On our drive to school earlier this week, I told my daughter Sienna that we’d be going to church on Wednesday evening to celebrate Ash Wednesday. As a curious six-year-old, she predictably asked, “Why? What’s it for?”
Hmmm, I thought. Good question. I knew what the rite involves – the what and how – but wasn’t so clear on the why.
Today I decided to do a little research to better explain this to her on our drive to church this evening.
Turns out, there’s no biblical directive to impose ashes on the foreheads of Christians at the beginning of the Lenten season. This rite came to prominence hundreds of years after the death of Christ. The symbolism is simply to remind people of their sinfulness and their need for a savior as the 40 days leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection begins.
For Lutherans, there’s been a lot of uncertainty about the place of this rite within the church. Given the historical reformation and desire to differentiate from the Roman Catholic Church, many congregations abandoned this ceremony. However, one of the great legacies of Martin Luther is the concept of “Christian freedom”. If Christ did not specifically mandate or forbid something, as Christians we are free to do it or not do it, i.e. making the sign of the cross. Therefore, to forbid the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday would be as misguided as mandating it.
Our congregation is conservative in regards to our catholic heritage. Therefore, we have retained this ceremony as part of our divine service on Ash Wednesday. Our Pastor will make a cross with ashes on each of our foreheads and pronounce the words in Genesis 3:19: “Remember – you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This rite reminds us that we are mortal, sinful, and in need of repentance. The cross, however, reminds us that Christ defeated death and his sacrifice is the atonement for our sins.
When we get to church this evening, Mateo will already have ashes (he gets them twice!) because his preschool class had chapel earlier in the day. As a mother, watching my children have ashes on their foreheads and hear those words spoken to them, is always a very poignant moment. I’m at peace with my own mortality; whereas they are precious. This ceremony feels like a perfect reminder to surrender to the perfect plan of redemption, which protects my children more than I ever could.
The concept of Christian freedom also means that Lutherans do not have to “give something up for Lent”. We absolutely can give something up, if we choose. However, it’s important not to judge other Christians (or ourselves) by this standard. Personally, over the past few Lents, I have opted to do something rather than give something up (because, if I’m honest, giving up chocolate or another food item was more a dietary goal than a spiritual one!). One year I read through a daily devotional that described Jesus’ crucifixion in very specific detail. This year I’m planning to attend Divine Service on both Wednesdays and Sundays throughout Lent.
I’d love to hear other people’s feelings and thoughts as we begin the Lenten season…