Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday of the seventh week before Easter and the first day of Lent. The day is named for the practice of imposing ashes, a practice which many Lutheran congregations have found to be a very meaningful part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
Using ashes as a sign of repentance is an ancient practice, often mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 6:26; Matthew 11:21). The early Christians adopted the use of ashes from Jewish practice as an external mark of penitence.
Ashes symbolize several aspects of our human existence:
- Ashes remind us of God's condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
- Ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used anciently in the absence of soap. On Ash Wednesday ashes are a penitential substitute for water as a reminder of our baptism.
- Ashes remind us of the shortness of human life, for it is said as we are buried: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
- Ashes are a symbol of our need to repent, confess our sins, and return to God.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pages 251-255, the confession and imposition of ashes follow the proclamation of the Word of God in biblical readings, sermon, and song. This confession marks the beginning of a season of penitence. The Maundy Thursday absolution is the structural response to the Ash Wednesday confession, marking off Lent as a penitential time. At the conclusion of the Ash Wednesday confession and imposition of ashes, a declaration of grace is used, coupled with a plea for mercy.
The Imposition of Ashes
Those who desire to receive the ashes come forward and may kneel before the altar. Ashes are applied with the minister's thumb in the form of a small cross on the forehead of each person with the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." If the congregation is large, assisting ministers may also impose ashes. Several prie-dieu for kneeling can be stationed in appropriate places for the imposition so that people can freely move to them as they choose. Ushering is not necessary.
Silence may be kept or appropriate music can accompany the imposition of ashes. Appropriate hymns, songs, or choral works include:
- Evangelical Lutheran Worship
601 Savior, when in dust to you
600 Out of the depths I cry to you
- With One Voice
733 Our Father, we have wandered
- This Far by Faith
150 Pass me not, O gentle Savior
- Worship and Praise
28 Change my heart, O God
158 You are mine
- Taizé: Songs for Prayer
Bless the Lord (Psalm 103). GIA G-4956
Robert Moore. "Have mercy, O Lord." GIA G-3670. SATB, cantor, congregation, keyboard
Scott, K. Lee. "Out of the depths I cry to thee." Augsburg Fortress Press 11-4644. Two part, keyboard.
The music may continue until the ministers have cleansed their hands and all have returned to their places.
Making Your Own Ashes
Ashes are made from the palms used to observe the Sunday of the Passion. A few palms make a lot of ashes.
Cut the palms into small pieces with scissors.
Burn them in a brazier. Add a little rubbing alcohol to make them burn easier.
Rub the ashes through a fine wire mesh sieve.
Store the ashes in a sealed plastic bag. They will last for years.
If you prefer, you can purchase palm ash and ash vessels from Augsburg Fortress.
Preparing for the imposition of ashes
Mix the ashes with a few drops of olive or mineral oil until the ashes are just moist enough to bind together and will adhere to your skin.
Place the ashes in a small bowl. The quantity of ash needed will not be large.
A lavabo bowl and towel should be provided for cleansing the minister's hands after the imposition. Add a small amount of lemon juice or a few drops of liquid hand soap to the water in the bowl.
Place the ashes, lavabo bowl and towel on a credence table.
- Stauffer, S. Anita. Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. ISBN: 0806638966.
- Sundays and Seasons. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. A comprehensive worship planning guide based on the Revised Common Lectionary and the church year.