What Is Ash Wednesday?

What Christians Commemorate on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
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In Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of the season of Lent. Officially named "Day of Ashes," Ash Wednesday always falls 40 days prior to Easter (Sundays are not included in the count). Lent is a time when Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation, giving up of sinful habits, and spiritual discipline.

Not all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday and Lent.

These commemorations are mostly kept by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, and also by Roman Catholics.

Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed.

The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.

What Do the Ashes Signify?

During Ash Wednesday mass or services, a minister distributes ashes by lightly rubbing the shape of a cross with ashes onto the foreheads of worshipers. The tradition of tracing a cross on the forehead is meant to identify the faithful with Jesus Christ.

Ashes are a symbol of death in the Bible.

God formed humans out of dust:

Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. (Genesis 2:7, NLT)

Human beings return to dust and ashes when they die:

"By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return." (Genesis 3:19, NLT)

Speaking of his human mortality in Genesis 18:27, Abraham told God, "I am nothing but dust and ashes." The prophet Jeremiah described death as a "valley of dead bones and ashes" in Jeremiah 31:40. So, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday symbolize death.

Many times in Scripture, the practice of repentance is also associated with ashes. In Daniel 9:3, the prophet Daniel clothed himself in sackcloth and sprinkled himself in ashes as he pleaded with God in prayer and fasting. In Job 42:6, Job said to the Lord, "I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance."

When Jesus saw towns full of people reject salvation even after he'd performed so many of his miracles there, he denounced them for not repenting:

"What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse." (Matthew 11:21, NLT)

Thus, ashes on Ash Wednesday at the start of the Lenten season represent our repentance from sin and Jesus Christ's sacrificial death to set us free from sin and death.

How Are the Ashes Made?

To make the ashes, palm fronds are collected from the previous year's Palm Sunday services.

The ashes are burned, crushed into a fine powder, and then saved in bowls. During the following year's Ash Wednesday masses, the ashes are blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the minister. 

How Are the Ashes Distributed?

Worshipers approach the altar in procession similar to that of communion to receive the ashes. A priest dips his thumb into the ashes, makes the sign of the cross on the person's forehead, and says a variation of these words:

  • "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return," which is the traditional invocation from Genesis 3:19;
  • Or, "Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel," from Mark 1:15.

Should Christians Observe Ash Wednesday?

Since the Bible does not mention the observance of Ash Wednesday, believers are free to decide whether or not to participate. Self-examination, moderation, giving up of sinful habits, and repentance from sin are all good practices for believers.

So, Christians ought to do these things daily and not only during Lent.