"Ashes, Ashes We All Fall Down."
Ash Wednesday will soon be here. February 14 to be exact, Happy Valentine's Day. Our service will be at 7pm. What better gift to give your beloved than to sit in the pew together to hear God's Word? Chocolates digest, diamonds dull, when compared to the word of God, the Love is Christ is better than gold.
As in past years, the imposition of ashes will be offered to those who so desire. In our age of Botox and our culture’s pursuit of perpetual youth, ashes made in the sign of the holy cross are a good reminder we are mortal. Being reminded that we are mortal is a good thing because it reminds us we are not gods. Despite this good and beneficial reminder of our own sinfulness, it almost seems as if we are doing the opposite of what Jesus says in the Gospel reading for the Ash Wednesday service,
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:16-17).
Regarding the use of ashes the key in the passage would be “… that their fasting may be seen by others”. That is, if one is interested in showing others their piety(devotion to God shown in outward actions), he already has his reward. In fact, that’s what Pietism is. But Jesus’ remarks here ought not be construed as a proscription against any use of ashes, any more than “go to your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) could be taken to mean that we ought not worship and pray together in church.
Some people go to church for the express purpose of being seen or for social hour. To use the words of our Lord, they do so, so they “… may be seen by others”. Jesus responds saying they ought “… not be seen by others”. Does that mean they should not go to church? Not at all! The corrective is we go to church but not for the purpose of being seen by others. We go to church to receive the forgiveness of our sins.
What would Jesus say if a person had their babies baptized in order to be in the lime-light? Or, to use the words of our Lord, so they “… may be seen by others”. Jesus would tell them the baptizing of their babies ought “… not be seen by others”. Does that mean we ought not have our babies baptized? Hardly—that would be a terrible error. The correct way to respond to others misusing the Word of God is to understand we have our babies baptized to forgive their sins, not so they may be paraded about in front of others.
St. Paul has the same mind when he rebukes the Galatians for requiring circumcision. The corrective is not avoiding circumcision, but understanding what the function of the Law is. The opposite of a sinful behavior is not always the correct faithful thing to do.
As said earlier, to do things for God, in order to win the praise of people is called Pietism. And when you have the praise of people you have your reward. It’s as simple as that. We may complete the exact same actions as people who look for the praise of men. The motive is the key. What we do ought to be in conformity with Jesus’ will and receiving of Jesus’ offered gifts. The imposition of ashes upon the forehead reminds us of our sin and mortality as we enter the holy season of Lent. Ashes made in the sign of the cross proclaim that our hope is not in some medical breakthrough rivaling some fountain of youth.
The Scriptures frequently proclaim the use or imposition of ashes:
… daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes… (Jer 6:26).
… and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes;… (Eze 27:30).
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes… (Jonah 3:6).
And then from Jesus himself:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Mt 11:21).
Though the imposition of ashes may be new to some people, much like making the sign of the cross as Martin Luther encourages, it is Biblical and historically it is Lutheran.
But most importantly it’s helpful. When the ash mark sits on our forehead we feel marked because, well, we are marked. The ashes designate that we are real sinners and this is something the world refuses to hear.
The prophet Ezekiel placed a mark upon the foreheads of the faithful in his day so that they lived (Eze 9:4). In addition to marking us as sinners, ashes made in the sign of the + cross proclaim that our hope and confidence rest in Christ the crucified who rose on the third day for the forgiveness of our sins. And because of this we live!
Putting ashes on our forehead as a sign of repentance for Ash Wednesday is not something that we are forced to do. Like folding our hands to pray or standing in the church service, the imposition of ashes is a teaching tool. The imposition of ashes is unique in that it gives us an opportunity to feel the gritty reality of our sin and death upon our head and hear God's word. As you wash the ashes off I further invite you to rejoice in the victory over your sin and death given in baptism. When you feel the clean, pure water wash your forehead, remember you have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection(Romans 6). As the ashes wash down the sink so have your sins been removed by Christ.
"Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down"
But in Christ you are raised to new life!
See you on Sunday!