Lutherans/Imposition of Ashes

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Question
What is your take on the Imposition of Ashes in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I have been LCMS since my first breath and did not need to have ashes on my forhead in 1947. Why would I need them now? I knew it was Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season was begun without the "new work righteousness" rule.

Answer
Arthur,

Thanks for your question.  I think the inclusion of the ashes in Lutheran Ash Wednesday observances can be a source of significant confusion for those who remember the time when this ritual was not commonly included among LC-MS Lutherans.  

I am not certain at what point Lutherans stopped using ashes in their observance of the day.  It is a practice the Reformers would have kept, because they kept the majority of Roman Catholic practices they had inherited, only deleting those which contradicted the Gospel or pure teaching.  However, at some point, the practice disappeared among Lutherans - I imagine it might have been in the 17th century, when anti-Catholic sentiment arose following the 30 Years War and Pietism began stripping the Lutheran church of many of its ritual elements.  

Whenever it disappeared, it is my understanding that it was not common among LC-MS Lutherans through the mid-20th Century, but began to make a comeback in greater numbers during the second half of that century.  As I have heard our synod's scholars and theologians discuss the present use of ashes, it seems that the common conclusion is that it is a permissible practice, and there is not sufficient reason either to require or to forbid it.  This is because the use of ashes is not done to earn anything before God, but is intended to be a reminder of our mortality and repentance - both of which are good and salutary themes of Lent.  

This leaves the use of the practice as a matter of wisely discerning what it communicates to the congregation and others who observe the ritual - which will vary significantly from locality to locality and would require wisdom and familiarity with the local setting.  

I grew up in a congregation that used them, but I currently serve a congregation that does not use them.  I have only used ashes one time as a pastor, because a vacancy congregation I was serving was in the habit of doing so.  Between those two times, I saw the use of ashes abused in the chapels of one of our synod's colleges and one of its seminaries - not by those administering it, but rather by those receiving it, and not by all, but only a select number of them.  Having witnessed that, it has resulted in a greater caution on my part regarding the use of ashes.  

If I  found myself serving a congregation that had the tradition of using ashes, I would probably not put a stop to it, but would rather make sure to reinforce the appropriate understanding among the members.  One thing I may consider in such a case would be to request that the ashes be removed on the way out of the service, perhaps even using water from the Baptismal font to do so as a reminder that we are cleansed of sin by our Baptism.  On the other hand, I can also not see myself suggesting the addition of ashes in a congregation where they were not currently being used.  

I would consider them one element that is permissible among our congregations, but one that should be applied only with caution and wisdom by a pastor who is very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the particular congregation and its members, along with the attitudes and preconceptions prevalent among the community where it is located.  

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Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Expertise

I welcome the opportunity to answer questions regarding the beliefs and practices Lutheran Christians, especially questions comparing Lutherans with other Christian denominations or questions which contrast between various kinds of Lutherans. I am especially familiar with the more conservative Lutheran denominations (LCMS, ELS, WELS, etc.). I also take a great interest in examining new Christian movements and popular trends in Christianity from a Lutheran perspective. In addition, I can answer most questions about the original Greek text of the New Testament and its meaning, as well as questions regarding liturgy, evangelism, and preaching. A special area of interest in my ministry is race track chaplaincy/ministry, and I would love to provide information and guidance for anyone interested in this area.

Experience

I have been a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod for the past six years at St. John's Lutheran Church in Burt, IA. I currently serve as chairman of the Commission on Ministerial Growth & Support of the Missouri Synod's Iowa District West and as Track Chaplain at Algona Raceway in Algona, IA. I also write as a religion columnist for two local newspapers.

Organizations
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Publications
Algona Upper Des Moines (newspaper) Bancroft Register (newspaper)

Education/Credentials
B.A. Concordia University - Ann Arbor, MI (Biblical Languages) M.Div. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (Exegetical Theology, Pastoral Ministry & Missions)

Past/Present Clients
Zion Lutheran Church (Columbia City, IN) Zion Lutheran Church (Altamont, IL) St. John's Lutheran Church (Burt, IA) Zion Lutheran Church (Lu Verne, IA) Algona Raceway (IA) Fairmont Raceway (MN) Hancock County Speedway (Britt, IA) Clay County Fairgrounds Raceway (Spencer, IA)

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