- Order of Service
- Alternative for Congregations Without a
- Special Disciplines
- Decorous Practices
- Ashes and Imposition
- Ashes Outside the Church Building
- Alleluias, the Gloria, and the Dignus
- Indecorous Practices
- Ashes on the Go
- Glitter Ashes
- Other Words
- Other Shapes
This page covers liturgical planning for Ash Wednesday.
We encourage liturgical planners to review the subsection
on decorous practices.
For guidance related to appointments for Ash Wednesday
(colors, flowers, etc.), visit our Appointments for Lent
If you have not reviewed the general information on
planning liturgy, worship appointments, etc.,
please do so at our Worship Aids
Order of Service
The Ash Wednesday rite is a modification of the standard
communion service. The first half of the service (commonly
called the liturgy of the Word) is replaced. The LBW and
the ELW offer significantly different approaches:
- The LBW locates the penitential rite (what we think of
the Ash Wednesday rite proper) before the reading of the
lessons and the sermon.
- The ELW locates the penitential rite (what we think of
the Ash Wednesday rite proper) after the reading of the
lessons and the sermon.
Orders for an Ash Wednesday service with Holy Communion
and without Holy Communion are provided below in both LBW
and ELW form.
General notes: Ash Wednesday is a solemn and somber
service without it being maudlin. What might be considered
the more festive and celebratory elements of the service
are removed or replaced. See the expositions on alleluias etc., processions, and music provided s.v. "Decorous
|Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)
|Evangelical Lutheran Worship
|Ash Wednesday with Holy Communion (Contact the Bishop
|Ash Wednesday with Holy Communion (MS-Word)
|Ash Wednesday without Holy Communion
(Contact the Bishop
|Ash Wednesday without Holy Communion
|The LBW-based services
(downloadable below) are copy-ready. The document
should printed in 8½" x 11" landscape, front and
back, flipped on the short edge; this can then be
folded to form a single-sheet, 4-page worship
bulletin. Page numbers for the communion and
ante-communion portions of the liturgy may be
changed to match the congregation's preferred
setting. If the liturgy is spoken, there is no need
to change the page numbers.
|For the ELW-based services,
the downloadable documents below are in MS-Word. The
text may be copied & pasted into your local
bulletin and modified to suit local conditions.
Alternative for Congregations Without a Pastor
Congregations without a pastor may consider joining a
neighboring Lutheran congregation or congregation of a
full-communion partner denomination.
Though we are no longer in the early days of the
pandemic, the guidance for Ash Wednesday 2021 is
still relevant on several points.
Ash Wednesday has long been observed by Lutherans, but
the reintroduction of the imposition of ashes is in the
living memory of many Lutherans. Great pains were taken by
those who recovered the practice to convince their
congregants that imposition of ashes was not
"un-Lutheran." They also took great pains to ensure that
the practice was executed with appropriate decorum and in
line with both evangelical principal and catholic
tradition. We are the heirs of scholarship, labor,
deliberation, and not a few pastoral casualties.
Ashes and Imposition
Ashes are ashes. There is a tradition of making the ashes
on Shrove Tuesday from the palms of the previous year. It
is more difficult to get right consistency than many
expect when setting out to do so. One may want to
experiment well in advance (and have a backup plan). Ashes
may also be purchased from church supply stores. Glitter
or any other substance that would change the color and/or
nature of the ashes is never added to the ashes or used
(for exposition, click here).
Other substitutes (e.g., markers, toner, chalk) are not to
Oil or water, however, is frequently mixed with the ashes
so as to prepare the ashes for imposition—one must be
careful to get the balance right lest it become gummy. We
recommend that dry ashes be placed on one side of a
dessert dish (or other small bowl) with a smear of oil on
the opposite side. The thumb can be moistened in the oil
and then dipped in the ash, repeating as often as
necessary. Practicing is not a bad idea if you have never
done this before.
When making the imposition, the ashes are thumbed onto
the forehead in the form of a cross. Other shapes are not
to be used (for exposition, click here).
The verbal formula employed in the imposition is
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall
return." This formula should not be personalized or
otherwise modified (for exposition, click
The Ash Wednesday liturgy can be conducted without the
imposition of ashes. While doing so may seem
counterintuitive, it is important to remember that the
heart of the Ash Wednesday rite is exhortation and
confession. So long as both exhortation and confession are
part of the rite, the critical elements are present.
Ashes Outside the Church Building
We commend taking ashes to those who cannot attend
worship in the church buildings. N.B., we speak of
those who cannot attend not those who will not
attend. The infirmed and incarcerated cannot attend
worship in our buildings. It is therefore most appropriate
to take the ashes to the shut-ins, those in health care
facilities, and those incarcerated or otherwise held in
any sort of detention facility. Matthew 25 does imply that
we should visit the sick and the imprisoned.
In many of these facilities, it may be possible to
arrange a full or modified Ash Wednesday service. Some
facilities (e.g., a prison or juvenile detention
facility) may consider wine contraband. It may be possible
to reach a compromise with authorities regarding
- Intinction, where the presider is the one intincting
and then placing the intincted wafer in the mouth of the
recipient, should resolve control issues. N.B.,
wafers work much better with intinction than any other
form of bread.
- Concomitance (communion in one kind) is a little
trickier in that our Confessions preclude the practice.
At the same time, Luther, in one his treatises on the
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper addresses a situation in
which the cup is forbidden to the recipients, saying
that we receive the benefit through the desiring of it.
If the authorities will not allow the administration of
the wine to the assembly but will allow its use by the
presider, then administration by concomitance is
acceptable even if not preferable. When administering by
concomitance, the consecratory ritual is not changed. In
other words, celebrate as one would normally celebrate
with both bread and wine. When one gets to
administration, be sure to "offer the cup" with the
standard formula ("The Blood of Christ given for you").
While the congregant is not allowed to receive as a
matter of secular authority, the cup must nonetheless be
shown and the words of administration employed. It will
require explanation to the assembly as to what is going
to be done and why, also explaining that the full
benefit of the Sacrament is derived even if received in
only one kind.
- If wine is not possible at all (in that neither
intinction nor concomitance will be permitted by the
authorities), then hold an Ash Wednesday service without
Regardless of the setting, there should be a clear
penitential rite with some form of confession coupled with
an exhortation to Lenten discipline.
"Ashes on the go" is another matter entirely. Click here for the discussion on that
Alleluias, the Gloria,
and the Dignus est
Alleluia is not said or sung on Ash Wednesday.
Neither the Gloria nor the Dignus est
("This is the feast...Worthy is Christ...") is used.
There is no celebratory procession for Ash Wednesday.
The chancel party enters simply and in silence.
Processional cross and torches are not used. The candles
should be lit before the service begins and extinguished
after the service concludes.
It is recommended that there be no prelude, postlude, or
incidental music (e.g., anthem, offertory, etc.),
thus limiting the use of instrumental music to the
accompaniment of congregational singing. The congregation
enters and leaves in silence.
The imposition of ashes should be done in silence apart
from the minister's pronouncement of the Memento homo
("Remember that you are dust...").
If desired, the liturgy may be spoken.
The best of intentions can, without sober reflection, get
us into trouble. This is true in life; this is true in
worship. The following is offered as sober reflection in
connection with various novelties that have emerged in
Ashes on the Go
By ashes on the go, we refer to the practice of imposing
ashes apart from the context of a penitential rite and/or
worship service. This is often done "on the street" or in
some other public place.
Remembering that ashes support the penitential rite and
not the other way around, one should consider the form
employed in ashes on the go. What is the penitential rite?
Where is the confession of sin? Where is the exhortation
to repent and enter into the discipline of Lent? Without
these things, the form is deficient. Granted, one may be
able to develop a much abbreviated form, but these
elements must not be neglected.
It should also be remembered that Ash Wednesday is not
disconnected observance. It is connected to the whole of
Lent. Its function is to begin Lent and invite into Lent.
The administration of ashes on the go without a clear
invitation and exhortation with respect to Lent is
deficient. To accept ashes without the slightest intention
to enter into Lent betrays a failure to understand the
ashes. To impose ashes without the slightest intention to
encourage Lenten discipline betrays an equal failure to
understand the ashes.
Some would say that people are too busy to sit through an
Ash Wednesday service. Are they equally too busy for Lent?
Some would say that the timing of the Ash Wednesday
service is inconvenient for people. Are we clergy too busy
to offer more than one service? A perfectly acceptable Ash
Wednesday service can be conducted in 30 minutes, and that
is with full LBW penitential rite, sermon, and
even Eucharist (assuming one cuts out all but one lesson,
gets to the point of the sermon, and dispenses with
various non-essentials such as hymns).
Some would say that it is important to get the Gospel out
in the street for people to hear. Agreed! But ashes are
not the Gospel! In fact, if the only thing we do is a
smudge with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to
dust you shall return,” we have not given them the Gospel;
we have given the Law and only the Law. We are like those
folks who stand on street corners and scream the Law at
passers-by except we are better dressed and are more
polite. One could say that those screamers of the Law are
doing a better job than us because they at least tell
people to repent. If all we do is smudge and say the memento
homo, we do nothing more than tell the people they
are going to die. There is nothing particularly polite
about that, and it doesn't actually make the path of
Glitter ashes (glitter added to the ash) has popped up in
recent years. What began as an act of LGBTQ solidarity is
likely to evolve into little more than a cheery
alternative to what some may consider a "downer" of an
observance. No matter how great the temptation, don’t!
The power of the Gospel is the power to stare
unflinchingly into the maw of death. We wear the ashes
because we know that we are going to die; we don’t pretend
that death is not real for us. Our hope is not in the
pretending that death is not real but rather in the
conviction that death is not the last word.
We also wear the ashes to remember whereof we are made.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. In this is our
raw solidarity, one often forgotten. We are dust among
dust. All humanity is dusty-kin. Adulteration of the ashes
with glitter distracts from this thing that binds us
together regardless of race, creed, color, party, or
We wear the ashes as an act of penance, and there is
nothing glittery about that.
that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"
is a very close translation of the Latin formula,
"Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem
reverteris." Quia pulvis es et in
pulverem reverteris is a direct quote of
the Vulgate's rendering of Genesis 3:19b. The
verbs are in the second person singular. The
scriptural clause is introduced by the imperative
memento, which is also in the second person
singular. Homo is in the vocative
declension also singular. While homo can
also be the nominative, context clearly suggests
the vocative. So, an even closer English
translation would be, "Remember, man, that you are
dust, and to dust you shall return." While homo
is generally considered an epicene, denoting
and connoting human being, much as the
term man once did in English (as it is
derived from the Old English mann, or
person/human being), current sensibilities suggest
not employing man in the liturgical
formula. Human being would certainly be an
accurate translation but would also seem a little
The words with which we administer ashes are important.
The verbal formula, "Remember that you are dust, and to
dust you shall return," should not be modified. This
formula should not include personal names (e.g.,
"Remember, John/Jane, you are dust, and to dust
you shall return"). Two things are held in balance: the
direct address and the common humanity. The formula, as it
is connected with the physical act, is a clear direct
address. At the same time, it does not detach the
recipient from the common plight of humanity. Likewise, it
is inappropriate to use man and woman or
any other gender identification.
There has been chatter on social media of imposing the
ashes in the shape of a heart rather than the cross. While
there is not much chatter, bad ideas presented on social
media have a way of propagating faster than sober
reflection. Undoubtedly, the coincidence of Ash Wednesday
falling upon Valentine's Day has spurred this, and some
clever spirits have gotten it into their heads that
trading out the cross for a heart would be a theologically
cute way to talk about God's love.
The cross is the symbol of God's love for us in Christ
Jesus. It is employed on Ash Wednesday because it is the
symbol most associated with Christ and his saving work.
Its use on Ash Wednesday anticipates Good Friday and links
the two ends of the Lenten season, thus placing our entire
penitential season from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday
under the cross. It is the cross with which we are sealed
in baptism, and it is the cross of ashes that is thumbed
onto the same foreheads that once were thumbed with oil
when the words, "Child of God, you have been sealed by the
Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,"
were spoken. It is the cross where Law and Gospel meet,
where justice and mercy kiss each other.
It should be sufficient to point to the Formula of
Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that
the community of God in every time and place has the
right, power, and authority to change, to reduce, or
expand such practices according to circumstances in an
orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity or
offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for
good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and
the building up of the church (FC SD X:9).
How setting aside of the cross for any other shape
comports with the Formula of Concord is a mystery,
especially if one takes seriously the several qualifying
If that is not sufficient, then consider: the world
accounts many things more decorous, more pleasing, more
comely, "But we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23a).