Friday, February 8, 2013

Ash Wednesday...with ashes, no less!

 Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

            These words paraphrase Genesis 3:19 where the Lord proclaimed a curse upon man when he had first sinned.  St. Paul repeated that thought in his letter to the Romans: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

            Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.  This is the harsh reality of sin.  The use of ashes to express repentance long pre-dates the New Testament Church.  In the era of the Patriarchs, Job confessed his sin and declared, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) 

The Imposition of Ashes teaches a dual lesson. 

            1)  It is a mark of penitence.  We demonstrate outwardly the sorrow for sin that we have inwardly. 
            2)  It is a mark of death.  It is a reminder that we are all dust, and to dust we will return.  The ashes remind us that we are helpless in our sinful condition.  Our only hope is a Savior.  We repent of our works; we cling to Jesus for his.
            We will observe this ceremony at our Ash Wednesday service (February 13, 7:00 PM).  The service begins with the Imposition of Ashes.  Following a general confession, the ushers will invite people by row to come to the communion railing to receive the ashes.  The penitent will kneel at the railing (like Lord’s Supper), and wait as the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead in the shape of a cross.  Please resist all temptations to scratch or smear the ashes, as this will only make a mess on your hands.  (The ashes can easily be washed off after the service with soapy water.)

            No one should feel obligated to receive the ashes on the forehead.  If you do not want to come forward, then remain seated as the ushers come to your row.  They will simply pass by and go to the next row.  Children may participate at the discretion of their parents.  While this ceremony may still seem foreign to some Lutherans, the ceremony serves a valuable purpose.  It truly sets the tone for Lenten season.  We are marked as sinners.  We are marked for death.  We are marked with a cross, signifying that our only hope is Jesus Christ. 

            And while members of the church might seem a little uneasy being marked with the ashes, the ceremony serves a valuable purpose especially for the pastor.  He is reminded quite vividly that these people he serves and loves will one day die and be buried.  And he may be the one to serve them in that capacity as well.  One by one, he marks each member, even his own family members, and declares, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return!"  That is why the people need Jesus; and that is why Jesus has supplied them with a pastor.

            Our comfort comes from Jesus who takes our sin.  He dies our death.  He marks us as his own who have been baptized into his name.  That is where the penitent find comfort.  That is where the dying find life.

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