Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 17, 2009

Ashes & Ash Wednesday

Right now I’ve been thinking ahead to next week and the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  As I edited my church’s service folder for this week, I updated and included an old article about the imposition of ashes and other customs associated with Ash Wednesday worship.  The article is below in case you’re curious or you’d like to adapt it for your own purposes.  Some of what you’ll read here (especially the first three paragraphs) has been adapted from other WELS sources.  The actual rite that we use for the opening confession, imposition, and absolution is found in Christian Worship: Occasional Services.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian’s 40-day journey (excluding Sundays) to Jesus’ cross and his tomb to await the proclamation of Easter.  Ash Wednesday begins the Christian’s Lenten journey with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance.  The ancient practice of imposing ashes on the foreheads of Christians gives Ash Wednesday its name.  The church father Tertullian (c. 160-215 AD) writes of the practice as a public expression of repentance and of our human frailty that stands in need of Christ.  The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusively Roman Catholic practice, but today is observed widely by Christians of many traditions.

Today, midweek evening services for Lent have become the norm in Lutheran congregations, and the repentance theme of Ash Wednesday is often replaced by a focus on the Savior’s Passion, a focus at one time reserved for Holy Week alone.  In popular practice, Ash Wednesday has become the first in a series of six services that include the reading of the Passion history and a review of one or another aspect of the Savior’s suffering and death.  Most of our Lenten sermon series as well as most of the worship resources produced in our circles have placed Ash Wednesday into the regular set of midweek Lenten services.

In recent years there has been renewed interest to return to a confession and absolution focus for Ash Wednesday worship.  That confession and absolution focus will be emphasized in our service at Gloria Dei on Ash Wednesday evening.  The resources that support the use of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal also highlight that distinct theme for the first day of the Lenten season.  For example, Christian Worship suggests black, the color of sorrow and death, rather than purple as the preferred liturgical color for the day.  The Ash Wednesday Holy Communion service reflects the serious tone of the day in its restrained use of music and the omission of festive parts of the service (for example: the Song of Praise, the Creed, and all uses of “Alleluia”).  Several congregations in our Synod have also reinstituted the use of ashes.

We will include the imposition of ashes for the third consecutive year in our Ash Wednesday service this week.  The service will begin with an extended corporate confession of sins (identical to our Ash Wednesday services in recent years).  Near the end of this opening rite, worshippers who want to receive the sign of ashes will be ushered forward via the center aisle.  Participation is voluntary.  Children are welcome to participate at their parents’ discretion.  Guests are also invited to participate.

The traditional custom for the imposition of ashes is that the minister places the ashes on each person’s forehead in the shape of a cross.  If you prefer, the minister will place the ashes on the back of your hand instead.  As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (see Genesis 3:19).  Worshippers then return to their seats via the side aisles.

The goal of a custom like the imposition of ashes is to proclaim God’s law in several ways (in the confession of sins, in hymns, in the sermon, and with the use of ashes), just as we proclaim the gospel in several ways (in absolution, in hymns, in the Creed, in the sermon, in the Lord’s Supper, through visual art such as banners, and in various worship ceremonies).  Many worship scholars, both within and outside of Lutheranism, have observed that we have entered a more visual and tactile generation.  That observation has led many Christians and churches to seek visual, tactile ways to proclaim law and gospel in worship.  The Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes is one example of a tangible way to proclaim God’s Word in our worship.  May its message impress our hearts and minds with our need for Christ’s salvation!



  1. It is a good thing to see WELS congregations putting good ceremony to use. Our history is one that is weak, if not void, of ceremony. Of course, as you point out, ceremony ought to teach something. If the lesson — that is, Jesus Christ — is not being taught, the ceremony is a waste of time. Any ceremony that is done for the sake of doing something or just because it looks pretty is useless. It may even be blasphemous, as it distracts from Christ and points to us (“Don’t we feel good about what we’ve done?”).

    It also is imperative that pastors continue to teach these things. We don’t avoid ceremonies just because the Roman Catholic Church does them (we haven’t jettisoned the Lord’s Prayer for that reason), and we don’t do them just because a WELS manual has them in it. Ceremonies must stand or fall on their own worth, observing one basic criterion: Does it proclaim Christ and him crucified? If it doesn’t do that, it must be avoided. If it does do that, it should at least be explored and, hopefully, implemented.

    It has taken me only 3-4 years to implement the imposition of ashes in Novi. Now, after all this talking and teaching, we will finally introduce it this year. I pray that people will find it meaningful (doing in actions what we confess with our words) and not weird or just novel.

    God bless your Lent.

    Rev. Tom Schroeder
    Good Shepherd, Novi, Michigan

  2. This is a very interesting thread. Do you know how many WELS congregations do the imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday? From where do you get the ashes? Are they burned palm branches? Do Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Luther Prep, Michigan Lutheran Seminary and Martin Luther College offer ashes for Ash Wednesday? Was there a period of time when no WELS congregations offered ashes? If so, what is it that has brought them back?

    I am a former Roman Catholic and this is one meaningful ritual that I miss.

  3. The historic custom for producing the Ash Wednesday ashes is, as you noted, to have members return their Palm Sunday palm branches from the previous year (assuming that churches use palm branches and that families take them home after worship), then burn all the branches together, mix the ashes with a little olive oil, and use that for the Ash Wednesday rite. Our church takes the easy route and buys the ashes from a local church supply company.

    A recent entry on the WELS Q&A service addresses some of your other questions:
    [update 2/16/2010: link is no longer available]

    The end of the Q&A entry’s answer cites my essay and links to the original version of it. The up-to-date version is available on this blog site through the “Info & Bio” page.


%d bloggers like this: