Posted on February 13th, 2013
The ashes are not a Sacrament, nor are they a game.
A Sacrament is an earthly thing that God attaches to His Word of promise to give us His gifts. Baptism is a Sacrament, because there is an earthly thing—water—and there is His Word joined to it: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the FAther and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The promises are all over the place. Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” St. Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; for the promise is for you and your children, and to all who are afar off.” And later Peter says, “Baptism now saves you.” So Baptism is a Sacrament: it has God’s Word of promise attached to an earthly thing, water.
Also the Lord’s Supper is a Sacrament. There are earthly things—bread and wine—and Jesus’ Words, “This is My body,” “This is My blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.” So there’s a Sacrament, with earthly things—bread and wine—and God’s promises attached to it.
But the ashes are not a sacrament. They are an earthly thing, to be sure: burnt palm branches, mixed with a little olive oil. They won’t hurt you. They’re not hot or even yucky, just a little dirty. And there is a Word of God that we use with them: “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is based on Genesis 3, what God said to Adam after he turned away from God.
But there’s no promise there. Not in the ashes, and not in the words. The ashes are death, and the words are death. You might not want to receive them. And don’t worry: if you don’t want to come up, for whatever reason, then don’t. I won’t be mad, and neither will your teacher. Only do it if you want to.
The truth is, I don’t like giving out the ashes. I love baptizing people. I love giving out the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus at Holy Communion. That’s the happiest part of my week, every single time. But I don’t like giving out the ashes. You know why? Because it reminds me that you are going to die. The littler you are, the worse it is. It’s awful. Death is awful.
Death is not the way God made the world to be. Just the opposite! He made the world for life, and He made us to live!
No, there’s no promise in the ashes, and so they are not a Sacrament. But they’re not a game. It’s not fun, it’s not silly, it’s not cool, and it’s nothing to be proud of.
The words will come back some day: Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. That sounds very much like a funeral, where the pastor says a blessing: “We now commit [this body] to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”. But thanks be to God, the words don’t stop there! The pastor gets to keep going to the good part: “… in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”
That’s where we are going. Ash Wednesday ends in Easter. The ashes end in lilies. The cross ends in resurrection. Death ends in life.
The ashes aren’t a sacrament, nor are they a game. But they do remind us of who we are—dying sinners—and who Jesus is. For onto our heads is traced a cross, the sign of Jesus who gave everything for us, and loves us still.