Why We Don't Do Ashes On Ash Wednesday

Printed with permission from the author:
Rev. William Cwirla

People always ask me, “Are you going to do the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday?”  They know I’m one of those “liturgical types”, and we’re one of those “liturgical” churches whose attendance is flat because we don’t have a drum set in the chancel, so they figure we’re naturally going to be slinging the ashes on Ash Wednesday.  After all, what’s the point of having Ash Wednesday without ashes?

You may be surprised to learn that ashes are kind of a latecomer on the liturgical scene.  It used to be a private practice, something you did on your own, like fasting and other fine outward training.  It seems to have been the custom in Rhine region of Germany.  The Council of Benevento in 1091 decreed “on Ash Wednesday everyone, clergy and laity, men and women, will receive ashes.”  It took another two hundred years for the pope to catch on to the practice.  At the time of the Reformation, it was still kind of a novelty.   

The Lutheran reformer Martin Chemnitz wrote that these practices were the symbolic shell of what was once the system of public penance.  
“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, and afterward, they sing the things that formerly were chanted in public penitence, although they have none who repent publicly.  At Rome, a show is sometimes given of persons hired, who scourge themselves.  In the church at Halberstadt there is annually performed a play or farce as follows:  They bring a certain Raubaucus, whom they give the name of Adam, in dirty clothing, whom tat the beginning of Lent they solemnly cast out of the church, and although they feed him liberally, they command him as though starved by fasting and sad, to walk back and forth silently looking at the church from outside all during Lent, until on the day of the Lord’s Supper he is again brought into the church.   Thus the ancient penitence finally ended in plays or farces in the papal church.” (Examination, IV.209, for those of you who insist on footnotes)
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.

Hear the prophet, Joel:  
“Yet even now,” declare the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, not your garments.  Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
Why no ashes on Ash Wednesday?  Ashes were an OT sign of mourning.  Ashes went along with scratchy, burlap clothing.  Sackcloth and ashes.  You piled ashes on your head and dressed in sackcloth to show everyone around you that you were laid low in the dust.  Ashes were not something someone else put on you, they were something you put on yourself as a sign of your own grief and death.  “Dust you are and to dust, you will return.”  Adam was the man of dust, and by his fault, his own fault, his own most grievous fault, he was headed back to the dust in death.

Sin is dirty business.  It is not simply skin deep, like a topical application of greasy palm ashes.  It goes to the core of our soul as an inherited, systemic disease.  A topical treatment won’t cure it, any more than a dab of ointment and a bandaid can cure cancer.

“Rend your hearts, not your garments,” God says.  Symbolic gestures just won’t cut it when it comes to repentance.  Symbols are whatever we say they ar;, they run under our control, which is the way our sinful self likes it.  The Lord’s sacraments are under His control, His mandate, and institution, and they actually are what they say they are, even if they don’t look like it or we don’t feel like it.  Baptism isn’t a symbol of rebirth, it actually is your rebirth.  The Lord’s Supper isn’t a symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood as food and drink, it actually is that.  Holy Absolution isn’t a symbolic gesture of forgiveness, it actually is forgiveness.  You actually are forgiven as those absolving words enter your ears and perfuse your mind and heart.

Words cut straight to the heart.  God’s Word, that two-edged sword of the Law and the Gospel cut through to the heart, accusing and acquitting, afflicting and comforting, killing and making alive.  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.

I suppose if we wanted to get the symbolism right, we would be smudging our own faces, and not just with a little stylish dab.  And then you’d come and stand before me and I would stick my hand in the baptismal font and wipe away all that grime and dirt “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And if you stop and think about it, we did precisely that earlier in the evening.  You confessed your sin and death, having stared into the mirror of the Law.  And then you stood before me as Christ’s called and ordained representative, and I absolved you, which means that Christ Himself wiped away the stain of your sin and death. 

We deal in what is real.  You have a real death.  You are dust, and you are going to dust, and there is nothing you can do about it.  Deal with it.  Medicine can’t save you, good works can’t save you, you can’t save you.  “Dust you are and to dust you will return.”  You don’t need a soiled forehead to remind you of that.  Just take a look in a mirror, a plain ordinary mirror, and see the creases, the lines, the grey hair, the death at work in you.  Look in the mirror of the Law, and see the idolatry, rebellion, murder, immorality, greed, lies, hatred, slander reflected back at you.  Rend your hearts, not your garments.

It is heart-rending, what sin does to us.  It destroys our homes, our marriages, our lives.  It divides us from God and from each other.  It turns us inward on ourselves, isolating us in our own narcissism, binding us in a self-styled prison of lust and anger and lies.  It grinds us down to death and the grave.  And if that doesn’t break your heart, that’s even more heartbreaking, to consider how callous and hardened our hearts become under the constant abrasion of sin.

Why don’t we do ashes on Ash Wednesday?  Because the church is supposed to be an embassy of good news, a place where sinners can die a blessed death and live forever, a refuge for the weary beaten down by the law, a place where the soil and soot of Adam’s sin and our own can be washed away and we can live our lives by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself up for us.  We face death all day long.  We know that.  We feel it.  You almost don’t need to be told it.  And the last thing you need is something more to do.

That’s not to say that the Christian life doesn’t have a bit of discipline to it.  We are at the beginning of Lent, and Lent is a time of self-discipline, like returning to the gym after a flabby winter.  Jesus had a few things to say about public displays of piety – prayer, alms-giving, fasting.  And you heard Him say, “Do not do these things to be seen by men; rather do them in secret before your Father in heaven.” 

When you pray, Jesus said, don’t babble like pagans or parade your piety like the religious who love to be seen being religious, but go to your room and pray in secret to your Father in heaven.  And when you give alms to the poor, don’t make a big show out of it and trumpet your generosity all over the neighborhood.  Don’t even let your left hand keep look on what your right hand is doing. 

And when you fast, Jesus says, wash your face and comb your hair and don’t let anyone know what you’re doing.  This is between you and your Father in heaven.  These are supposed to be things done in freedom, not under compulsion of law, the way children play at the feet of their Father.

If you want to show something of substance to others, let them see your good works, your faithfulness in your vocation, how you deal with the guilt and shame of your sin by being forgiven.  Don’t show them symbolic gestures; show them the real thing.  “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

“If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

You are in an embassy of reconciliation.  You have come to the ministry of reconciliation, where enemies are declared friends, where weapons are checked at the door, where the flag of the King of kings flies high declaring the mercy of the cross. 

You have been rescued from the dust of death by the second Adam, Jesus the Christ, who in His own perfect, human flesh went down into the dust of your sin, your death, your grave, to pull you up from the dust.  Dust you are, and to dust, you will return.  Yes.  This is most certainly true.  But there is a yet greater truth: from the dust, you shall rise to eternal life in Christ Jesus, who though sinless became your sin so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God.

He has washed away the dirt of your death in your Baptism.  He has cleansed your lips and your life with His own Body and Blood.  He has forgiven your sins.  He has given you a new heart, beating the rhythm of His own heart that was broken to save you.  He has given you a life you could not have on your own, a life overflowing with the undeserved mercy of God.  He has taken away those rough garments of sackcloth, the itchy abrasiveness of sin, and swapped them with a seamless white robe of righteousness.

So if anyone asks you tomorrow why we don’t do ashes on Ash Wednesday, you can simply say this, “I’ve been washed by the blood and water of Jesus’ own death for me.  I am a baptized child of God.  Dust I may be and to dust, I will go, but dust never had it so good as to be embraced in the death and life of Jesus.”

In the name of Jesus,


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