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Smudged Face = Clean Heart?


Some of you may be humming or singing
the catchy tune from Fiddler on the Roof by now.

As good Lutherans, we know it isn’t only the Jewish faith that is rife with tradition. Our Lutheran heritage too has handed down many customs and traditions over the centuries. But if someone were to ask us why we follow a certain tradition, and we have to answer as Tevye the milkman (in the above musical) answered, “I will tell you…I don’t know!”—then we need to do some research!

Ash Wednesday has its traditions from well before the Lutheran church came into existence. This first day of the Lenten season is intended to make Christians mindful of their sins and to bring into focus the gravity of those sins and their consequences. In 1091 Pope Gregory I started the tradition of marking a cross of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as he uttered the words of Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” This custom has been passed down through generations, spreading even to many Protestant denominations.

This custom was reminiscent of Old Testament people of God sitting in ashes or sprinkling them on the head. In a time of great sorrow or repentance, ashes and sackcloth were outward signs of grief or repentance.

Such outward customs may indeed be “fine” (as Dr. Luther puts it in his Small Catechism); however, if the custom loses meaning or if the tradition becomes the focus of worship, there is a real problem.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee is the one who appeared to have it all together spiritually. After all, he dressed the part and looked ready for worship, brought the prescribed amount for his offerings, observed the traditions of the day, and stood alert at worship. So who dared doubt sincerity in his confession to his God!?

On the other hand, the tax collector secluded himself in the shadows of the temple and didn’t look or act worthy of the Lord’s mercy. Yet the Lord, who sees and knows all, declared this man to be justified rather than the other. That declaration was based on God’s mercy and was prompted by the man’s humble confession.

When worshipers focus on what they are doing rather than on whom they are worshiping, they are in danger of falling into the same category as those whom Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:7-9. “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

While placing a smudge of ashes on one’s forehead may indeed remind a person that by nature he is nothing but dust and ashes, yet a dirty face does not equal a clean conscience!

While placing a smudge of ashes on one’s forehead may indeed remind a person that by nature he is nothing but dust and ashes, yet a dirty face does not equal a clean conscience! No amount of ash on the face can disguise the dirt and guilt in one’s heart. No hand wringing or psalm chanting is going to exempt one from the coming judgment. Not even a flood of tears will wash away a single misdeed committed against Holy God.

During the coming Lenten season let us focus on the true source of our salvation–the shed blood of our Savior. That innocent blood was poured out for all sinners, so that even undeserving sinners such as we are may stand righteous before God’s great throne of grace.

Based on this great mercy of our Lord, we can take to heart the truth behind the words of the poet:

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest

Was not spoken of the soul.*

* From “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow