Worship Aids
Liturgy for Ash Wednesday

Contents
  • Introduction
  • Order of Service
    • Alternative for Congregations Without a Pastor
  • Special Disciplines
    • Decorous Practices
      • Ashes and Imposition
      • Ashes Outside the Church Building
      • Alleluias, the Gloria, and the Dignus est
      • Processions
      • Music
    • Indecorous Practices
      • Ashes on the Go
      • Glitter Ashes
      • Other Words
      • Other Shapes
Introduction

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 page.

If you have not reviewed the general information on planning liturgy, worship appointments, etc., please do so at our Worship Aids page.

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 Practices."

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)
Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)
Ash Wednesday with Holy Communion (Contact the Bishop for document)
Ash Wednesday with Holy Communion (MS-Word)
Ash Wednesday without Holy Communion (Contact the Bishop for document) Ash Wednesday without Holy Communion (MS-Word)
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.

Special Disciplines

Though we are no longer in the early days of the pandemic, the guidance for Ash Wednesday 2021 is still relevant on several points.

Decorous Practices

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 be used.

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 here).

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 distribution:

  • 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 communion.

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 practice.

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.

Processions

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.

Music

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.

Indecorous Practices

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 recent years.

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 repentance explicit.

Glitter Ashes

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 tribe.

We wear the ashes as an act of penance, and there is nothing glittery about that.


"Remember 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 odd.

Other Words

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.

Other Shapes

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 Concord:

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 criteria advanced.

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).

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West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, ℅ St. Paul Lutheran Church, 309 Baldwin Street, Morgantown, WV 26505
304-363-4030  +  Porter@WV-WMD.org

Last update: 24 January 2024