Lent has begun. Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day when there has become a movement in the Lutheran Church to return to our Catholic roots of practices our piety in front of people. Many of our pastors are teaching their congregations that on this day it is appropriate to wear the ashes on the forehead as a symbol that they have entered into Lent. "Ashes you are and unto ashes you shall return," is the words that I hear said again and again. I am asked if St. Paul's in Troy will have the imposition of ashes (not that those words are used but it is what is being asked). The answer I give is, "No we aren't." I know I am breaking with 21st century Lutheranism (that I feel is trying to be 16th century Lutheranism) and not doing this act.
Why don't I do the imposition of ashes? I have several reasons for this. I know that we are focuses back to the time of Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve have sinned and God is proclaiming the curses upon man and woman (and Satan for that matter). God tells Adam, "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and unto dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19 ESV) This truly is heaven proclamation of Law. Death comes because of sin. Man faces death because man has sinned. We are to proclaim the fullness of the Law to our congregations. But at the same time, we are not to stop there. We are also to proclaim, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise (I prefer crush) your head and you shall bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15 ESV) I feel first of all that to wear the ashes is to proclaim that sin and death have won the victory over mankind. I would much prefer to have the Gospel win the day. Instead of telling me that I am ashes and dust, which I am, tell me what my Savior Jesus Christ has done in crushing the head of Satan and overcoming death and the grave. Yes, Lent is heavy in Law but it is overflowing in Gospel. If it is all Law, then "Woe is me!" It is both and the focus on ashes takes the focus off of Christ, even if I was to make the ashes in the sign of the cross.
Second, I never grew up with ashes. Never. Does that mean I had liberal pastors? Does that mean they were not Lutheran? Does that mean they were teaching me false doctrine? Not at all. The outward actions of piety, such as ashes, was seen as wrong. It was seen as focusing on the individual and those acts of piety took the eyes of the believer off their Savior Jesus Christ. That, and it was also seen as a return to Catholicism. That was forbidden, not the ashes, but the return to Catholicism. Now I can hear the argument that Luther followed this practice, that others through the years have followed it. But in the end, we must remember that Luther was just leaving Catholicism and much of his actions were still in accord with the practices. I have had those who have become Lutheran say to me, "I left those practices behind for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Why would I return to them?" Good question. The faithful pastors who raised, catechized and trained me would agree. They were decidedly Lutheran and would not practice of that which smacked of Catholicism.
Third, and this is the real reason I don't practice the imposition of ashes, I read the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday and I find it to be in contradiction of such practice. We read, "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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 secret. And your Father we see in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV) My actions in Lent are between the Father and me, not between me and others, both Christian and non-Christian. How can we read, do not do this in a way that says to others, "Here I am doing this," and then read the Gospel that says, "Don't do it it like that." It seems like such a contradiction.
So I do not practice the imposition of ashes. As such, neither does my congregation. As the one given charge of the spiritual care of the congregation, I will not teach them to trust in their outward actions but in that which is true and sure - the Lord's Supper. Instead of ashes, come and receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Come in the presence of the Gospel, not in the Law, focus on what He has done, not what is going to happen to you. Yes, you will die, but in Christ, you will live! You will live! Ashes, forget it! I will rise again in Christ.
Is it wrong to use ashes? I don't think it is. I do think it is misleading. We are being something we shouldn't be. We are being a church of the Law, focused on our actions and upon the fullness of the Law. Instead we should be the church of the Gospel, focused on Christ and His actions.
I would say, if you get ashes, you should wipe them off before you leave your church. Why? To wear them says two things: 1) I am Catholic (not catholic but the Roman type) and 2) I am dying and so are you and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It doesn't say, "Christ saves me." You might get the chance to tell someone that, but I doubt it. They will see the ashes, make the call and move on. And the Gospel has been missed.
Lent is about what Christ has done. Let's keep it that way.