It has already begun—the seasonal bemoaning of Ash Wednesday. As always, some call it and its ceremony—the imposition of ashes—a liturgical innovation, as if the Church had just started employing the practice last week. Since similar liturgies for the “Day of Ashes” can be found on the scene as early as the eighth century, the Gregorian Sacramentary being one particular source, it’s hardly an innovation. What’s more, when one discovers Early Church Fathers casually prescribing ashes as a sign of repentance—as though such prescriptions were normal—it’s likely the ceremonies themselves can be found among the first Christians.
Still, when this escape hatch won’t open, the next angle is the apparent counterintuition of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, which, so strangely, is the appointed Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. I say “strangely” because it’s a reading that appears to discourage Christian pieties observable to others. Ash Wednesday, if it’s done right, certainly isn’t discreet. It smears an ashen cross right in the middle of its participants’ foreheads. That must be what Jesus means in the text.
I guess what I can’t figure out is if the critics truly believe the rites and ceremonies of Ash Wednesday are bad practices. Maybe it’s as simple as particular churches having never done it before. Perhaps that’s true because they simply strayed away over time. Or perhaps they exchanged ancient liturgies and their aesthetics for things deemed more modern. I mean, the phrase “historic rites and ceremonies” just sounds so primitive—as though we Christians see ourselves as distinct from the surrounding world, as having our own culture and vernacular. Besides, ashes are not easily scrubbed clean from coffee cups and stadium seating cushions.
Or perhaps instead, somewhere deep down inside, there’s an exceptional fearfulness of the event’s deeper stare into the human soul—a gaze that’s far heavier, far more personal, than so many other pious practices they already employ the rest of the year. Kneeling is a Christian posture that demonstrates, among other things, the distinction between the Creator and the creature. We kneel in humility because God is great, and we are not. Kneeling, and then smearing ashes on one’s face, takes that posture into much deeper strata. It is far more than a juxtaposition. It makes visible what the one kneeling is owed. But before I go there, let’s stay with Matthew 6.
I should ask, do you volunteer at a soup kitchen? Well, apparently, Matthew 6:3 says you should only give in that way if you can sneak in and out without being seen. If not, do not do it. How about making the sign of the cross, folding your hands, and praying before eating your meal at a public restaurant? It sure seems that Matthew 6:6 prohibits such things, reserving such behaviors for one’s closet.
I suppose I could go on. In fact, I will. All of chapters five through seven in Matthew’s Gospel comprise Jesus’ infamous “Sermon on the Mount.” Remember, a reader (or listener) doesn’t arrive at Matthew 6’s content without first traveling through Matthew 5, which includes verses 13-16, a text encouraging the public demonstration of one’s Christian faith through word and deed, all to steer onlookers to the one true God who can save them.
But if I trust the wisdom of the Ash Wednesday nay-sayers concerning Matthew 6, it sure seems as though chapters five and six are in conflict. That is unless the Lord’s words in Matthew 6 mean something else entirely—words showing the distinction between genuine faith’s expression and works-righteousness leading to damning hypocrisy.
Honestly, I think if the Ash Wednesday critics dug a little deeper into the Lord’s words in Matthew 6, they’d marvel at how such a seemingly contradictory reading could be chosen for such a day, especially since, at first glance, it does appear to swim against Ash Wednesday’s thrust. Moreover, they might even see how such a reading, adorned by Ash Wednesday’s penitential shadows, leans into the very first reading Christians will hear four days later. Genesis 3:1-21 is the Old Testament reading appointed for the First Sunday in Lent. There, believers will hear the fateful words so stunningly embodied by Ash Wednesday’s instinctive momentum. Because of Sin’s terrible grip, we are reminded that each of us will “return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Forward from that moment in history, dust and ashes would be stark reminders of Death’s wage, first earned in the Garden in the beginning.
The thing is, if you somehow miss that essential part of Christianity’s teaching throughout the rest of the year, Ash Wednesday just won’t allow it. You can’t leave its classroom without its message painted on your face.
It’s a quick guess, but if I remember correctly, there were about 2,000 years between Adam and Abraham. Of course, if I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will correct me. But whatever the time frame, long after Eden’s events, Abraham approached God with a humble awareness of what he truly deserved: Death. How do I know? Because in Genesis 18, Abraham called himself “dust and ashes” (v. 27). In other words, God’s words to Adam were so piercing they could not be shaken loose by the believers who came after him. Dust and ashes had become a visible reminder of what awaited everyone. Abraham knew his mortal fate relative to the initial curse announced in Eden, and he knew it was not only inevitable but also world-encompassing. Others throughout the Bible’s pages knew and spoke similarly. Job is one (Job 30:19). Solomon is another (Ecclesiastes 3:20). In fact, Solomon quotes Genesis 3:19 almost word for word. In Matthew 11:21, Jesus commends by example the imposition of ashes as relative to repentance. How could He not? Again, His faithful prophets did. Joel called for it (Joel 2:12-18). Jeremiah did, too (Jeremiah 25:34). Jonah saw Nineveh’s king implore his entire kingdom to do it as a sign of sorrow (Jonah 3:6).
In every instance, the ashes marked humanity’s bondage to Sin coupled with sorrow and the admitted need for rescue from Death—the need for God’s mercy. That was at the heart of Abraham’s petition. He approached God, first admitting his ashen worthlessness. But he dared to make a request at all because he knew God to be merciful. That’s what he was pleading—to spare Sodom from absolute annihilation if a handful of righteous could still be found there. And because Abraham was right about God, the Lord promised to be merciful. Unfortunately, Sodom proved its inevitable fate in destruction.
I don’t want to ramble on too long. Suffice it to say that Ash Wednesday is not an event swallowed by doom and gloom. It’s also not something born from and marked by hypocritical self-righteousness. Instead, it’s carried along by hope, not in the self but in Jesus. It divides Law and Gospel in the most extreme ways. We’re marked in ash—marked for Death. But that mark is in the shape of a cross. We are not left without help, without rescue. We’re told God acted. Jesus is the promise’s fulfillment given to Adam in Genesis 3, just four verses before God described Sin’s unfortunate consequences. Adam didn’t meet the bad news without having first been awash in the good news, the Gospel. He met the consequences equipped with a divine promise. Ash Wednesday demonstrates this, and it does so viscerally. Its entire message is that Christ bore the deathly burden of dust and ashes. He went to war with Death and its terrible powers and won. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), Paul said. And just as Ash Wednesday doesn’t stop at Death’s identification but instead carries its participants to the Gospel, so does Paul continue, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
I suppose if pastors want to forgo Ash Wednesday, withholding the imposition of ashes from their people—and with it, the timeless benefits of such Law and Gospel piety demonstrated throughout biblical history—they’re free to do so. The practice is not mandated among the churches. Here at Our Savior in Hartland, we intend to stay the course, just as we’ve done for the past 68 years. In fact, there will be a brief “Imposition of Ashes” service for all the school children (and anyone else who wants to attend) on Wednesday morning at 8:10 a.m. After that, I’ll get into my car and take Word and Sacrament and the ashes to any of the shut-ins who’d desire them. Later that same night, at 7:00 p.m., the congregation will gather for the Ash Wednesday Divine Service.
The imposition of ashes will be more than accessible here at Our Savior.
That being said, as the Christians depart any or all of these services, the critics can feel free to think of us however they’d like. Although, we’ll be too busy wandering around our lives silently proclaiming that Christian piety still exists in this world. In other words, yes, there are still people in this world who believe they are filthy sinners in need of rescue—and that rescue was won by the Son of God on a cross. And as with any silent demonstration of genuine Christian devotion, maybe, just maybe, it will become something else.
“Hey, you have some dirt on your face.”
“Oh, I forgot about that. It’s not dirt. It’s ash. Let me tell you why it’s there.”