01 March 2006

On Ashes

It always seems jarring to Lutheran Christians to hear the Gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday (don't disfigure your face to show men you are fasting) and then be invited up to receive ashes on your face! What gives? A direct disobedience to our Lord's commandment?

Most assuredly NOT that. The ashes for which this day is named are not to show ANYONE that you are fasting (for who knows if you are or not?). What they are, is shown by the words accompanying them:

Remember, O Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.

Thus, the ashes show not fasting, but dying. Remember, O Man, and everyone who sees you - remember one and all - that we are dying. That we are headed for the earth. The words first spoken by our loving God on the day of the Fall ring down the long corridor of the centuries: "Remember! You are dust! To dust you will return!"

But there is more. The ashes are placed on the forehead in the form of a cross. A reminder that though we will surely return to the earth and die, become ashes, as it were, there is One who came among us and did this - one over whom death had NO claim. And His death is the destruction of death itself - the wiping out of sin, the gift of unending life.

Thus the ashes are placed upon a dying people under the sign that this death has itself been transformed by His enduring it for us. You will die, but you will not die hopeless. You will go to the grave in the certainty that He who became dust and ashes for you will RAISE you from the earth to which you have returned and bring you into the Home He has prepared. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to Him forever!!!


fr john w fenton said...

Thanks, Fr William, for bringing us back to the liturgical text in order to help us interpret the Biblical text.

Btw, I've met with a strange thing in my inner-city parish--people who come to receive ashes, and then leave without hearing the Gospel or (if eligible) receiving the Sacrament. Each year, when confronted with this, I think, "They want the sign of death, but are spurning the word of life." How much I pray for them!

Daniel M. Head said...

Yes, thank you Pastor Weedon. I wore my ashes last night, after services, back to the resteraunt at the hotel I am staying. It began a number of conversations, one with an ex-Catholic and another with an ex-Presbyterian, they talked with me for a cuple of hours. I hopedthat the Holy Spirit worked in them as I shared the Word. Today, though, I began wondering if I was being hypocritical, and maing a show of my own piety... Thank you for your words, reminding me of the true reason for the ashes, and why I should not be ashamed that I did not wipe the sign of the Cross off my forehead before going to dinner.

William Weedon said...

Thanks for the kind words, Fr. Fenton and Daniel! I hope you both have a most blessed and joyous Lenten season- the season of our "bright sadness."

Petersen said...

I was surprised to read this and discover how parrallel our thinking is. I posted a very similar response just this morning at cyberstones.

FWIW, I've always wanted to (but never have) add to the historic formula: "Remember O Man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return" with "and from dust you shall rise." I do that, of course, in the preaching. But as Fr. Fenton says the ashes as they stand and the traditional formula is a sign of death. They are in the shape of a cross, to be sure. But those who leave with nothing more than the ashes leave me feeling a bit disturbed. Still, if I were to add my phrase to the end of the formula and they left I suppose I could then say they heard the Gospel. But would I be any less disturbed? Probably not.


William Weedon said...

Okay, okay, I have to confess: because I introduced ashes to St. Paul's not so many years ago, I did so with a bit of "pastoral adjustment." Instead of beginning the Ash Wednesday liturgy with them, the Mass ends with them. That way, folks who don't wish to receive them just walk right on out and folks who do wish to receive them come up the center aisle. Now, I am NOT in favor of a pastor just doing his own thing here, but I will note that one result of doing my own thing on this point is that no one receives the ashes who has not heard the Gospel both read and proclaimed and sacramentally given.