Understanding Ash Wednesday

Feb 8, 2024

Reading time: 4 Minutes

Man with ash-drawn cross on his forehead

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14. For many believers, Ash Wednesday is a solemn day, one of the most important on the liturgical calendar. For others, Ash Wednesday is altogether unfamiliar. Whether your understanding of the day is complete or just beginning, let’s explore the meaning and purpose of Ash Wednesday together, in an effort to honor the Lord and each other well.


What is Ash Wednesday?


Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday. It’s the first day of Lent, which is a season of fasting and prayer designed to prepare believers to remember the Lord Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Specifically, Ash Wednesday is a day of penitential prayer and fasting that has been observed in both Catholic and Protestant traditions for centuries.


What is the purpose of Ash Wednesday?


Originally, Ash Wednesday was for those who had committed grievous sins that had caused them to be alienated or excommunicated from the Church. For them, Ash Wednesday initiated their period of public repentance and fasting so they could be received back into the Church on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter Sunday.


Today, however, Ash Wednesday is a time for all believers to demonstrate their devotion to the Lord by fasting and praying. During this day, they reflect on their lives, repent from sins committed, and remember the redemption the Lord brings to us through His sacrificial death and resurrection. Those who observe Ash Wednesday do so solemnly, avoiding feasting and often taking the day off from work in order to pray and fast in light of sins committed.


Why do believers put ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?


Ashes have been associated with humility, grief, fasting, and prayerful repentance for millennia. Scripture contains many examples of God’s people demonstrating these inward traits by placing sackcloth and ashes upon themselves externally.


In regard to humility, Abraham declared that he was but “dust and ashes” as he stood before the Lord while interceding for the righteous within the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:27).


In regard to grief, Job sat among the ashes after losing his children, wealth, and physical health (Job 2:8). David’s daughter, Tamar, placed ashes on her head as she grieved over her defilement due to the horrific sin her half-brother committed against her (2 Samuel 13:19). Ezekiel prophesied of nations mourning over Tyre’s judgment with dust and ashes (Ezekiel 27:30).


In regard to fasting, Isaiah referred to the common practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes during times of fasting and prayer (Isaiah 58:5). Mordecai and other Jews wore sackcloth and ashes as they fasted after hearing of the edict Haman devised to destroy the Jews through the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1, 3).


In regard to prayerful repentance, Daniel fasted and prayed to the LORD in sackcloth and ashes in light of God’s judgment upon His people (Daniel 9:3). When denouncing the cities of those who did not repent during His ministry, our Lord Jesus declared that both Tyre and Sidon would have repented “in sackcloth and ashes” if they had seen similar miracles in their day (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13).


Today, followers of Jesus often put an ash cross on their foreheads, usually applied by a priest (in Catholicism) or a pastor (in Protestantism). The ash may be derived from the burning of palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. While applying the ash cross on the worshipper’s forehead, it is common for the priest or pastor to declare, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), or, “Repent and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15).


What should Ash Wednesday be for me?


Whether you observe Ash Wednesday annually or are hearing about it for the first time, this day gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives and the wonderful salvation available to all through faith in Jesus. It is not an obligation but rather an invitation to pause and consider both the seriousness of sin and the mercy of God. No matter what faith tradition we practice, we can participate in Ash Wednesday by humbly coming before our Lord in intentional confession and repentance. Remember the promise we have in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”


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