On Ashes

A colleague posted a question on Facebook the other day asking about why or why not we should or should not engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 6:16-18.  There were a great many responses – around 40 the last I checked.  Predictably they ran the gamut of ideas and theological ponderings.  Folks who poo-poo’d the idea because it was just a church tradition, as well as those who made a point of doing the ashes precisely because it is a church tradition.  Those who felt ashes on the forehead are pretentious and therefore a violation of Jesus’ teaching, and those who disagreed.  People who prefer to allow individual conscience to dictate and those who see value in the communal practice.  People shared their various practices – including one I really like of including Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are imposed at the start of the service, and after confession and absolution and Holy Communion they are then washed off using the water from the baptismal font.  Definitely an idea for next year!

If you want to read to opposing (LC-MS) views on the subject, this is a great summary of two articles.  Another perspective is here.

Traditionally people refer back to the Old Testament as a support for the practice of noting repentance or sorrow with ashes and sometimes fasting.  I thought back to Leviticus 16 (and verse 29 particularly)  which stipulates that every 10th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar is to be a day of solemn fasting and repentance.  Jews today know it as Yom Kippur.  Leviticus stipulates fasting but not ashes.  But it seems a strong starting point with our Old Testament consideration.  God’s people for a long time have shown grief in some particular ways, ways that continued even among believers with a different cultural background from the one it originated with.  And the idea of  a communal day to acknowledge personal and corporate sin goes back to God himself.

Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly followed this command.  What that meant, however, is not clear to me.  The earliest written instructions regarding how to observe the Day of Atonement – other than Scripture itself – are contained in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early 200’s AD by Yehuda HaNasi, realizing that the Temple wasn’t going to be rebuilt any time soon and that God’s people needed the oral traditions to be written down as they were increasingly dispersed.  In the Moed section of the Mishnah which deals with holy days, in the Yoma section, there are five things prohibited on the Day of Atonement – eating & drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and sex.

Presuming these regulations were in place in Jesus’ day  then, is Jesus in Matthew 6 instructing his disciples not to follow the five prohibitions above, but rather to violate at least two of them?  That seems like a stretch.  Jesus was well known for clarifying Jewish customs, their traditional practices and interpretations of Scripture.  But I can’t think of another place where Jesus is critical of the Day of Atonement practice in particular.  Most of his emphasis seems to be on Sabbath traditions and stipulations.

I’m  comfortable presuming – using an argument from silence – that Jesus and his disciples followed the five prohibitions for the Day of Atonement, and therefore Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 6 does not rule out the idea of public forms of penance or  repentance or the observance of a special holy day.  I presume his teaching to deal with personal, private fasting, aside from public, prescribed days of communal fasting.

How does all of this relate to Ash Wednesday?

Potentially, not at all.

Ash Wednesday is not commanded in the Bible or referenced even in passing anywhere in Scripture.  The closest relative in my opinion is Yom Kippur but they are separated by a rather impressive chasm in Christian perspective.  So Ash Wednesday is not a divinely commanded observance with particular traditions we’ve innovated that may or may not be helpful or correct.  Rather, it’s a tradition.  A tradition steeped in Old Testament language about ashes and sorrow and repentance, (Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 13:18-20, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Lamentations 3:16, Ezekiel 27:30, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 – to name a few). to be sure, but only steeped.

Interestingly, there are no New Testament references to the use of ashes for sorrow or repentance.

Roman Catholics trace the tradition of Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) back to roughly the eighth century and Gregorian versions of  the Roman Missal. FYI, a missal is a book of prayers used by an officiating priest, not something you shoot at someone to blow them up.  Into ashes.  Get it?

Ahem.

There should also be recognition that – likely based on the Old Testament references above – there has existed a long-standing tradition of associating ashes with public penance.  Someone caught or admitting to serious sin of a public nature would adorn themselves with ashes publicly as a sign of their repentance – their repudiation of their sin and their avowal to strive to live by God’s Word.  Some see this as primarily a clerical practice – for church professionals, as it were.  But an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of AElfric bishop of Eynsham in England, probably born around 955 AD suggested the practice was more widely practiced and not limited to churchmen.

So, to say the least, there is at least a 1000 year tradition of associating ashes with repentance and sorrow, with doing so in a public way, and with doing so particularly on Ash Wednesday.

Do we have to keep doing this, then?  No, of course not.  A tradition is not made anything more than a tradition simply based on how long it’s gone on.  But that being said, there is a depth and richness to long-standing traditions.  There are benefits that can be gleaned from them, even in our day of iPhones and smart watches and self-driving cars.  Are we ever so certain that this tradition of ashes has nothing to do with us, nothing to offer us, and so can be relegated to the ash-bin of history, ecclesial or otherwise?

In a culture where death is so greatly feared and hidden away, might there be something to be gained by someone telling you to your face that you are going to die?  An existential certainty (barring Jesus’ return or another similar miracle on the scale of Enoch or Elijah) we all need to come to grips with, and should do so on a daily basis rather than in a rush at the last minute sitting in the waiting room of the doctor or breathing in the anesthesia before surgery?

I like to think that God gave us senses for a reason, to know things about ourselves and the world around us, and for him to tell us things and remind us things about ourselves and even him.  Our senses were given to us before the Fall.  They’re good, though now corrupted by sin and not nearly as reliable as  before, just like the brain they’re connected to.  Protestants, in moving away from the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, lost a lot of the sensory aspects of worship.  Not surprising, happening in the midst of the Renaissance and not long before the Enlightenment.  No surprise that the mind should push itself to the forefront and the other senses be pushed down.  Primitive.  Animalistic.  Lesser.

Maybe not.

Just as we adore music and the visual arts in worship, perhaps there is something to drawing in the other senses as well.  Perhaps this is why baptism uses water and the Lord’s Supper is something you can taste.  More of our senses engaged again in this life of faith rather than just our mind or that less definable aspect of us, the spirit/soul.

I make the ashes each year.  Following the tradition of using a palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  Not because I have to or because it makes Jesus love me more.  But because it is beautiful to me to do this, knowing that children of God have been engaging in a similar practice for nearly a thousand years.  That I, sitting on the bench outside under the shelter of our arched entrance to the Church, protected from the rain a few feet away but able to smell it and feel it  still, using a small gas lighter to turn the palms of celebration into the ashes of mourning, am not so very different from the monk a thousand years ago, sitting outside some monastery listening to the rain drip as he sought to burn palms to  ash as well.  As Normans were making preparations to launch the last successful invasion of England.  As the tribes of Europe fashioned themselves into countries.  As bombs rained down in the world wars.  As the Tesla dealership across the street starts the morning litany of test drives.  Bound together by a simple practice.

Not just individuals doing whatever I personally feel like because that is what my particular culture tells me is more important than anything else.  Doing it with other people.  For other people.  To other people.  The cult of individualism will one day come crashing to the ground into ashes, and from those ashes will arise, I hope, a new sense of the power and need and purpose of community.  Of limiting the self, of seeing membership in the whole as more beautiful than my own personal preferences.

I enjoy the ashes because they are a reminder to me, as I mix and crush the larger pieces into a finer powder before adding oil – this year nard but in previous years myrrh or frankincense – that my sin is my death, but my death is not the end.  That in going to the cross, Jesus took my sin and exchanged it for his righteousness.  Life from death.  Beauty from ashes.  Righteousness from sin.  Change from the past.

These things are what have to be, not the ashes.  I’m free to take or leave the  ashes, and so if you disagree so be it.  Just make sure you know why you’re passing them up.   And be sure you aren’t looking down on those of us who get something from them, a la Romans 14.  And I’ll try not to think less of you as well, as per the same chapter.  Because that, too, is more important than the ashes themselves.  It is part and parcel of the season of Lent that we begin today.

To God be the glory.

 

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