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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Why ashes? Why fasting? - a reply to the scoffer


Today someone asked publicly why we "smear" ashes on people on Ash Wednesday, using that verb in rather obvious disgust for the practice. He's not alone in his scoffing, so an answer to the question is in order.

What do you suppose the king of Nineveh would see as the benefit of ashes? For he did not merely "smear" ashes on his forehead; he did more. He laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and actually sat in ashes; and then he cried mightily unto the Lord. And he proclaimed a fast, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God. 

The ashes we impose on the forehead on Ash Wednesday are just a token of the extent to which the Ninevites went. In fact, our entire Lenten fast is also a token of it. But I'm guessing you, O scoffer, might have a problem with fasting too, since you tend to think that if you confess your sins and your faith in Christ you've taken the matter far enough. The very same objections you give against the imposition of ashes could be given against fasting, so I'll take the liberty of defending both practices at once.

Now consider what happened to the Ninevites who bodily sat in ashes and fasted, for the result answers your question: God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. 

Maybe this sounds like heresy to you. What? Got saw their works?  Their fasting? Their ashes? But there you are O scoffer: it's in the Bible. These very works were the evidence of their repentance. Maybe some people do these things for the wrong reason, but they didn't.

Here's the right reason we impose ashes, uttered every  time they are imposed on someone's forehead: Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and  unto dust shalt  thou return. 

And yes, you can certainly do that remembering without the bodily accompaniment of ashes on the forehead. But ashes, as the Church has known for a very long time, make the point rather more directly: they are the very dust toward which you shall return. There's a very literal and physical connection made here. That's what the Lenten fast is about too. But we don't fast to win points of merit with God; we do it because it's a fine outward training (didn't I read that somewhere?); we do it for the same reason St. Paul fastedt often. We do it to make that bodily connection with our repentance, to remember, ultimately, that Jesus himself did it, and much more, for us.

It's easy to dismiss these practices as Roman Catholic baggage. But it's also ignorant, because fasting and ashes are in the Bible. And you certainly have no business showing disdain for a laudable Christian custom. So I will continue to smear ashes on Ash Wednesday, and if you want to smear me for doing so, I'll be content; for I am in good company, among the Ninevites who were spared.