Thursday, February 16, 2012

Imposition of Ashes

Dear Christian Friends,

The Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent marks the beginning of this season of the Church Year. Lent is the Christian's forty-day journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The forty days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Moses' stay on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law, Elijah's fast on his way to the mountain of God, and Jesus' forty-day fast at the beginning of His ministry, among others. The forty days are counted backward from Resurrection Sunday. Since all regular Sunday worship services are an observance of Christ’s resurrection, and thus occasions for reverent joy, the Sundays during this period are not counted in the forty days of more somber remembrance of Christ's Passion. This also explains why this season begins on a Wednesday.

In addition, for more than nineteen centuries the Christian believer’s Lenten journey has begun with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance through the placing of ashes on one’s head (Genesis 18:27, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). Ashes are a sign of spiritual cleansing, as in the Rite of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:17), in which the ashes of the calf, when mixed with water, had the ceremonial effect of purifying the sinner. (Hebrews 9:13). Thus, the first New Testament believers adopted the use of ashes as a symbol of sorrow and repentance over sin. This has been the normal practice of the Christian Church from the First Century onward.

It is this ancient practice of placing ashes on the heads of the faithful that gives Ash Wednesday its name. The ashes are a strong reminder of the need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and the redeeming grace of Christ. Indeed, we remember well the words from the Christian burial service: “. . . earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . . ;” words that will someday be spoken over us all.

The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusive practice of the Roman church. It was already being practiced hundreds of years before the church of Rome gained its current prominence. Today it is observed by faithful Believers in many Christian churches throughout the world.

Thus, Trinity Orthodox Lutheran Church in Sierra Vista has incorporated the practice of “The Imposition of Ashes” into its observance of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

The ashes for this ceremony are taken from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These palms are gathered, burned, and then sifted, and placed in a shallow dish for the imposition. After a brief introduction, the minister marks a cross of ashes on each person’s forehead as they stand or kneel at the entrance to the church’s altar area.

At 6 AM on Ash Wednesday, during the Noon hour, and again that evening, about fifteen minutes before the Communion Service, people are invited to the Sanctuary for the Imposition of Ashes. This ceremony is intended as a meaningful and useful physical aid in each individual believer’s spiritual preparation for and observance of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, Holy Week, and ultimately the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. If there are any questions about The Imposition of Ashes, please do not hesitate to ask.

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

Your shepherd under Christ,

Pastor Spencer

The Imposition of Ashes

Pastor: We gather in the name of Jesus (+), the sinless Son of God.

Congregation: Adoration, glory, honor, and praise be to His most holy name, now and forever.

P: Let us pray: Almighty God, the Fountain of holiness, Who by Your Word and Spirit guides all Your servants in the ways of peace and holiness, grant unto us so truly to repent of our sins, so carefully to reform our errors, so diligently to watch over all our actions that we may not willingly disobey Your holy will, but that it may be the work of our life to obey You, the joy of our soul to please You, the satisfaction of all our hopes and the perfection of our desires to be with You always in Your kingdom of grace;

C: We ask this through Christ our Lord. (+) Amen.

P: Dear Christian friends, After the Fall into sin, God reminded Adam and Eve, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) From that time on, dust, and a special form of dust, ashes, have been used by believers to symbolize death, humility, contrition, and repentance. Job, at the end of his trials, and realizing his foolish slander against the LORD, proclaimed, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”(Job 42:6) And, the prophet Daniel, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness for the captive people of Israel, who had justly angered Him by their sins, recorded, “So I turned to the LORD God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”(Daniel 9:3)

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that ashes are a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior, Whose death truly brings us peace with God, and makes us able to serve Him. He writes, “The ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14)

And so, brothers and sisters in Christ; may these ashes be to us a reminder of our mortality, a symbol of our repentance, a token of Christ’s death, a sign of God’s forgiveness, and a mark of our desire to live holy and righteous lives,

C: To the glory of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

(The people are invited to come forward in a single line down the middle aisle and kneel or stand at the communion rail. The Pastor will place ashes on each individual’s forehead in the form of a cross while saying: “Remember that you are but dust and ashes, and to dust and ashes you shall return.” The people then return to their places. When all have received the imposition of ashes who desire to do so, the Pastor shall pronounce the Dismissal.)

P: Believers in Jesus: Wear this mark as a symbol of your contrition and
repentance, and an outward sign proclaiming your faith in the atoning sacrifice
of Jesus Christ for your eternal salvation. God’s peace (+) be upon you all.

C: God be with you also. Amen.

(The people may remain for silent prayer and private mediation.
The Ash Wednesday Communion service will begin shortly.)

Prayers for use during Ash Wednesday

At the beginning of the day:
O LORD, mercifully hear my prayer and, having set me free from the bonds of sin, defend me now and always from all evil; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and Holy Spirit, ever one God, forever and ever. Amen.

At mid-morning:
O God, I believe in You, I hope in You, and I love you only because You have created me, redeemed me, and have sanctified me. Increase my faith, strengthen my hope, and deepen my love, so that giving up myself wholly to Your will, I may serve You faithfully all the rest of my life, and finally be found worthy through Your grace alone to inherit life eternal; through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

At Noon:
O LORD, give me more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to You. Teach me to sacrifice my comfort to others and my desires for the sake of doing good. Make me kindly in thought, gentle in word, and generous in deed. Teach me that it is better to give than to receive, better to forget myself that to put myself first, better to minister than to be ministered unto; unto You, the God of love, be all glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.

At mid-afternoon:
Almighty God, the Fountain of Holiness, Who by Your Word and the Spirit guides me in the ways of peace and sanctity, grant unto me so truly to repent of my sins, so carefully to reform my errors, so diligently to watch over all my actions that I may never willingly transgress Your Holy will, but that it may be the work of my life to obey You, the joy of my soul to please You, the satisfaction of all my hopes and attainment of all my desires to be with You in Your kingdom of grace and glory for all eternity; through Jesus Christ, my Lord.Amen.

At the end of the day:
Almighty and everlasting God, Who hates nothing that You have made and forgives the sins of all those who are penitent, create and make in me a new and contrite heart, so that, truly lamenting my sins and acknowledging my lowliness, I may obtain from You, the God of all mercy, perfect and complete remission and forgiveness always; only through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, forever and ever. Amen.

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’ – and You forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)


Anonymous said...

You said 6am on Ash Wednesday. Are you sure that's right? Isn't that a bit early in the morning?

Anonymous said...

I struggle with such a practice. It is neither commanded or forbidden by God. I can understand that. But I grew up a WELS Lutheran in the midwest, surrounded by Catholics and their practices. Many of them were good friends of mine, and some of them were my "best friends". But what I saw in their theology was "work righteousness", and I saw that "work righteousness" in their practice of what you call the "imposition of ashes". Does the possible benefit of a ritual such as this outweigh the baggage that comes with a practice that is one of the hallmarks of a "work righteousness" theology?


Daniel Baker said...

I do not doubt that there are members of the Roman Church who, in some twisted way, believe that they are meriting salvation through this and various other rituals. To that end, the very "Sacrifice of the Mass" is laden with this false theology. But did we abandon the Blessed Sacrament because some misguided individuals in the dominion of Antichrist abuse it? Heaven forbid! To the contrary, we rigorously uphold and defend the frequent use of the Sacrament by properly instructing troubled consciences of its benefits.

So too we do not abolish the liturgy, Lectionary, vestments, and a plethora of other things. This is because we recognize that our Churches, in which the Gospel is wholly proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, *ARE* the Catholic Church.

So, I think we can unequivocally and without shame claim this ancient, catholic practice as our own. Because it is our own. In any event, it seems odd to be to retain the name "Ash Wednesday" without any connection to the ceremony from which the day draws its name.

Anonymous said...

Vernon said,

Does the possible benefit of a ritual such as this outweigh the baggage that comes with a practice that is one of the hallmarks of a "work righteousness" theology?

You might have had a point at one time in the distant past, but I hope in Lutheranism today there aren't many expressing such a caution. I was happy to see the editors of the Forward in Christ magazine feature a positive story in the February 2012 issue about the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday complete with front cover photo of the rite.

The bigger problem is that there are some in Lutheranism today who have no problem with serving soda and popcorn before a divine service held in a movie theater. Such practices reveal a modern American theology that defines faith as a choice/work of man. There is no mistaking the message is sin and grace when someone in a robe rubs a smudge of ashes in the sign of the cross on your forehead in a church. Not so sure you're getting the right message when a gown-less, bar stool sitting "preacher" shares advice from the Bible with you.

- Rev. James Schulz

Anonymous said...

Re "Catholic" worship practices.

Because the Confessions say: “in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic” (Augsburg Confession, Conclusion) we have to come to grips with the fact that the Lutheran Church will look and feel more “Catholic” than it will “Protestant.” Over 100 years ago C.F.W. Walther offers this defense of Confessional Lutheran worship forms:

We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them.... It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Papism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that the sects can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them? ...We are not insisting that there be uniformity of perception or feelings or of taste among all believing Christians neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. (Essays for the Church, Volume 1:194)

- Rev. James Schulz

Anonymous said...

Daniel Baker said...

But did we abandon the Blessed Sacrament because some misguided individuals in the dominion of Antichrist abuse it?

I want to be clear that I was talking about a ritual or practice, not a Sacrament. A Sacrament is something that is commanded and instituted by Christ. I've heard it said in some WELS circles, for example, that we should do things the way the Baptists do, particularly in regard outreach. I think many of us have cause for concern with such statements. I think it becomes difficult sometimes to separate the theology from the practice.

I appreciate your responses to my concerns.


Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

I can see both sides of the issue here. There is good symbolism in the imposition of ashes, and I don't think the ties to Roman Catholicism are convincing enough reasons against it.

But there are other reasons that I do think are convincing. Here's an excellent sermon describing the intentional non-use of ashes on Ash Wednesday. I think he makes some very convincing arguments.

Anonymous said...

One important detail of the rite that Rev. Cwirla left out: The ashes are made in the sign of the cross signifying not only "dust to dust" but that "I have been crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20).

No one is bragging or working their way into heaven. It's clear that the gospel predominates in the Lutheran practice and setting. It's a simple gesture to teach a profound mystery.

- Rev. James Schulz

Anonymous said...

I can see both sides as well Pr. Rydecki.

My preference would to be in continuance of the Imposition of Ashes. I feel that in modern society we get this "universalism" feel. There is NO DOUBT that the gospel is beautiful. At the same time it shouldn't degrade our need for a faith driven repentance. I love Lent because of the repentance it drives. Of course the gospel should always predominate, but at the same time we shouldn't neglect what drives us to the gospel, namely, repentance. I think the following rendition of Psalm 51 (by Allegri) is beautiful in reverence toward our God ( I believe we should always be in a state of reverent FEAR of our Lord who unfairly pronounces us righteous through Baptism, the preached Word, and the Sacrament. Therefore I believe the imposition of ashes is a great way to convey that we are at the same time a saint and a SINNER. Having my pastor rub that dirt (from which I came) on my forehead is one of the best ways to convey that. At the same time, as Pr. Schulz said, it is in the sign of the cross. We are God's children through Christ's cross, by faith. At the same time we shouldn't forget that our lives are formed by daily repentance (rubbing of ashes on our face) and faith (which receives Christ's Absolution through the called pastor).

Mitch Forte

Pastor Michael Zarling said...

For the past several years we have used an idea garnered from the Worship the Lord newsletter. Every year, one of our members makes a banner out of burlap. Then we have a procession of two lines come to the front of the church to place the sign of the cross in ashes upon the banner.

The first year we did it, people were pretty hesitant and not everyone participated. But now, the whole congregation comes forward to make the sign of the cross symbolizing their repentance and Christ's forgivenss in that little ashen cross.

The imposition of ashes takes about 15 minutes for everyone to go through. The choir is singing the Penitential or Hallel Psalms during the imposition. Then the banner is hung on the wall for the rest of Lent as we see 160 crosses from 4 year-olds to 94 year-olds.

Instead of having an "ash-less Wednesday," like I had when growing up, our people have come to really appreciate the solemn repentance and sorrow over sin expressed by ashes and sackcloth.

Rev Michael Zarling

Anonymous said...

Yes! Rev. Zarling, like this:

- Rev. James Schulz

Anonymous said...

Thank you Pastor Rydecki for the sermon reference; it reflects some of my concerns about the "imposition of ashes".
The "imposition of ashes" is a symbolic act, to be distinguished from our Sacraments, which are much much more than a symbolic act. But even in this dialogue, there were comparisons made between what God neither forbids or commands, and the Sacraments.
In a synod where we are struggling to make a decision between the 1984 and 2011 NIV, a decision that seems like it should be a "no brainer", is it clear to our membership that the "imposition of ashes", a symbolic act, is indeed very different than the Sacraments that were instituted by Christ?


Anonymous said...

Vernon said, is it clear to our membership that the "imposition of ashes", a symbolic act, is indeed very different than the Sacraments that were instituted by Christ?,

Someone offered that as an objection to doing the rite at the church I serve. However, in talking it through most people understood that receiving ashes on the forehead was not the same as receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament. Honestly, how would people get confused by receiving ashes on their forehead with receiving Holy Communion? Just because they walk forward to the altar like they do for Communion? Perhaps people need to be properly taught what Holy Communion is and does.

- Rev. James Schulz

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

As I said, I see both sides of this tradition of ashes. Here is a Gottesdienst rewrite of the above sermon by Pastor Cwirla.

If it's possible and not seen as pathetic fence-riding, I have to say I agree with both.

All the non-divinely-instituted ceremonies of the Church's traditional Liturgy teach something useful for the Christian life. That's one of the reasons why the Lutheran Church retains them. The non-use of these non-divinely-instituted ceremonies isn't wrong in and of itself. But it becomes a problem when the replacement ceremonies teach the faith poorly or even wrongly. Sectarian worship is a good example of this.

To me, the arguments for and against ashes are both compelling in their own way. This is one of those cases where using a traditional ceremony of the church can teach something very good and Biblical, and not using the traditional ceremony can also teach something very good and Biblical, while not teaching anything poorly or wrongly.

So I rejoice that ashes will be used by some tomorrow for the benefit of the sinner and for the glory of God. And I rejoice that ashes will not be used by others for the benefit of the sinner and for the glory of God. And I rejoice that the use or non-use of ashes, so far in Lutheranism (or at least at the moment), seems not to be a divisive issue.

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