Three themes converge on Ash Wednesday: mortality, mourning, and repentance. We “remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We might mourn for our dead, or even for Christ Jesus who soon goes to the scaffold, except that He has told us to “weep for ourselves.” Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten fast, which is not a health directive for self-improvement but a decidedly penitential act. While our Lord after His Baptism wrestled against the Devil and the world, we after our baptisms also must wrestle against our own sinful flesh. With all of these in mind, the forty days of Lent begin with the fitting prophetic call: “Return unto the Lord, Your God.” “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent?” We know. “He is the Lord gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Christ’s words require all hearts to believe.
Ashes and Lutheran Teaching
The Ash Wednesday liturgy from times prior to the Reformation gives greater emphasis to forgiveness and atonement than our modern adaptations, which expect a corporate confession and absolution to follow (see LSB Altar Book p. 483). On the one hand, that older emphasis was problematic: Christ alone has merited pardon and His Word and Sacraments alone deliver that pardon—and certainly a human ceremony of applying ashes does neither. On the other hand, in the recent yet well-received recovery of this practice, one might see a missed opportunity to also confess what truly has won our pardon and how it is rightly delivered. As the catechism answers, “no creature, only Christ, true God and man, can do that,” and in Christ’s certain promises that pardon is delivered to faith.
We cannot ascribe sacramental powers to the ashes. Unlike the Lord’s Supper, this ceremony is only a memorial, with neither the command nor the promise of God. Even more than the Lord’s Supper, then, they are able to be left to freedom—no one compels the people to come under pain of salvation. Yet for those who do come, the ashes are “imposed,” as the term goes. This is a corporate ceremony, not a private one. It is suggested by the readings for the day—not the Gospel from Matthew, but the Old Testament from Joel, “consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the people…” (and see Joel 1:13). Much misunderstanding comes about when the memorial is reduced to a repentance that omits faith and the forgiveness of sins (i.e., a bare contrition). The traditional response of the people, as found in the pre-Reformation liturgy of Ash Wednesday, might be a fine place to start recovering this, especially since it is entirely Scriptural:
P Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
C A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
That is the faith our Holy Spirit works by the Word of God in His saints, saints who will all die unless the Lord returns first. Yet these are saints who have received the “first resurrection,” being united to Christ’s death in Holy Baptism. Thus they have nothing to fear of the “first” death in this body, nor will they ever taste the “second death” at all (Revelation, passim). In the plainer language of Hebrews, “Christ Himself partook of [our flesh and blood], that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15). Faith never scoffs at the reminders of sin and death—it embraces them in repentance and hope. It scoffs only at sin and death themselves: they have no power over us in Christ, who does not despise what He has made but forgives the sins of His penitents.
Making the Certainty of Death “Safe”
What, then, of Ash Wednesday this year? What safety precautions do we take? As a memorial and not a sacrament, the ashes could be omitted entirely without sin or great concern. The powerful effect of this ceremony is that it marks for death the elderly, the strong and vigorous, and the newborn baby alike, but that ceremony is only a means to proclaim the Word of God, which is the true power. The Word itself kills indeed—and, indeed, makes alive.
Observe, however, that perhaps nothing needs to change. Whatever reasonable precautions were adopted for the Lord’s Supper likely suffice here also. At the time of this writing, research seems to suggest that respiratory droplets, not touch, are the likeliest cause of transmission. Beyond the questions of risk, the ashes are and always have been left to the freedom of the membership. Most bulletins already announce to this effect: “Those who wish to receive ashes may come forward…” And it does not need to be said that those who do not, may not, for whatever reason—including fear of disease and possible death.
Nevertheless, there remains an elephant in the room. What some fear is precisely what we mean to pronounce as more than possible: you will die, with ashes or without, with SARS-CoV-2 or without. Is it not our intention to memorialize the Church that the underlying cause of all death is sin, and even that God is the one who puts to death? How valuable is an Ash Wednesday reluctant to face death? We also intend to memorialize the Church about the God who claimed them in Baptism, whose mercy was worked by Christ’s cross, whose familiar shape is seen in the ashes. There is a particular trust we wish to foster in broken and contrite hearts about their God, before whom they stand daily as penitents: that His mercy in Christ is their only hope to be saved. Not without death, but despite it, through it, and from it. He is the Judge from whom mercy may be sought and found. So we “stand between the vestibule and the altar weeping and saying, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,’ spare us from death.”
As far as Ash Wednesday’s ceremony goes, it is not a ceremony of safety. It is not trying to be reassuring, but to call us to a return. All ceremonies confess. These ashes confess that we are dust and our only hope is in the cross. Even this year, we should take care that our ceremonies do not distract from, or even contradict, what we are trying to confess. The novel ceremonies of health (microbially effective or not) with health’s messages are in direct conflict with the ceremonies and messages of Ash Wednesday, namely, of death, mourning, and repentance (contrition with faith). It would be a strange cognitive dissonance to accept the sentence of death without its possibility—however small its particular risk is likely to be in this case.
There’s just no way around it: the more garb we accumulate—the more gloves, cotton swabs, hermetically sealed individual ash packets, and so on—the more we adopt the ceremonies of the hospital and memorialize the preservation of earthly life. Do these sing in harmony with a ceremony announcing the dust of death and enjoining penitents to seek eternal life? (Note: for what it’s worth, the Roman Church has advised sprinkling ashes on the penitents. This certainly has biblical and ecclesial precedent—messy, though. If your church is carpeted, I can only approve…)
Perhaps very little changes for Ash Wednesday this year. Each member may decide whether they are comfortable coming for the imposition of ashes or not, for which decision they receive no judgment from God or from us. Those who do come surely recognize and assume the risks. The Ash Wednesday rite is its own disclaimer: Yes, the death of sinners is more than possible; Christ Jesus raises sinners from the dead. Many will choose to remember these without coming, and perhaps you (pastors) will forgo the ashes entirely this year. If you keep the imposition of ashes, consider not only the risk but also the message.