Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down...

             New Yorkers have traditionally loved a soda fountain concoction called an “egg cream”. The interesting thing about the egg cream is that it has neither eggs nor cream in it!

             The Lutheran observance of Ash Wednesday resembles the egg cream–we call it “Ash Wednesday”, but we customarily don’t use ashes. In fact, in my entire ministry I have never marked an ash cross on anyone’s forehead. I’ve got nothing against ashes (although I did have an odd experience with them in seminary, which I will relate later in this article). I just never saw any compelling reason to introduce them. However, a great many Lutheran congregations have adopted the practice–and in the new Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod service book, there is an Ash Wednesday service “with the optional imposition of ashes”. The use of ashes has become common in our churches. This fact, coupled with the innumerable requests for ashes that I’ve had over the last few years, have persuaded me to take the plunge this Ash Wednesday and offer optional ashes.

             Of course, neither popular demand nor “all the other kids are doing it” would justify ashes if there was something wrong with using them. On the contrary, however, the practice comes straight out of the Bible. It’s a classic Scriptural gesture of repentance. When Job realizes that he has unjustly questioned God, he says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). When Jonah proclaimed judgement against Ninevah, the king “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6). Daniel raises to God “pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Jesus says that if the great deeds He did in Bethsaida had been done in Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (Luke 10:13).

             In Scripture, ashes are a sign of sadness, of mourning, of anguish. When Tamar is assaulted by her brother, she “put ashes on her head” (II Samuel 13:19). When Esther’s foster father Mordecai learned of a plot to exterminate the Jews, “he put on sackcloth and ashes and went out into the midst of the city and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry...There was great mourning among the Jews...and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3).Ashes are used to mourn a calamity–and certainly the greatest calamity of all is the sin that separates us from God. Thus they are used in repentance.

             Why ashes? Ashes in the Bible are often associated with dust. For instance, Abraham says, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). And dust is a reminder that we are mortal. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God said to Adam (Genesis 3:19). God made us from the dust, according to Scripture–apart from His life-giving power, we would be nothing but dust. So by putting ashes on, we are acknowledging: “Without God, I am nothing. Without God, I would be dust. I need God desperately.”

             It occurs to me, too, that ashes are a reminder of destruction. After the hurricane, as I traveled south of Merrick Road, I saw a number of houses that had been destroyed by fire–reduced to ashes, as it were. Ashes are what remains when something is consumed. “There’s nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone,” sings Willie Nelson. When I place ashes upon myself, then, I am declaring that something in my life has been lost and destroyed. My relationship with God has been destroyed. Sin has consumed the precious fellowship with God that I was created for. So when I wear ashes, I am lamenting that the greatest treasure in my life has been taken away...and I want it back.

             There’s nothing magical about ashes. They don’t instantly turn us into holy people. I learned that at seminary one Ash Wednesday when we received ashes in chapel. That evening, I was sitting with two friends in the student center. And between them there broke out a violent argument over some obscure theological point. As they debated, they became angry at one another–and begin shouting at one another. And they both had ash crosses on their foreheads from the service that morning! The faces beneath those crosses were contorted and red with rage! That proved to me that there is no magic power in the ashes themselves.

             But when the Holy Spirit moves us to true repentance...when the Spirit shows us our need for God, and strikes sorrow in our hearts that our relationship with Him has been ruined...there is real power in that! The ashes are an outward declaration of that sorrow and repentance. And in that repentance, we turn to the greatest power of all–the blood of Jesus Christ shed upon the holy cross. And that precious blood cleanses us and takes away our sin. Our ruined relationship with God is restored–and we are no longer just dust...we are children of God! And then the words from Isaiah become true for us: “I will give them beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Isaiah 61:3).

             Even though the service is technically called “the imposition of ashes”, I don’t want to “impose” ashes on anyone who isn’t comfortable with the practice. The rite will be done after the service is over, so that any who don’t want ashes can leave during or after the closing hymn.

             So this year I’m actually putting the ashes in “Ash Wednesday”.

             But please...if you ever happen to make me an egg cream...please don’t put any eggs in it!

             God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 84 - No. 2