A Word to Ash Wednesday
The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday seem to give us conflicting admonitions: on the one hand (if you are using the passage from Joel), the prophet Joel says to return to the Lord “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning,” and on the other hand, Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal… (instead) put oil on your head and wash your face.” In other words, on the one hand, “do something public and explicit to show that you are devoting yourself to repentance and contrition.” On the other hand, “disguise the fact that you are devoting yourself to repentance and contrition.”
Pulling together Joel 2 and Matthew 6 creates a tension between sufficiently caring about God to show it in my humble, penitential actions, and sufficiently honoring God by not making a show of my actions. The ashes of Ash Wednesday may be just the right thing to hold this tension together. Ashes show – but because they are ashes they are not showy.
At our family supper table, quite a few years ago now, we were talking about that we would be going to a church service that night. “It’s the Ash Wednesday service,” I said. And one of our children – I don’t remember which one, our oldest was junior high age then – said, “Whose ashes are they?” Good question. Of course, I gave the easy answer: they are not a person’s ashes; they are the ashes that were left when I burned the dried out palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday. But maybe there is a better answer now.
Whose ashes are they? You could make the case that they are our ashes – symbolizing our sinfulness and our mortality. You could make the case that they are God’s ashes – symbolizing Jesus’ sacrifice for us, which is what the season of Lent builds up to: the sacrificial gift which ultimately frees us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, as Martin Luther put it in the Small Catechism.
I’ve known those memorized words for a long time. Still, I was struck again last week by how alive and empowering the concept of being freed from sin, death, and the power of the devil is for our Malagasy Lutheran sisters and brothers. I, along with Rose Moser of our synod and Dana Dutcher of ELCA Global Mission Unit staff, were present for a healing service of casting out of evil spirits at the Lutheran Toby (pronounced “too-bee”) in Fort Dauphin (Faradofay), Madagascar. Central to Malagasy Lutheranism is the vibrant conviction that the name of Jesus crucified and risen brings healing, wholeness, and freedom in body, mind, and spirit.
Our liturgy of imposition of ashes is not as boisterous as a healing service of casting out of evil spirits. But if you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, then you recognize your dependence on Jesus Christ as fully as the Malagasy Lutheran at the Toby does.
Quoting Richard Lischer in Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery: “Flannery O’Connor has a story about a little girl who loves to visit a convent and the sisters. But every time the nun gives her a hug, the crucifix on Sister’s belt gets mashed into the child’s face. The gesture of love always leaves a mark.”
The ashes that we will receive on Wednesday will leave a mark – at least for a time. See the cross-formed ashes as the mark made from a gesture of love. Yes, the mark reminds us of the truth of our sin and mortality; but above that, it reminds us of the truth of God’s reconciling and redeeming love. The ashes of Ash Wednesday will show; but because they are ashes they are not showy.
O Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of your saving cross: “Turn from sin and be faithful.” How can I turn from sin unless I turn to you? You speak, you raise your hand, you touch my mind, and you call my name, “Turn to the Lord your God again.” These days of Lent prove to be a blessing as you journey with me and with all your people. Turn to us, Lord God, and we shall be turned to you. Amen.
S. John Roth, Bishop
Central/Southern Illinois Synod (ELCA)