Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Try 2: A Response to Rev. Cwirla on Ashes

I don’t disagree – exactly – with Pr. Cwirla. He is certainly free to guide his parish as he sees best in these things. But I don’t find his actual arguments here to be persuasive. Here is a re-write that I could say “amen” to:

Why We Do Ashes on Ash Wednesday

People always ask me, “Are you going to do the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday?” They know I’m one of those “liturgical types”, and we’re one of those “liturgical” churches whose attendance is flat because we don’t have a drum set in the chancel, so they figure we’re naturally going to be slinging the ashes on Ash Wednesday. After all, what’s the point of having Ash Wednesday without ashes? They, of course, are on to something.

To be sure, the imposition of ashes, is about 600 years old, sort of a new comer to liturgical practice, but not nearly as young as corporate confession and absolution or the use of colors to symbolize seasonal emphasis. I guess you could say one reason we do ashes on Ash Wednesday is because we submit to the traditions of the Church rather than trying to correct everything that we think could be better or more pure, but there are better reasons.

Hear the prophet Joel: “Yet even now,” declare the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”

Why ashes on Ash Wednesday? Ashes were an OT sign of mourning. Ashes went along with scratchy, burlap clothing. Sackcloth and ashes. You piled ashes on your head and dressed in sackcloth to remind yourself that you were laid low in the dust. Ashes were not something someone else put on you, they were something you put on yourself as a sign of your own grief and death. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” Adam was the man of dust, and by his fault, his own fault, his own most grievous fault, he was headed back to the dust in death.

Sin is dirty business. It is not simply skin deep, like a topical application of greasy palm ashes. It goes to the core of our soul as an inherited, systemic disease. A topical treatment won’t cure it – not the application of ashes or of water - any more than a dab of ointment and a bandaid can cure cancer. But outward signs and reminders are good for those of us who live in and with the flesh and even as we don’t apply water in Holy Baptism apart from the Word of God and faith, so also the ashes are applied with God’s own lawful Word: “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Still, “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” God says. Does that mean it is wrong to rend our garments? Symbolic gestures alone just won’t cut it when it comes to repentance, but they certainly have power. Symbols aren’t whatever we say they are. We can try, but we can’t make the swatiska a symbol of peace. We can’t make feces a symbol of food. We might try to run symbols under our control, like agents of propaganda, which is the way our sinful self likes it, but it is rarely as easy as that. That is not to say that ashes have instituted by the Lord. They haven’t. They are a Biblical ceremony, an ancient and salutary custom, but they are not essential. They are not Divine.

We must distinguish, in all cases, between what the Lord gives and what the Church does in here freedom. The Lord has not instituted the sign of the cross, kneeling, chanting, incense, Christmas Day, or a host of other things. He has instituted (I confess a dislike for the Law word “mandate” which mean, of course, “command”) His Holy Word, prayer, Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Absolution, the Office of the Holy Ministry, Holy Marriage, and probably a few other things, but He hasn’t instituted ceremonies – not one. What we call “sacraments,” for lack of a better term, are actually are what they say they are, even if they don’t look like it or we don’t feel like it. Baptism isn’t a symbol of rebirth: it actually is rebirth. The Lord’s Supper isn’t a symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood as food and drink: it actually is the Lord’s risen Body and Blood given for food. The Holy Absolution isn’t a symbolic gesture of forgiveness: it actually is forgiveness. You actually are forgiven as those absolving words enter your ears and perfuse your mind and heart.

Still, there is more to the life of the Church than the bare minimum. The Lord has given us a heritage and that heritage is itself a gift. Fallen human beings are always limited in their scope and interests. The generation that preceded us in this country was mainly blind to the gift of Holy Absolution despite the fact that it is one sixth of the Small Catechism, included in the Constitution of the LC-MS, and is throughout the Confessions and the Bible. We are blind to things also. There is, for example, a danger in us to judge even the Scriptures and Creeds according to our current understanding of the necessary distinction between Law and Gospel. Who among us hasn’t cringed a bit during the Athanasian Creed’s assertion “those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire?” The Scriptures themselves contain many statements like this. We like to explain them away. Our sinful nature likes categories that are neat and solid. It gives us a false sense of control and a place for our vanity to think itself clever. The categories, “Law,” and “Gospel,” are, in and of themselves Law distinctions and thus subject to perversion and abuse.Submitting to the traditions on the Church that don't fit perfectly within our modern understanding, but aren't heretical, is way of acknowledging that we have blind spots and aren't perfect confessors.

What we need, of course, at all times and places is the Word of God. The Word of God cuts straight to the heart: accusing and acquitting, afflicting and comforting, killing and making alive. It belongs to the Office of the Holy Ministry, not to put soot on the foreheads of the faithful, but to preach Law and Gospel. But neither does it belong to the Office to wear vestments, to chant, or guide the Church in architecture, art, and music. Still, those things, including soot, all serve the preaching of Law and Gospel. We are not reductionists. It is not only the Office that washes clean of sin and death with the bloodied words of Jesus. It is the preaching Office, but it is not only the preaching Office. It is also the shepherding and teaching Office.

Now don’t get me wrong here. Our new hymnal makes provision of ashes under a “may” rubric, which means we’re free not to do it. (Thank God for “may” rubrics!) I’m not going to condemn anyone for a symbolic gesture or a lack of a symbolic gesture. It is fine with me if some pastors choose to wear violet vestments – a novelty in the history of the church far younger than ashes – during Lent. It is fine with me if some choose to not receive or to not even offer ashes and still call the day “Ash Wednesday.” But I reserve the right to examine a bit deeper what I show the world about our faith in Christ and our heritage in the Church, and I admit some resentment of those who would claim some superior insight or depth either way.

I suppose if we wanted to engage in hyperbole we talk about “getting the symbolism right” and then we would need to be smeared not just our faces but our whole bodies with feces and vomit. Then the pastor would not just stick his hand in the Baptismal font for some symbolic water to wash the faithful off but would lick them clean, taking the filth into himself. But that is ridiculous. In fact, I would argue, the Church already got the symbolism “right.” The faithful aren’t smeared with sin and death. They get a token, a reminder of sin and death, through the symbol of ashes and they get the very clear and certain Word of God: “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

We deal in what is real. You have a real death. You are dust, and you are going to dust, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is the Word of God in the ceremony. Deal with it. Medicine can’t save you, good works can’t save you, you can’t save you. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” Maybe you don’t need a soiled forehead to remind you of that. That is fine. But maybe you are weak in your flesh, maybe you are vain, maybe you are given to denying the reality of this death. I know I am. Maybe you aren’t. Or maybe you have some negative associations with ashes from your past that keep you away. That is just fine. But for some, for the last few hundred years, the ashes have been a way to remember, to submit to the judgment of God against our sins and confess our dusty death.

Still, the Lord says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” It is heart-rending, what sin does to us. It destroys our homes, our marriages, our lives. It divides us from God and from each other. It turns us inward on ourselves, isolating us in our own narcissism, binding us in a self-styled prison of lust and anger and lies. It grinds us down to death and the grave. That is the point, ultimately, of the ashes. Sin has and is killing us. If that doesn’t break your heart, that’s even more heartbreaking. Consider how callous and hardened our hearts become under the constant abrasion of sin. Truly, if that doesn’t break your heart, then no ceremony will, and if you rend only your garments, you are damned.

That is we do ashes on Ash Wednesday. The church is an embassy of good news, a place where sinners can die a blessed death and live forever, a refuge for the weary beaten down by the law, a place where the soil and soot of Adam’s sin and our own can be washed away and we can live our lives by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself up for us. We face death all day long, but in our sinfulness we deny and forget it. The good news the Church preaches is only good news for those who are dying. So that we know we are dying, even so that we feel it, we impose ashes. The ashes, of course, are not the end. We don’t go home after the ashes. We continue to hear the Word of God, to be absolved, and to partake of His living, risen Body and Blood.

The Christian life does have a bit of discipline to it – though its exact forms vary from place to place and person to person. We are at the beginning of Lent. For most of us, Lent is a time of self-discipline, like returning to the gym after a flabby winter. Jesus issued some warning regarding public displays of piety – prayer, alms-giving, fasting. And you heard Him say, “Do not do these things to be seen by men; rather do them in secret before your Father in heaven.”

When you pray, Jesus said, don’t babble like pagans or parade your piety like the religious who love to be seen being religious, but go to your room and pray in secret to your Father in heaven. Of course, we still pray publicly in Church. The point is not that we shouldn’t pray in public but that we shouldn’t do so to impress others. In the same way, when you gives alms to the poor, don’t make a big show out of it and trumpet your generosity all over the neighborhood. Don’t even let your left hand keep book on what your right hand is doing.

And when you fast, Jesus says, wash you face and comb your hair and don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. This is between you and your Father in heaven. These things are done in freedom, not under compulsion or law, the way children play at the feet of their Father. This doesn’t mean that they are done in secret. It means we are not to judge one another in these things nor do them for the sake of gaining praise or honor from men.

Don’t worry about showing your good works such as almsgiving, prayers, and fasting to others. A city on a hill can’t be hid. The point is not to keep secrets about your piety but that your piety would grow from your faith.“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Don’t worry about it. Just live by the grace you’ve been given. The Lord will work through you – whether you know it or not. You can talk about fasting to your friends and loved ones. In fact, doing so can be a means of encouragement. No one gains favor with God on account of his or her works, but the Lord does use the works of His children for good in this world. Children see their mother’s prayers in church and are moved to imitate her. Insofar as she desires their approval and seeks to gain their praise, she sins. But what do we do, brothers, with perfect motives? Insofar as she is a forgiven sinner in Christ, she performs a good, disciplined, deliberate work that is good for her and good for her children - not because she is perfect or free from sin but because God is merciful in Christ.

“If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

You are in an embassy of reconciliation. You have come to the ministry of reconciliation, where enemies are declared friends, where weapons are checked at the door, where the flag of the King of kings flies high declaring the mercy of the cross, and men are free to fold their hands or not, to close their eyes or keep them open, to kneel or stand or sit, to receive ashes or not.

You have been rescued from the dust of death by the second Adam, Jesus the Christ, who in His own perfect, human flesh went down into the dust of your sin, your death, your grave, to pull you up from the dust. Dust you are, and to dust you will return. Yes. This is most certainly true. But there is a yet greater truth, one that follows the first: From the dust you shall rise to eternal life in Christ Jesus, who though sinless became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God.

He has washed away the dirt of your death in your Baptism. He has cleansed your lips and your life with His own Body and Blood. He has forgiven your sins. He has given you a new heart, beating the rhythm of His own heart that was broken to save you. He has given you a life you could not have on your own, a life overflowing with the undeserved mercy of God. He has taken away those rough garments of sackcloth, the itchy abrasiveness of sin, and swapped them with a seamless white robe of righteousness.

So if anyone asks you tomorrow why we do ashes on Ash Wednesday, you can simply say this, “I was lost and I am found. I was dead and am made alive. I was in desperate need of a Savior and the Lord provided Jesus. I’ve been washed by the blood and water of Jesus’ own death for me. I am a baptized child of God. Dust I may be and to dust I will go, but dust never had it so good as to be embraced in the death and life of Jesus.”


  1. Pardon the first post. I am functionally incompetent at blogging, copying and pasting, etc. The first post, now deleted, simply re-posted Rev. Cwirla's orginal argument. You can, of course, read his argument and should - it can be found by following the link included in the post.

  2. Obviously not the point of your post, but wrt: "It is fine with me if some pastors choose to wear violet vestments – a novelty in the history of the church far younger than ashes – during Lent."

    Would you be willing to say more on that? What was the color for Lent? Black? Just curious.

    Pr. Timothy Winterstein

    1. I am just repeating what I've heard. I don't know the whole history but liturgical colors are fairly recent in the Church. They certainly weren't in use during Luther's time.

      Part of Pastor Cwirla's argument was that the imposition of ashes is a novelty because it is only 600 years old and that it is only symbolic. I was simply trying to make the point that we readily and happily engage in other symbolic ceremonies, such as seasonal colors, that are younger.

  3. I couldn't find the link to his initial argument anywhere in your post, but I could have simply missed it. Would you put it in the comments?

  4. Sorry about that. I fixed it above. Here is the link again: http://thefirstpremise.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/why-we-dont-do-ashes-on-ash-wednesday-by-rev-william-cwirla/

  5. I was just wondering where the proposition comes from that, "The categories, 'Law,' and 'Gospel,' are, in and of themselves Law distinctions and thus subject to perversion and abuse."

    It is pretty easy to envision certain paradoxes that would nullify the entire distinction between Law and Gospel. Examples: (1) the categories are of Law therefore they are written, albeit in a darkened way in the human heart. This implies that the natural man already knows the Gospel without hearing it. (2) The Gospel, as parcel to the Law, semper accusat.

    Just curious how one can cordially maintain the idea that the distinction between Law and Gospel can be subsumed as Law without the result being the destruction of that distinction.

    I think it only has a minor impact on the discussion at hand, but in truth, it may be the most important proposition in the whole post.

    1. Categories, by definition, are of the Law because they limit. The danger is that our rules and boxes become what matters instead of God's Word. This is pretty well understood as the error of scholasticism.

    2. Categories are chiefly Aristotelian in their origin, depending on what you mean by them, and Aristotle was (if not the) a problem in scholasticism.

      Linking the distinction between Law and Gospel (by any route) back to scholasticism seems incredibly out of place to me. I confess to not know the value of that.

      The Gospel, meanwhile, does not limit, per se, as a category must, according the basic sense invoked. Making the dead come to life is not limiting them. Forgiveness of sins is not a limitation we place on sinners. How then is Gospel to be reckoned as a category?

      If there is some use to that idea that I don't understand, I apologize for my intrusions, I just think this is an approach that confuses me.

    3. As far as I'm concerned, this assertion that the distinction between Law and Gospel is itself a Law distinction is such a brilliant piece of insight that it's worthy of a separate post, or perhaps even of a book.

      This is not to say, as I read it anyway, that Law and Gospel themselves are written on the heart, but that the importance of making the distinction between them is written on the heart, for the simple reason that the importance of making any distinction at all is a matter of law. That is to say, the need to distinguish right from wrong, or good from evil, or light from darkness is written on the heart, and as such subject to abuse.

      And yes, this is the error of scholasticism.

    4. The Gospel doesn't limit. The category "Gospel" does.

    5. I agree that it would be a great thing to expound carefully, so that other brothers like myself can understand where it is coming from fairly and without putting a defense mechanism.

      I would hope to see a post on it, if possible. I thought it was the most important (or my opinion, possible dangerous) proposition I read.

      I would really be happier to say amen in unity, if that proposition really made sense to me.

    6. If you would prefer a solution that would work for me personally, I can write my concerns, put a link to it, and then in the context of my full thoughts, perhaps it will be easier to point out to me what I need to know. Or we can just drop the matter. I am not a pastor, so I may actually have a little more free time, not sure if writing a piece like this is something you want to take on in the near future.

    7. I haven't understood him, really, completely, but I think Oswald Bayer is talking about this in Theology the Lutheran Way where he discusses whether theology is wisdom or science and says, "science is wisdom, understood as law, in its political, secular use" (124).

    8. Sorry I got out of whack over the phrase. If it is any use in the future, I went ahead and tried to lay out my sense of the things. I agree that the distinction between Law and Gospel can be used erroneously against anything that resembles a human ceremony, as though by imposition of ashes one had failed to distinguish Law and Gospel. I don't think that is a proper use of the distinction between Law and Gospel. I actually assert that the distinction between Law and Gospel must always be treated with Justification alone in view. Anyways, here is my post if it turns out to be of any use.


  6. Dr. Bucher has a better history of Ash Wednesday. The ceremony is more than 1000 years old, actually - if you don't count, you know, the stuff the in Bible.

    Read all about it: http://www.orlutheran.com/html/ash.html


  7. I'm not sure whose words are which in all of the above, but it isn't true that "He hasn’t instituted ceremonies – not one." The Lord's Supper, for example, is THE ceremony par excellence. Our Confessions likewise define the Sacraments as ceremonies to which the Word of the Gospel has been attached:

    "A Sacrament is a ceremony or work in which God presents to us what the promise of the ceremony offers" (Ap. XXIV, 18).

    That which God has not commanded or forbidden (including the imposition of ashes) is free. The way in which we use our freedom in relation to our neighbor is governed by the Law of Christ, which is the Law of Christian love.

    Choosing not to do something is as much an exercise of freedom as choosing to do something. And especially when the choice to NOT do something is publicly announced and asserted, that is as much a ceremony as doing the thing would be. It frankly isn't possible to live in the world without ceremonies of one sort or another. Most of those are free; some are forbidden, because they are sinful; and a few of them are given to us by God as the very Gospel of Christ, the Word-made-Flesh.

    1. Fr. Stuckwisch,

      It seems to me that there is another category, perhaps subtler, into which fit ceremonies that are generally commanded but not specifically commanded (insert ye olde form vs. substance distinction here, if you like, but that's not the only distinction). For example: the General Prayer of TLH fulfils the command in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for all people (lex orandi), yet the General Prayer itself isn't commanded. To say that the General Prayer isn't commanded by God and leave it at that is to miss the point entirely, and to conclude that we can do whatever we'd like is simply a non sequitur.

      The command to pray (lex orandi)was given by St. Paul. The command to use the General Prayer was given, once upon a time, by the LCMS. The same applies to the Lord's Supper, as you mention.

      My comments do leave out the Gospel, which is something else entirely, but it seems to me that when people ignore the Law in the liturgy then they just become liturgical Antinomians.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Phil. I'm not sure what to say, because I understand and basically agree with the points that you are making here. My points were a bit less ambitious: first of all to say that there are ceremonies commanded by God, and second to say that choosing not to do something is also a ceremony in its own way.

      But, as I've also pointed out, it's not possible to live life on earth without ceremonies; nor is it possible to do those things that Christ has given us to do without ceremonies. Aside from those that are explicitly necessary, there are others, as you say, which are implicitly necessary; and beyond those, there will be other ceremonies, too, within a range of freedom. Bodies living in space and time can't function apart from ceremonies.

      And to return to my other main point: Saying, "Look at what I'm NOT doing," is no different than saying, "Look at what I am doing." Keeping your forehead clean on Ash Wednesday, in itself, is just as "skin deep" as receiving ashes upon it. Faith in Christ can do, or not do, either one to the glory of God. But faith in Christ is not inclined to say, "Look at me," either way.

    3. Thanks, Rick. For clarity, those words were mine, not Rev. Cwirla's. His point was that the Lord didn't institute ashes. I was trying to say that the Lord didn't institute any ceremony but only the Sacraments - whatever those are.

      I was using the word "ceremony" differently than Art XXIV does at the point your quote, but not out of sync with the Art XXIV or the rest of the Book of Concord. I did a quick search of the Kolb-Wengert translation. The word is used in different ways but usually carries an adjective. I should have probably said "ceremonies instituted by men" or even "godly ceremonies." Surprisingly, "godly ceremonies" aren't instituted by God but are ceremonies which serve to teach the people about Christ.

      Not only can we, but we must, distinguish between the ceremonies of the Mass that aid the faithful but have been instituted by men and that which the Lord has given. The elevation is a godly ceremony. Bread is a ceremony in which God presents to us what the promise of the ceremony offers.

      And, of course, I agree that we can't do anything without human ceremonies and also that human ceremonies can be good. In this, I am fairly confident, Rev. Cwirla would also wholeheartedly agree. It is quite clear in his original writing that despite the fact that he considers the imposition of ashes to be weak and not seriously considered that he also recognizes and affirms the freedom that allows us to do it.

    4. Thanks for your further comments, Dave. We're on the same page with all this, but I do think the clarity and precision of language is important. Of course, I absolutely agree that we must distinguish between ceremonies instituted by men and ceremonies commanded by God. But, in view of common attitudes toward ceremony in general, I believe it is likewise quite important to stress the ceremonial character of the Sacraments. Fleeing from ceremony as such, is no different from any other gnostic flight from God's good creation.

      The Sacraments are not just incidentally, but integrally, ceremonies instituted by God. They are bodily and external, not by accident, but by design. They "run with" the goodness of creation, and with the Gospel of the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto the resurrection of our own bodies unto the life everlasting.

      And along with all of these other sacred, foundational and central works of God, the Sacraments necessitate the use of other ceremonies: not specific jots and tittles, but some other ceremonies are required in the administering and reception, the approaching unto and taking leave from the Sacraments. God has so designed it that we live and move in time and space with our bodies, and our souls are not saved apart from our bodies. Which is, as I understood it, part of the point you were making in your "response" or addendum to Pastor Cwirla.

      As far as the imposition of ashes is concerned, I'm actually somewhat ambivalent. I can see either side of the the discussion, but I don't have strong opinions for or against the practice. I'm pleased to provide the opportunity for the members of my congregation. Where the opportunity is not provided, the acknowledged freedom of this ceremony is practically taken away from those Christians who would like to avail themselves of it. But a pastor should care for his own flock and catechize them according to his conscientious convictions.


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