What is Ash Wednesday? Significance, Origin, and Facts

Ash Wednesday and Lent is a time for repentance, reflection, and readying oneself for Easter.

Believers look forward to several important holy days in the liturgical year. Lent is one season when Christians commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a period of preparing one’s heart and mind for Good Friday and Easter. This article will discuss the day that begins Lent – Ash Wednesday.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Origin

Ash Wednesday has been observed since the earliest period of Christianity. However, the account for and establishment of Lent is unclear. Scholars contend that Lent became a consistent holy day after the legalization of Christianity in AD 313. They note that beginning in the latter period of the fourth century, Christians have practiced the 40-day preparation known as Lent. This event was also woven into the Catholic Church beliefs at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

Ash Wednesday in the Bible

Ash Wednesday and Lent were not mentioned or observed in explicit ways in the Bible. Nevertheless, the practices and disciplines observed during the Lenten season are ubiquitous throughout Scripture. We see the authors of the Bible emphasize fasting and prayer, which are instructions during Lent. Moreover, Biblical characters repented with ashes/dust and fasted. These characters include Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4), and Job (Job 42:6). In Biblical times, smearing oneself with ash/dust was a sign of sorrow or sin.

When is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season. It marks 46 days before Easter Sunday. Therefore Ash Wednesday is not celebrated on a specific date each year. This year (2022), Ash Wednesday falls on the 2nd day of March. 

Who Celebrates Ash Wednesday?

The celebration of Ash Wednesday is most popularly observed among Catholic believers. However, many Orthodox and Protestant believers also celebrate this day to commence the Lenten season.

Different Christians contend with the observation of Ash Wednesday. Some appreciate Ash Wednesday and Lent as a period for reflection and intentional practice of spiritual disciplines. But other believers, like the Reformists, disapprove of the season’s commemoration. They reason out that observing Ash Wednesday can open excessiveness and bondage to rituals.

But however you view Ash Wednesday and Lent, remember that it will benefit the Body of Christ if believers were not to be self-righteous about celebrating holy days.  It is also vital to keep in mind that God sees beyond empty traditions and actions; He sees the heart of His people (1 Samuel 16:7). Thus, observing Ash Wednesday and Lent should not come from a place of heartless obligation. Instead, it should root in worship and intimacy with the Lord.

Significance of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is a time to prepare our hearts to celebrate the season of Easter. Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent is a chance to appreciate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this day, people remember their fallen nature, mortality, and the need for a Savior. It is also a period to reflect on what truly matters in our lives and how the gospel message impacts us.

Many believers attend Ash Wednesday mass or service together with their families. Thus, this time is also a great opportunity to fellowship with your family. Doing family devotions and prayer strengthens your faith and family ties.

How is Ash Wednesday Observed?

Prayer

Holydays in the Christian faith cannot do away with prayer. Prayer is an essential spiritual discipline and a transforming tool for the believer. During Ash Wednesday, it is customary to pray for strength for the Lenten season as it is a time of sacrifice and self-denial.

Although prayer is part and parcel of religious holidays, it should never be a mere hollow ritual. Prayer is communicating and giving praise to God. Praying restores and strengthens the fellowship of God with His people. During Lent, we remember that prayer is made possible only because of the redemptive work of Jesus.

As we pray during Ash Wednesday, it is good to remember the words of Jesus:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8)

Fasting and abstinence

Many Christians emphasize fasting and abstinence beginning on Ash Wednesday. In the Catholic faith, fasting means eating only one full meal during the day. It is mandatory during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, abstinence is not consuming meat. For some theologians, believers should avoid all products derived from animals. Moreover, it is a standard practice to fast for 40 days to model the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert before starting His earthly ministry.

Fasting, together with prayer, is said to be a powerful weapon against the enemy and break strongholds. In denying our physical bodies of food and other pleasures, we remember God as the sole sustainer of our souls (Matthew 4:4). Christians have used fasting throughout history to become more receptive to God’s leading and guidance and humble their hearts before God. People also fast to ask for protection, healing, and deliverance. Also, many believers fast in overcoming temptation and sin.

In modern days, fasting and abstinence are not only limited to food. Many Christians fast and abstain by refraining from social media use, watching TV, consuming alcohol, and other activities that give personal pleasure.

Doing fasting and abstinence beginning on Ash Wednesday will be beneficial with the right attitude and objective. Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Repentance

The heart of fasting and prayer is repentance. Repentance semantically means a change of mind. From a Biblical lens, repenting means accepting Christ as Savior and Lord of your life. Repentance entails the recognition of sin and the need for redemption through Christ’s finished work on the cross. Believers also need daily repentance to grow in spiritual maturity. Christ-followers repent knowing that God’s mercies are fresh every waking day (Lamentations 3:23).

During Ash Wednesday, repentance can be practiced by asking the Holy Spirit to bring your sins into awareness (Psalm 139:23). Make a list of these sins that comes to mind. Then confess these sins and accept the Lord’s forgiveness (1 John 1:9). If these sins involve other people, make amends and reconcile as the Holy Spirit leads you. Lastly, meditate on the Good News of Christ and remind yourself of the attributes of God.

Ashes

The ashes symbolize death and repentance. Biblical characters use ashes as a symbol of mourning and repentance. For example, Job repented using a sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6). Also, Daniel mentioned ashes as he prophesied the captivity of Jerusalem by Babylon (Daniel 9:3). These illustrations from the Old Testament show the use of ashes and what they stand for. Nowadays, believers commemorate Lent with solemnity as they bring attention to their sinfulness and humanity. This focus allows for joyous anticipation for the resurrection of Christ and Easter celebrations.

Many denominations celebrate Ash Wednesday by marking church members with ashes, usually on their foreheads. Historically, Pope Gregory established this tradition of placing ash marks shaped like a cross on the forehead of parishioners. In the Catholic faith, priests give ashes in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. For other denominations like the Protestants, pastors give ashes in public areas.

Various congregations make the ashes by burning the palm branches used during the previous Palm Sunday. Then the ashes are consecrated with holy water and incense.

Bible Verses to Ponder Upon on Ash Wednesday

On creation and mortality

“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.” (Genesis 2:7)

“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.” (Genesis 3:19)

“And in as much as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrew 9:27)

On man’s fallen nature and need for repentance

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”  Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.” (Joel 2:12-14)

On God’s mercy and compassion

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14)

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Merciful Father, I come before you in humility and ask you to search me and examine my heart. You alone know my every desire and intention, my every thought and action. Nothing escapes your sight. Bring into my awareness the sins I have committed against you and my brothers and sisters. Grant me a repentant heart and help me turn away from sinfulness. I recognize the depravity of my heart and acknowledge that you alone can save a wretched soul like me. I repent from my old ways and surrender my life to you.

Lord, give me the strength and wisdom as I meditate on your word and spend intentional time with you beginning Ash Wednesday. Let your Holy Spirit guide and lead me this Lenten season. Allow me to worship you with a pure mind and heart.

My heart is in joyful anticipation for Easter! Because of your redemptive work on the cross, I can declare that death holds no victory on me. Thank you for the grace and mercy that abounds every season. I pray this in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.

In Summary

Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of Lent. This year, it falls on the 2nd day of March. Different congregations commemorate the day. However, it is most known in the Catholic faith and some Protestant churches. Ash Wednesday marks the start of engaging in spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season. Many Christians pray, fast, abstain, and have ashes put on their foreheads. 

As you commemorate Ash Wednesday, may you have a genuinely repentant heart. May the focus of your worship be on the Lord alone. Bask in the grace of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. And may you embrace the coming of Easter and its powerful message of resurrection!

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.