Unfortunately, this rich symbol disappeared in the life of the Lutheran Church for some time because of the thinking that it was "too Catholic." However, this attitude betrays a misunderstanding of the Reformation. The attitude that "if it's Catholic we shouldn't do it" was never the attitude of Martin Luther, but actually of the radical reformers, who wanted to throw out everything associated with the Catholic Church. Luther however, kept everything he could, not throwing out but cleansing and reforming so that everything in the Church would be in accordance with the Gospel.
The renaissance of Luther studies in the last century has again reminded us of this fact, and so many customs that fell into disuse (as long as they are not contrary to the Gospel!) have been re-introduced into the Lutheran Church, the imposition of ashes being one of these practices. But so that we use this practice in a proper way and in accordance with the Gospel, some commonly asked questions need to be answered here:
Q. Are the ashes "blessed?" Do they give a special blessing?
A. No. While we pray a prayer of blessing that the use of these ashes would be of benefit to us, they contain no special power in and of themselves. The ashes are simply a physical symbol to aid in your meditation. The blessings we receive are through God's means of grace, His Word and Sacraments.
Q. Do I have to receive them?
A. No! Any compulsion to receive the ashes would be contrary to the freedom we have in the Gospel. They are simply offered as an opportunity for you. If they will help you, please receive them. If not, please feel comfortable not receiving them. No one will think any less or more of you if you do or don't!
Q. Do I have to leave them on?
A. No. You may wash them off at any time. Again, whatever it most helpful to you. In fact, washing them off can be a joyous thing, as you remember that the water of baptism has rescued you from sin and death!
Q. What about Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:16-18)? Those words read: "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. . . . But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others . . ."
A. These words of Christ refer to our motivation: "that you may be seen by others." If this is why you want to receive ashes, to be seen by others, you should not receive them! This would be contrary to the Gospel.
Q. What if I don't feel comfortable?
A. Then do not receive the ashes! No one will think any less of you! For some people these are very helpful, and for some they are not.
Q. What if I still have questions and concerns?
A. Then please come speak to Pastor. In our life together as a congregation, we care for all our members and want all to feel comfortable and informed about what we do.