"Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day the Church begins a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection." Those who are in worship tonight, Ash Wednesday, will begin with these words. Thus begins the penitential and reflective season of Lent. It is an opportunity for each of us to reflect upon our sinful nature and the inability to save ourselves from eternal damnation. It gives us the opportunity to prayerful reflect upon the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for our sins. Lent is a powerful season that sets the plate for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. We look forward with longing eyes to the resurrection of all flesh.
On Ash Wednesday, the question of the imposition of ashes often is brought forward. Some churches do it and some don't. Why? The answer is "because we are Lutheran." What? How is that an answer? The imposition of ashes is an adiaphora - something that is truly not spoken of in Scripture as necessary for our salvation or even necessary for our worship. It is like using an organ, a piano, a guitar or no instrument at all. We are not required to do the imposition of ashes nor are we forbidden from doing it. It is up to the congregation (or more truthfully, the pastor).
Here at St. Paul's, we don't do the imposition of ashes. Personally, I have never felt the need to do it. I grew up Missouri Synod and it was never a part of the time of worship (in the years prior to my going to Seminary, in the years at Seminary or at any congregation since). Why wasn't it done? Probably because it felt and looked too "Catholic." Anything that smelled of Catholicism was suspect and growing up Lutheran, no one wanted to be accused of being a "closet Catholic." So it was never done.
Therefore I have never felt the need. I have been in services where it was done, and have not gone forward to receive the ashes. In my heart, I felt it went against the Ash Wednesday gospel of Matthew 6 which speaks of disfiguring your face. I have always felt that this passage ("And when you fact, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others...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 heaven." Matthew 6:16-18) tells us to do the opposite of putting ashes on our heads. So I don't do it. Neither do I lead my flock that direction.
Is it wrong to use ashes? No it isn't. Is it wrong not to use ashes? No it isn't. That is the joy of being Lutheran! When Scripture doesn't speak, we don't make a law. The use of ashes is much like the way we use our hands in prayer: folded with heads bowed; kneeling, hands folded and heads bowed; hands lifted up to heaven, head lifted up; it doesn't matter. Scripture shows us all of these and they all are appropriate. Each of us in more comfortable with one or the other. Joy of being Lutheran is that none of them are wrong.
So today, when you go to worship here at St. Paul's, there will be no ashes. The repentance that begins in this season is in the heart and not worn on the forehead. In another church, the ashes will be used. Praise be to God that both churches are worshiping the Lord and going into the season of Lent. No amount of pious action or lack of pious action changes what is in the heart.
Go to worship tonight and begin this 40 days journey to the empty grave and let no one judge another for his lack of ashes or his ashes. Each is walking to the cemetery in the same way - eyes fixed on a risen Lord.