Ash Wednesday, (Latin: dies cinerum or day of ashes) is the name given to the first day of Lent. The ritual use of ashes or sackcloth as an outward sign of repentance is an ancient practice found in the Old Testament and also in the church as early as the 8th century. The earliest reference to ashes and repentance is found at the very end of the Book of Job where we read: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5,6). It appears later in the Book of Jonah after the Prophet proclaimed God’s judgment against Ninevah: “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ash” (Jonah 3:4-6). Finally, when Daniel the Prophet prayed confessing his sins to God we read: “And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3). Jesus makes reference to this practice in Matthew 11:21. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).
Ashes were a public reminder that man was going to die and that all men were but dust and ashes. In the traditional Ash Wednesday services of some denominations ashes are applied to the forehead in the shape of the cross with the words: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19b). God spoke these words to Adam and Eve after they had fallen into sin to describe what was now the common plight of all men, namely death. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). In the context of Ash Wednesday the ashes were intended to remind the believer of his sinfulness and mortality and just how much we need the forgiveness of our sins through the Redemption of Jesus Christ. Ash Wednesday (with or without ashes) along with the entire season of Lent is not mentioned in Scripture, therefore Christians are free to observe or not observe it. But the use of ashes like any external ceremony or ritual is meaningless and hypocritical without an inward heart of faith and repentance, along with a sincere resolve to amend our sinful lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Isaiah God rebuked Israel for engaging in the external motions of religious piety without true hearts of repentance. “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:5-7). It is interesting that in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday Jesus warns about hypocrites who disfigure their faces to appear as though they are fasting. “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:16-18). Luther often wrote concerning the benefit of religious ceremonies to insure good order and reverence in worship but he warned against engaging in ceremonies and religious works without hearts of faith in Christ for they would produce nothing but hypocrites.
In his famous treatise on Christian Liberty, Luther wrote:
Do we need to follow the ancient Christian practice of placing ashes on our foreheads as a physical symbolic act of our sinfulness and need of repentance? No. It is not necessary for faith. Neither does it give clear witness of our faith in the doctrine of justification “by faith without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28) when we realize that the Romanists in particular are known to use ashes as a “sacramental,” that is, a sacred act whereby “the faithful” bring to themselves a blessing of grace because of their show of piety. It is for this reason that we Lutheran Christians deliberately do not use ashes on Ash Wednesday —not because it would be wrong in and of itself to make use of such an external, but because, “in time of persecution, when a plain and steadfast confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in regard to such adiaphora” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Triglotta, p. 829); and it is precisely in these latter days that the ecumenists like to claim that Lutherans and Catholics are closer than ever, and that the differences between us are becoming fewer and fewer. This is a time of “persecution” requiring a clear witness “concerning the truth of the Gospel, concerning preserving Christian liberty, …concerning the prevention of offense to the weak in the faith” (Formula of Concord, op. cit., pp. 829-831).
During this Lenten Season let us pray that God would help us to realize once again our sinful condition and to grant us hearts of repentance and faith as we rejoice in the blood of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God that cleanses our sinful conscience from dead works that we might worship the Living God through Jesus our Savior. “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14).
I pray God would grant you a blessed Ash Wednesday and Lenten Season for Christ’s sake. Amen.
—R. A. M.