Vocabulary —Ash Wednesday

FAQ: What is the significance of Ash Wednesday and ashes on the forehead?

Woman with her eyes closed while a hand makes a black cross on her forehead.

A: Luther­an Wor­ship: His­to­ry and Prac­tice, a com­men­tary on Luther­an Wor­ship, one of our [LCMS] Luther­an Church Mis­souri Synod’s hym­nals, says this about ash­es on Ash Wednes­day: “Oth­er cus­toms may be used, par­tic­u­lar­ly the impo­si­tion of ash­es on those who wish it. This ancient act is a ges­ture of repen­tance and a pow­er­ful reminder about the mean­ing of the day. Ash­es can sym­bol­ize dust-to-dust-ness and remind wor­shipers of the need for cleans­ing, scrub­bing and puri­fy­ing. If they are applied dur­ing an act of kneel­ing, the very pos­ture of defeat and sub­mis­sion express­es humil­i­ty before God.”

A palm branch burning with ashes being collected and the words Ash Wednesday

The use of ash­es on Ash Wednes­day is a more recent cus­tom among most LCMS con­gre­ga­tions, although some have done it for decades. It is cus­tom­ary to derive the ash­es from the burned palm branch­es used the pre­vi­ous Palm Sun­day. Expe­ri­ence will show, how­ev­er, that in obtain­ing ash­es this way, it doesn’t take many ash­es to “ash” a whole con­gre­ga­tion. Like sin, they are very dirty and go a long way. One palm leaf pro­duces enough ash­es for sev­er­al years.

Usu­al­ly the pas­tor takes the ash­es on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the fore­head of each wor­shiper, say­ing these words: “Remem­ber: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This fol­lows most effec­tive­ly pri­or (or as part of) the Ser­vice Cor­po­rate Con­fes­sion and Abso­lu­tion on pp. 290–291 of Luther­an Ser­vice Book.  -LCMS Fre­quent­ly asked ques­tions


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