The Esoteric: Friend or Foe?
The Cup, the Loaf, and a Bowl of Chili

"I'd Like the Blessing, Please, but Not the Mark"

Ash_wedOnce, while administering the imposition of ashes during an Ash Wednesday service, a person in line stepped up and said to me: "I'd like the blessing, please, but not the mark."

What got me thinking about this, has been a rise in instances where people attending my congregation have sought the perceived benefits of spiritual ordinances without their natural associations -- like wanting to partake of the Sunday Eucharist but not along with the rest of the body, or wanting to be baptized without professing repentance or faith in Christ, or... wanting the words of consecration and blessing spoken over them without the accompanying ash cross.

What does this all mean? And how should I respond to these dear ones as their pastor?


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there is much discussion about this . . . the question is do we continue in the reformed tradition . . . people come with belief, then behavior modifications and ultimately communal-belonging hopefully occurs . . .

::: ~ OR ~ :::

as the postmodern model suggests that we should allow people to first belong . . . making them an authentic part of our community (and our lives) not just long term visitors we engage at a distance . . . and then IF they believe . . . the behavior adoptions and social conformity many evangelicals ‘socially demand' may occur but if it does it occurs more organically . . . genuinely . . . instead of by social coercion . . .

it seems that this postmodern approach ultimately and correctly shifts a great deal of the responsibility back to the followers of Christ . . . and the requirement to authentically exhibit real love, acceptance, and an enviornment of . . . koinonia . . .

peace :::

some of us who were raised without the ashes but with a blessing, just don't see the value of the ashes. (FYI - i'm identifying myself with them in that sentence, and rightly so, but at this point in my life i'd take the whole deal - ashes and blessing. 'why not?' is my rationale. ha.)

i'm not sure it's a sign of one's spiritual condition, as much as it's a sign of their religious background.

i bet there's a few out there who want the ashes but not the blessing! ;)

Some would argue from Matthew 6:17-18 that an outward mark of fasting would be improper. I think both sides could be plausibly argued. Mere Comments has a couple of good recent posts on the subject. Since the imposition of ashes is an optional custom, it simply does not fall into the same category as the Biblical sacraments (or ordinances some would call them) of baptism and communion. I'm a pastor in a tradition which observes Ash Wednesday without ashes, so my pastor-to-pastor recommendation is to take it in stride when someone wants the blessing but not the ashes. The baptism & Eucharist-related issues you mentioned are much more important.

I am in essential agreement that people can/should become a part of the community of faith prior to their conversion. We have practiced this at our church from our beginning just two years ago. And while I think we should be more inclusive with some of our traditions, I am compelled by Scripture to restrict some traditions to the people who believe.

In our experience, those among us who have not believed, and not partaken of a particular tradition, do not feel "left out" or like a second class citizen of the kingdom. They see that these traditions reflect a spiritual change of heart that they have not yet found. It creates within them a desire to continue seeking Jesus with the people who love them and are seeking him themselves.

as someone with profound resepct for bakhtin, levinas, derrida, foucault... and who has benefitted greatly from their philosophy... but who also knows that there are limits to infusing continental philosophy with christianity... if your primary goal is simply acceptance, then why not have a movie watching club? a chess club? a potluck club? lots of acceptance can be shared, without the radical tension and call to transformation that the gospel proclaims. ie, there is nothing kind, loving, or christian in baptizing someone who does not profess Christ. its not unlike saying to a woman... i want to have a big wedding with you but i dont want to actually marry you or live with you or otherwise be related to you. i suppose that may be an interesting ironic statement on one level... but it is not marriage. i mean, go ahead and have the ceremony. but don't call it marriage.

to profess that there are boundaries to Christianity, that there are places where you are required to bring your whole self to the questions of faith, and that those questions require something from you... is not to "reject" someone. it is to invite them to choose.

)( s

At first, I thought "blessing but no ashes" might be a symptom of wanting spiritual growth without paying the price of the disciplines. But that could be totally off for a particular person.

Who knows what their reasons are? I guess I would tend to go along with the request, but then get together with that individual later on and ask the reason. It could be the start of an important conversation.

First time visiting your site, but this post caught my attention, and since I have a couple moments, I thought I'd offer a recommendation.

Aside from Matthew 10:32-33, the idea of expecting and indeed requiring certain professions prior to being admitted into the full fellowship has always been the case in the historical church. Just one of the more interesting cases was the controversy that surrounded Jonathan Edwards and the Half-Way Covenant in the 18th century. A recent and interesting commentary on it was written by Mark Dever for the book, "A God-Entranced View of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards", edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The whole book, including this chapter entitled "How Jonathan Edwards Got Fired, and Why It's Important for Us Today" is available online at


From the reference above to Matthew 10:32-33, I think I'm starting to understand where some are coming from on this issue - a concern that someone who declines to receive the ashes may be doing so because he/she is reluctant to identify in this way with God and His people. I suppose in some cases (or at least a few), that could be exactly what's going on, and discernment is needed in individual cases. But some just aren't used to the custom. Others (such as the Eastern Orthodox tradition) believe it's better to start Lent with a washed face (cf. Matt. 6:17,18) than an unwashed one, so they have "Clean Monday" instead of "Ash Wednesday." Whatever the case may be, since there's no commandment in the Bible that says, "thou shalt wear ashes on Ash Wednesday", I would think twice about making it a litmus test of someone's spiritual state.

It would seem to me that the request was simple and innocent enough. But I like the way you extended the question out to provide some exercise for our intellect!

It also seems to be addressed as an either/or question, when in reality the answer is both/and.

sure... i wouldn't require ashes. but i would certainly require a profession of faith before baptism and eucharitst.

)( s

"It also seems to be addressed as an either/or question,"

How so, Benjy? I thought my questions at the end of the post opened things up to any number of possible answers. What am I not seeing? Or perhaps I should ask, what exactly are you suggesting?

"A God-Entranced View of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards", edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor.

Scott -- many thanks for your post and the link to the book and the teaching of Edwards concerning whether or not Communion should be restricted to professing believers. Very interesting. I had no idea that this issue was central to his being fired from his church. Wow.

It was also to fascinating to discover how Edwards broke away from the then common view that Communion was a "converting ordinance."

This has certainly broadened my understanding of the open-table/closed-table debate concerning the Eucharist.

Thanks again.

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