neither historically nor currently accurate. Its dangers and hokeyness far outweigh whatever benefit people find in it.

  2. As regards the possible false dichotomy, I know of course that this website and its authors do a consistent and valiant job of defending reverent worship and, inasmuch as they especially defend pure Lutheran doctrine, Lutheran piety. I don’t want to tell people it’s wrong to do the ashes. But it strikes me as extremely unhelpful and distracting to expend any steam on encouraging and promoting wider use. Without implying any motives at all (because I sincerely don’t suspect most of your motives) the practice is and has been needlessly divisive. My 40¢.

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