Adapted by Pastor David Tinker, from the writings of Pr. Thomas L. Weitzel – in some form these items will be part of the bulletin used for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
This day is something of a slap in the face, especially when one hears the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The original name – “Day of Ashes” – was a reference to the ancient Christian practice of sprinkling or rubbing ashes on the head or forehead as a sign of one’s mortality. The same ancient gesture appears in the baptismal liturgy: a cross is traced with oil on the forehead of the person being baptized. In this simple gesture the person is claimed by Christ.
There can be no more solemn and appropriate action on this day than to distribute ashes to all who gather for the beginning of the Lenten season. Here are gathered together both the young and old, men and women, rich and poor, as well as the learned and simple. Here the cross is the sign of salvation that all believers share. It is the sign of death and resurrection.
What is Ash Wednesday?
On Ash Wednesday, the community of faith comes face to face with two realities. First, we confront our own mortality. None of us lives in this life forever. Secondly, all of us are sinners and need to confess our sin to God. These two themes (death and sin) are brought together in light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle John says in 1 John 1:9b, “…(God) who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The confession of sin on Sundays reminds us, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins.” The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) confession also includes, “To those who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.”
What are the ashes for?
The “ashes” of Ash Wednesday are rooted in the ancient worship of both the Jewish and Christian communities. They are a sign of mortality and penance. Even though we have used the imposition of ashes in our Ash Wednesday worship for many years, they still may seem new or uncomfortable to some of us. What we should remember about the ashes is they are a visible sign of our cleansing and rebirth, both a recognition of our daily dependence on God for life and a promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Should I receive the ashes?
The ashes are not compulsory by any means. You may choose, if you wish, to remain in your seat during the imposition of ashes. But remember that they are a powerful and visible way to participate in the call to repentance and reconciliation. If you choose to participate, come forward at the appropriate time in the liturgy with others desiring the ashes. The pastor will dip his thumb in the ashes and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Afterwards, return to your seat and the liturgy will continue.
The Invitation to Lent
Friends in Christ, today with the whole church we enter the time of remembering Jesus’ passover from death to life, and our life in Christ is renewed.
We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and for God’s mercy. We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor. I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent—self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love—strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. Let us continue our journey through these forty days to the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
–From “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” – Ash Wednesday Liturgy (2006)