Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ashes: Leave On, Or Wipe Off?

The Reverend Bryce Wandrey, Anglican priest & former Lutheran priest, has suggested that it is more appropriate to wipe off one's ashes from his forehead after Mass than to leave them on all day. I too have been thinking about this very issue lately, but my thinking has gone in the exact opposite direction.

Bryce is commendably concerned about a Christian sense of modesty, and about not wanting to unnecessarily advertise one's piety. More on that topic below. Bryce also sees his decision to wipe the ashes off right away when leaving church as based upon a literal reading of Matthew 6. I would respectfully suggest that such a reading might be literalistic, but not literal. That is to say, I do not see this text as speaking to the question of what Christians should do with the ashes that are ritually imposed upon them on Ash Wednesday. Indeed, it would be inappropriate to advertise our fasting by walking around with drooping, tired faces. Instead, the Christian who submits himself to rigorous fasting, and such a creature is rare today, does well to throw water on his face, and stand up straight before going out, lest his fasting become an overt boast, just as the one who shouts his prayers on the street corner is making his prayer an overt boast.

I would urge, in fact, that just as our Lord's words in Matthew 6 against those who pray "in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men," shouldn't keep Christians from praying (aloud, and with the sign of the cross) before and after meals when out in a restaurants, likewise His words in the same chapter against showing off one's fasting does not mean that we should be hesitant or timid to fast publicly.

Let me offer examples, to be very clear. When at a restaurant, it is not boasting or showing off one's fasting by asking the server for the vegetarian menu. It is not showing off when one orders the fish, even when everyone else at the table forgets that it's Friday, or it just isn't that important to them. It is neither condemning nor boasting on his part to try to remain true to such traditions. It is not boasting or showing off when one discusses the topic of fasting openly & publicly. In all of the above scenarios I have seen Lutherans condemn Catholics and other Lutherans wrongfully. There is no way to read the heart and the motives of those who behave in ways to which some may be unaccustomed. Rather, we should accept each other where we are at, and support each other.

Getting back to ashes in particular, this is not a custom that is really directly pertinent to fasting. It does imply it, in my opinion, but it should be considered as a slightly separate issue. Ashes are a sign, like the sign of the cross, which we also ought to be bold to practice in public. Wearing ashes is a sign and witness, both to ourselves, and to everyone who sees it. It is a sign of our penitence, our confession of our sinfulness and mortality, and yes, in a broader way, of our faith in Christ, and our allegiance to Christian tradition. For all of these reasons, I suggest it is good, right, and salutary to keep the ashes on one's forehead until getting ready for bed, even it they were imposed at an early morning Mass.


Bryce P Wandrey said...

But what about when you take off your vestments and the ash gets on one of them as you pull it over your head? Bad news! The ashes must go immediately! :D

Bryce P Wandrey said...

Oh, and a minor note: I am currently an ordained deacon in the Church of England. I have not been priested yet. If all goes according to plan, I will be priested this summer.

It must be my feigned piety that requires me to make that point. :)

Angela said...

Do Lutherans eat meat on Friday's during Lent? Or is that just the Catholic Faith? Should Lutherans fast for the next 40days and eat only at night or just Wednesdays?

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

The Lutheran Church is part of the tradition of the Church of the West, and therefore the discipline of fasting during Lent is part of our tradition as well. Much like Catholics of the modern Roman Rite, Lutherans today are very much of mixed attitudes toward fasting, and toward its practice. One thing I will say for sure here and now is that eating "only at night" sounds more Ramadanian than Christian.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Sorry Bryce, for being mistaken on your clerical status. At any rate, as subdeacon at my parish here in Brew City, I can say that you outrank me.

Past Elder said...

You write well on this, brother.

Everybody outranks me, not even being "eldered" any more. So a few comments from the peanut gallery.

Before the revisionist cataclysm of Vatican II, in the context of imposition of ashes in the RCC, I never saw anyone at any time wipe the ashes off before the end of the day except those who were embarrassed to be marked as "Catholic" and different.

Judging from the number of smudged foreheads around in this predominately Catholic town last Wotan's Day (Wednesday), that would appear to still be the case.

Actually, I found it rather nice to see so many.

Father Robert Lyons said...

I'd actually challenge that the problem isn't with leaving the ashes on, but with the way we do them in the first place.

Ashes belong on the crown of the head, not the forehead. This is the most ancient practice that testimony is found of, and it is (apparently!) still the practice in parts of Europe. As an example, behold Pope Benedict this year, whose pate - not forehead! - was sprinkled with ashes.

Now, in the West these days, we are sure to face the objections of how 'icky' or 'disgusting' this is... really? Howso? How is sprinkling ashes on one's crown more disgusting than smearing them on one's forehead?

On a related note (since it was brought up in the comments), I tend to find the western mode of fasting to be a joke, but I also find its rigidity to be a bit quashing of spirit. If we are going to fast, let's fast. I personally favor fasting all day, breaking it with Presanctified Eucharist and a light supper in the evening. This is still the practice of the Christain East, one that we westerners have, sadly, forgotten for the most part.

The severity of our fasting can vary, as can the nature of our abstinence... those should be personal decisions based on individual piety and need... but to call a full meal and two half meals a fast is about the funniest thing I hear all Lent.

Now, if we could just do something about people going to Red Lobster on Fridays in Lent...


Angela said...

Thanks very much for your more mother and I have been going back and forth with Lent..and I gave something up for Lent(soda..if ya knew how much I drank was a great sacrifice and the least I can do during this time)back to my mother...I said I am not supposed to eat meat and she said because we are Lutherans only Catholics do that and we follow the no meat rule only on Good true is this for Lutherans or is it an all around Christian Faith...

Angela said...

That does sound a bit confusing....the question is..Are Lutherans supposed to avoid eating meat on Friday's or just Good Friday?

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Dear Angela:

I would not use a phrase like "supposed to" in a discussion on fasting. The Lutheran tradition is of the same cloth as the Catholic tradition, which it inherited. It necessarily differs from it in those parts where reformation was needed. Since, however, there is nothing unevangelical about fasting, and in fact it is a truly evangelical discipline if there ever was one, it is wholeheartedly kept among us.

Now, the form of fasting will differ according to one's physical & spiritual abilities and inclination. A Lutheran could conceivably, though, fast as vigorously and ascetically as is done among traditionalists of the other classic churches of the West. Indeed, that includes fasting on all Fridays.

Fasting must (in this case I do consciously use imperative terminology) be accompanied by a spirit of modesty, prayer, and a renewed attempt to feed upon the sacraments as often as possible (in this case I have in mind both the Eucharist and private Confession). The topic deserves much more and better attention than these few words, but I must let this suffice for tonight.

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