Wednesday, February 14, 2024

I like the idea of ashes, but. . . .

Lutherans are a curious lot.  Some of us like the idea of things traditional except when they lead us beyond the comfort zone of our own historic practice.  I do not quite mean Lutheran historic practice here but our own personal experience.  We like that Scripture says, for example, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.  We do not like the idea that this might mean we should go down on our knees.  So it is with Ash Wednesday.  We like the idea of repentance and confession but we are not quite ready as Lutherans in the 21st century to say that we all should be marking people with the cross in palm ash.  

You can do your own study of Scripture to see how often outward acts accompany inward attitudes of repentance.  Only a fool would say that ashes as an external mark of repentance is absent in Scripture.  Furthermore, Jesus is not saying anything about ashes when He warns against those who wear their piety on the exterior without faith in the heart.  In fact, Jesus is not suggesting that fasting or almsgiving or even ashes are wrong but only warning against an external piety in every form and fashion that has no internal parallel in the heart.  Fasting is not a bad thing unless it is an outward act without the piety of the heart forming and giving the act a context.  Jesus would surely say the same about the opposite.  There is nothing good about a piety which is only internal and never moves the person to actually fast or give to the poor or outwardly repent and live according to the voice of the Word.  Christ does not want to be buried so deep down in our hearts that He does not live in us through our words and works, or does He countenance such an invisible faith?

The historic Christian usage of ashes is spoken of by Tertullian(c. 160 – c. 225). In his On Repentance Ch. 11 Tertullian complains about those who claim repentance but do not want to demean themselves with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.  Is he talking about us Lutherans?  Eusebius (c. 260- c. 340) also records the liturgical use of ashes as a sign of public repentancel (Church History Bk5, Ch 28, par. 12).  While not quite a uniform practice in the entire Church, already by the late 7th and early 8th century there is pretty strong evidence the practice was uniform in Western Europe.  The Venerable Bede (672-735) preached  sermons on Ash Wednesday; for example: Homily 37 “in die Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:349); Homily 38 “in fiera quinta post Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:350), etc.  The 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary speaks of Lent's beginning and ashes.  Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), an English abbot, preached upon Ash Wednesday -- Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, ed. p. 23):

“On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God’s command….

“Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads,"

The Council of Benevento in AD 1090 records Pope Urban II making standard the use ashes on Ash Wednesday rendering the practice the uniform beginning of the Lenten Fast. (Nilles, 1897 Kalendarium Manuale vol II, p. 94.)  What went wrong with Lutherans?   It is the few rather than the many who would find some way to object to the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Furthermore, all the cautions that are offered by those who reject the practice are directed at straw men who never promote the abuse at all.  At some point in time we Lutherans have to get it together.

1 comment:

Nathan Rinne said...

saw this right before this: