Since the Middle Ages, the Church has used ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins1. Ash Wednesday receives its name from the medieval and Roman ceremony of blessing ashes made from palms given out on the preceding Palm Sunday and marking the foreheads of worshipers with these ashes as an expression of penitence2. Throughout the Bible, ashes are associated with repentance (see Job 42:6; Jonah 3:5–6; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 11:21).
Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, a commentary on Lutheran Worship, says this about ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Other customs may be used, particularly the imposition of ashes on those who wish it. This ancient act is a gesture of repentance and a powerful reminder about the meaning of the day. Ashes can symbolize dust-to-dustness and remind worshipers of the need for cleansing, scrubbing and purifying. If they are applied during an act of kneeling, the very posture of defeat and submission expresses humility before God.”3
The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a more recent custom among most LCMS congregations, although some have done it for decades. Usually, the pastor takes the ashes on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshiper, saying these words: “Remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This follows most effectively prior (or as part of) the Service Corporate Confession and Absolution on pages 290-291 of the Lutheran Service Book.
As congregations observe COVID-19 protocols, it has become necessary to adapt or forgo some traditional practices. The leaders of Trinity, St. Joseph recognized that members would miss the imposition of ashes and found a creative and safe idea on a Facebook group. While they knew it would not completely replace receiving the ashes during a worship service, they thought it was a good alternative and adapted it to fit their needs. They ordered cards printed with an explanation of how to perform the impositions of ashes and filled small vials with ashes so that there was enough for each family to use. Devotions that went along with their current sermon series were also purchased for adults, children, and families.
Regardless of how your congregation observes Ash Wednesday, may your focus be on Jesus and His atoning sacrifice on the cross.
Photo courtesy of Trinity, St. Joseph