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.
God has not bequeathed us the gift of faith to deal with trivial things but rather to confront grave matters such as: Death, sin, the world and the Devil. For the world is not capable of resisting Death, but, instead, the world is terrified and runs away from Death, but is in the end defeated by him. But faith remains steadfast and resists Death who devours the whole world. Faith gains the victory over Death and then swallow up this insatiable devourer of life.
Martin Luther, taken from Luther Brevier, p59
Gorging and getting drunk the day before Ash Wednesday probably wasn’t what the Lord meant when he said to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
-Russell Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ
The discipline of the body over food, which God designed through cycles of both fasting and feasting, is necessary to recognize God’s fatherly goodness and sovereignty. That’s what Mardi Gras in relation to Lent gets right. No person’s appetite is sovereign. It is balanced out by the larger considerations of worship, life, culture, family, society. A life that is all fast or all feast is disordered to the core.
Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ
Comments on a recent post on Baptism brought to mind Luther’s letter attached to his revision of the rite. Of particular note is the importance of ongoing prayer and catechesis for children who are baptized.
Martin Luther to all Christian Readers:
Grace and Peace in Christ our Lord.
I daily see the carelessness and disrespect—not to say frivolity—with which the high, holy, and comforting sacrament of Baptism is being administered to little children.…
In all Christian earnestness, I would ask all those who administer Baptism, who hold the children, or witness it, to take this wonderful work to heart in all its seriousness. For here, in the words of these prayers, you hear how meekly and earnestly the Christian Church concerns itself about the little child and how it confesses before God in plain undoubting words that he is possessed by the devil and is a child of sin and wrath, and prays very diligently for aid and grace through Baptism that he may become a child of God.
Remember, then, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy. Remember too that it is very necessary to aid the poor child with all your heart and strong faith, earnestly to intercede for him/her that God, in accordance with this prayer, would not only free him from the power of the devil, but also strengthen him, so that he may nobly resist the devil in life and death. And I suspect that people turn out so badly after Baptism because our concern for them has been cold and careless; we, at their Baptism, interceded for them without zeal.
Remember too that in Baptism the external things are the least important, such as blowing under the eyes, signing with the Cross, putting salt into the mouth, spittle and clay into the ears, anointing, signing the crown of the head with chrism, putting on the christening robe, placing a burning candle in the hand, and whatever else has been added to extol Baptism. Baptism can be performed without all these, and they do not frighten the devil. He sneers at greater things than these!
See to it, then that you are present in true faith, listen to God’s Word, and earnestly join in prayer. For when the pastor says, ‘Let us pray,’ he is urging you to join with him in prayer. And all sponsors and the others present should repeat with him the words of his prayer in their hearts, to God. For this reason the pastor should say these prayers very clearly and slowly, so that the sponsors may hear and comprehend them and pray with him with one accord in their hearts, earnestly carrying the need of the little child before God, setting themselves against the devil with all their strength on behalf of the child, and showing that they realize this is no joke, especially not to the devil!
For this reason only faithful pastors should baptize and faithful Christians should serve as sponsors, who can be expected to treat Baptism with seriousness and true faith, lest the holy sacrament be made a mockery for the devil and an insult to God, who through it showers us with the abundant and infinite riches of His grace. He Himself calls it a new birth by which we are being freed from all the tyranny of the devil, loosed from sin, death and hell, and become children of life, heirs of all the gifts of God, God’s own children, and brethren of Christ. Let us not be indolent and indifferent, for Baptism is our only comfort and admits us to every blessing of God and to the communion of all saints. To this may God help us. Amen.
One of the thorniest issues any LCMS pastor has to deal with is admission to the Lord’s Table. As pastor of a congregation in the inner suburbs of a major metropolitan area that sees frequent visitors for work, military service, and vacation, I’ve had all of the following kinds of experiences, sometimes on the same Sunday:
There are numerous issues at work, but the most challenging is the utter disconnect between our culture’s emphasis on individual piety vs. the concern of closed communion practice with church membership/fellowship among churches.
Thus I read with interest Dr. Robert Benne’s piece “The March for Life and the Tale of Three Lutheran Churches.” Benne—who delivered a fine paper at the LCMS Life Conference held in conjunction with the March for Life—sounds a note of displeasure regarding the communion practice of the LCMS as observed at the Divine Service before the March for Life:
What about the LCMS? The traditionalists who prevailed in the great divisions of the late 60s and early 70s in the LCMS, chronicled dramatically by James Burkee in his Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod, purged the LCMS of theological and political liberals. The purging was done on the basis of the “doctrinal position” of official Missouri, elaborated in The Brief Statement of 1932 and the Statement on Scriptural and Confessional Principles of 1973. These statements affirm a literalist interpretation of the Bible (complete with seven-day creation), strict and narrow doctrinal requirements, and the prohibition of “unionism” with any church that does not concur with them. They deny Eucharistic fellowship to any who do conform to these narrow limits. My wife and I were refused communion at the very conference at which I was invited to speak.
Although I was the chaplain for the conference and the celebrant for that Divine Service, I did not discuss the matter with Dr Benne or his wife. President Harrison told me as we were preparing for the service that Dr Benne had asked him about communion and he had told him it would be best not to receive. I don’t know the extent of that conversation, or what all went into President Harrison’s decision, but I’m certain it wasn’t pleasurable for him to deliver that message. It may be that, upon examination, Dr Benne—and many, many others who would commune at a Missouri Synod altar on a one-off basis—might give the right answer to any doctrinal questions we would ask in determining what makes an individual a worthy communicant (see the Small Catechism and especially the Christian Questions with their Answers). But the issue is not simply a matter of the individual’s faith, but also the public confession of their church body. That’s the point of closed communion: altar fellowship is church fellowship.
It’s unpleasant, and rare indeed is the pastor who in any way enjoys turning someone away from the Sacrament. But in this case, President Harrison didn’t refuse communion to Dr Benne or his wife, so much as he could not yet recognize Dr Benne’s church body as in fellowship with us.
The Divine Service at the Life Conference was a one-off event. Where things get challenging is when the person is going to repeatedly be attending but may not be in a position to declare membership now, if ever. In certain cases, people end up regularly attending my Missouri Synod congregation regularly (either every Sunday for a few months to a year, or on repeated visits to the area for work or family) where there is no local congregation with which their home church is in fellowship (e.g., they are a member of a micro-synod). What to do? The closed communion formulations came about in a simpler age, where people moved around far less, and where there were not so many denominations.
A few years ago I had occasion to speak with one of these potential communicant’s pastor (formerly ELS) about how we should handle this challenge. He said something that I haven’t been able to shake: “Church membership is an important, but not the only, consideration in admission to the Supper.” Part of me wants to embrace that. Another part of me thinks it would just enable me to take the coward’s way out.
Nevertheless, of two things I am certain: A major realignment needs to take place in American Lutheranism; and closed communion is exceedingly challenging to maintain in a congregation where people come and go so quickly that the pastor cannot always remember who he’s admitted. I maintain the practice of closed communion in my parish, but it’s probably the least pleasant aspect of my work, and I find myself often with more questions than answers.
Those who have no love for children are swine, stocks, and logs unworthy of being called men or women; for they despise the blessing of God, the Creator and Author of marriage.
-AE 5, on Genesis 30:24
More Luther on God’s reason for deferring an answer to prayer:
This is how we, too, should learn to ask and hope for help whenever there is misfortune and faith totters. For we have the promise of the Gospel; we have Baptism, absolution, etc., by which we have been instructed and strengthened. We have the command by which we are ordered to pray; we have the spirit of grace and of prayer. But as soon as we have begun to pray, our heart is troubled and complains that it is accomplishing nothing. Therefore one must learn that if you accomplish nothing by asking, you should add searching, that is, you should seek; if that, too, seems to be useless, and God conceals and hides Himself even more, add knocking, and do not cease until you storm the door by which He has been confined (cf. Matt. 7:7–8). For there is no doubt that our prayer is heard immediately after the first syllable has been uttered. Thus the angel says to Daniel: “At the beginning of your supplications a word went forth, and I have come to tell it to you” (9:23). But the fact that God does not immediately give what we pray for—this happens because He wants to be sought and to be taken by storm by insisting beyond measure, as the parable of the unrighteous judge teaches in Luke 18:2 ff. For then He comes and liberates the elect and gives more abundantly than we have prayed, sought, and knocked. But He defers in order that our praying may increase and that our sobbing may become stronger. This sobbing seems very feeble to us while we are sighing, but it is actually most ardent. Thus Paul calls it a shouting (cf. Gal. 4:6). For we not only recite words by forming a sound with the tongue and the lips or even let our prayers have a clear sound, but we simply shout out. There is no sound or voice of the mouth, but there is an outcry of the heart and ineffable sobbing; it is under the left breast, when the heart sobs and sighs as it almost fails for distress. Then indeed prayer is perfect and efficacious.
-AE 5, on Genesis 30:24
It felt great having the church packed last week, didn’t it? It’s validating to have a large crowd of people; conversely, we can think we’re failing if only a handful comes to a service or an event. In the church, success is primarily measured by numbers. The number one question pastors ask each other at conferences is, “How many does your church worship?” The correct answer is, “Our church worships three Persons in One God,” but the question actually reveals what churches are really worshipping: people. Likewise, “How is your school doing?” doesn’t mean “How well are you implementing your curriculum?” but, “What’s your enrollment?”
Now consider the introduction to today’s Gospel lesson, the Parable of the Sower. The introduction sets the stage and gives us the reason for this parable: “And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to [Jesus] from every city, He spoke by a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed.’” “A great multitude.” Jesus is successful. He’s become a celebrity. He’s gone from a handful of fishermen to an entourage. He’s gone from preaching to a tiny congregation to having so many people around Him that He can get no rest. They chant His name, they want to make Him king, He’s eclipsed the last big thing, John the Baptist.
What would we do with a “great multitude”? If we were smart, we’d get all their email addresses, pitch them an opportunity to donate to our campaign, use this great crowd to get a greater one, build the movement to become a force for change.
But Jesus, it would seem, is not smart. Not the way the world regards it. For what He does next makes no sense. He tells them a riddle. No one gets it, not even the disciples; they have to ask what it means. And what it means, what Jesus is preaching to this great crowd, is that most of them are fakes and phonies, most of them won’t make it to the end. In the language of the parable, their end will be devoured by birds, withered away for lack of moisture, choked by thorns.
What Jesus here is doing is radically redefining success. What do you count as success? The church world counts success in buildings and budgets, noses and nickels. What do you dream of? What would need to happen for you to say, “I am successful”? You want what everybody else wants: Perfect children, in just the right number, at just the right time; a great job, but one that gives you plenty of free time; to be in the best shape of your life; to have a great marriage without a lot of effort; Serenity Now!
But today Jesus defines success as endurance: those who hear the Word of God, “Keep it and bear fruit with patience.” Patience is more than a virtue; patience is the heart of the Christian life in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Whence cometh this opposition? In the language of the parable, your opposition comes from the birds of the air; from the dry, cracked ground lacking moisture; from the thorns that choke. All these are pictures of your true enemies: the devil, temptation, cares, riches, and pleasures of life.
Consider again the world’s idea of success, your idea of success: much of it is wrapped up in the very stuff that Jesus says is killing you: temptation for the world’s delights, to be swimming in riches and basking in the pleasures of life. What you think will be signs of your success—riches and pleasures—will be your ruin.
Since you are a Christian, put away all those false gods of worldly success. For the one thing that matters is the Word of God, clinging to it for dear life—for it is your life. Clinging to the Word of God doesn’t mean just acknowledging that the Scriptures are the true, inspired Word of God, without error, the only rule and norm for faith and practice. All that is true.
But we want to cling to the Word of God not merely as a proposition, a theological statement, but as that which tell us who we are and what this life means.
What does this life mean? What is the condition of this world? Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah describes a world of thorns and briers, language that reminds us that creation was once unmarred beauty, but has now fallen into bondage to decay. “Cursed is the ground for your sake,” said the LORD to our first father; “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.” We live in that world of thorns and thistles, a still-beautiful creation nevertheless wild and hostile, reeking of decay and death.
Success is not stepping over others to become king of this dunghill. Success is when the Word of God accomplishes the thing for which He sent it, and that thing is identified in the subsequent verses, where the thorns and thistles of the fallen creation undergo a metamorphosis, from thorn to cypress tree, from brier to myrtle tree.
The death of Jesus was the great success of God, for on the cross He put death to death. Crowned with thorns, our Lord becomes the king of everything broken in this world. Crowned with thorns, He is crowned with the curse.
The resurrection of Jesus is the sign of the great success yet to come, the renewal of all creation, the regenesis of the world. “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.”
You are a Christian, and what makes for your success is entirely different than all the false images of success with which the world bombards you. Your success will be clinging to God’s Word in time of temptation: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word when you become anxious about the cares of this life: “Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word instead of this world’s empty riches: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” For “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” Your success will be clinging to God’s Word instead of the pleasures of this life. For we will rejoice in the true treasures: the love of God and the love of His creation and people.
Lent is coming in ten days. Let’s have a successful Lent. Let’s have a successful life centered in patiently hearing God’s Word which call us poor sinners forgiven, calls us poor children of Adam redeemed, which will at the last bring about for this fallen world Genesis all over again. Then on the day of resurrection we will say, “My Jesus has given me His success.”