Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I love the rite of the imposition of ashes, when the pastor marks our foreheads with the sign of the cross made in ashes, with the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We need to remember that fact.
But what I want to post for the occasion is a classic piece by Rev. William Cwirla from a few years ago, on “Why We Don’t Do Ashes on Ash Wednesday.” It’s not what you might expect. It’s a different kind of remembrance of death, and a reflection on the pastor’s vocation. He even goes deeper into the symbolism in a way that will help those who do “do ashes on Ash Wednesday.”
UPDATE: Don’t get me wrong. Most of us Lutherans do impose ashes. See this rejoinder to Rev. Cwirla’s piece from Rev. David Petersen, via Trent David.
You have got to read it all. But here is a sample from “Why We Don’t Do Ashes on Ash Wednesday,” by Rev. William Cwirla – The First Premise:
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.