Each year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. Lent is a 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent asks believers to set aside a time each year for similar fasting, marking an intentional season of focus on Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.
Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. This happens during a special Ash Wednesday service.
During Mass (for Catholics) or worship service (for Protestants), the priest or pastor will usually share a sermon that is penitential and reflective in nature. The mood is solemn - many services will have long periods of silence and worshipers will often leave the service in silence.
Usually, there is a responsive passage of Scripture, usually centered around confession, read aloud about the leader and congregation. Attendees will experience communal confession, as well as moments where they are prompted to silently confess sins and pray.
After all of this, the congregation will be invited to receive the ashes on their foreheads. Usually, as the priest or pastor will dip his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”
In many congregations, the ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm branches to attendees, a reference to the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path.
The ashes of this holiday symbolize two main things: death and repentance. “Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.”
“When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins, and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy.
With this focus on our own mortality and sinfulness, Christians can enter into the Lent season solemnly, while also looking forward in greater anticipation and joy of the message of Easter and Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death.
If you’d like to start thinking through and observing Lent and Ash Wednesday, here are a few verses specific to Ash Wednesday to meditate and reflect on, and then a prayer you can pray to observe the day.
- Our Creation:Genesis 2:7 - Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
- Our Curse:Genesis 3:19 - By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
- Our Cry of Repentance:Psalm 51:7- 10: Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.