Last night was our first Ash Wednesday at our new church. Even though it was Ash Wednesday, we didn't have imposition of ashes. When I discovered our new church doesn't "do" ashes, I was disappointed. For years, both as a Lutheran and previously as a Roman Catholic, I have associated the beginning of the season of Lent with the receiving of ashes on my forehead. Last night as we drove to church I decided I better let Evan know there wouldn't be ashes. I was surprised at how disappointed he was--so much so that he cried a little. To comfort him I tried to help him to see that the ashes are only a symbol--a meaningful one, for sure, but still just a symbol. I contrasted the imposition of ashes with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, pointing out that the sacraments are not symbols but are means by which God gives to us His grace and forgiveness. We need them--our spiritual life depends on them. But we don't need the ashes. God does not work through the ashes. We will not be deprived of what is truly needful if we don't get them. Maybe all of this seems terribly elementary, but I think it helped Evan to see the difference between something that is a symbol and something that is not, and to realize that the symbol might be a nice tool to aid our remembrance and our reflection, but it is not essential to our salvation and therefore not necessary to our worship life.
Guess what? I don't think any of us missed the ashes last night. The service was so beautiful and rich in God's word and sacraments, and the theme of Ash Wednesday so powerfully communicated in the liturgy, that the message came through unequivocally without them: "We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6:4) If our new church ever decides to include imposition of ashes, or if we ever attend a church in the future where we have the opportunity to partake in this outward acknowledgement of our sinful, mortal flesh, I will probably participate. But I don't need ashes on my forehead to tell me what I already know: I am a poor, miserable sinner who, like Adam, was formed from dust and will return to dust. What I absolutely do need, to redeem me from that awful truth, is the salvation and forgiveness of sins that come through Holy Baptism and Communion, which are not mere symbols but conduits of the Father's love and grace.
To read one Lutheran pastor's thoughts about why his confessional, liturgical church has made an intentional decision against the imposition of ashes in its Ash Wednesday service, click here.