Ash Wednesday | Significance, Origin, and Facts

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

Believers look forward to several important holy days in the liturgical calendar. 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 Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. This article will discuss the day that begins Lent – Ash Wednesday.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Origin of Ash Wednesday

Christians have observed Ash Wednesday since the earliest period of the religion. 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 practiced the forty days of preparation known as Lent. Ash Wednesday was also woven into the Catholic Church beliefs at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

The practice of penance and fasting comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of Ash Wednesday. Another ancient Jewish tradition we’ve applied is the wearing of ashes from blessed palm branches on our forehead, therefore, this practice is not distinctly Protestant nor Catholic like most believe it is.

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 chiefly observed during the entire Lenten season are ubiquitous throughout Scripture. We see the authors of the Bible emphasize fasting, prayer, and public penance, which are instructions during Lent. Also, since ashes symbolize repentance, we see Bible characters use this to repent along with another visible symbol of repentance, like fasting. These characters include Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4), and Job (Job 42:6). In biblical times, smearing oneself with ashes symbolizes penance for sorrow or sin.

When is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and falls at the beginning of the forty days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a forty-day celebration, excluding Sundays, and it marks 46 days before Easter Sunday. Therefore Ash Wednesday is not celebrated on a specific date each year. 

Who Celebrates Ash Wednesday?

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

Different Christians contend with the observation of Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. Some appreciate Ash Wednesday and Lent as a period for reflection and intentional practice of spiritual disciplines, distinctly protestant practices. For Roman Catholics, Ash Wednesday is chiefly observed by attending a church mass and after lining up to receive ashes on their foreheads to be worn for the rest of the day. But other believers, like the Reformists, disapprove of the season’s commemoration. They reason that observing Ash Wednesday can open excessiveness and bondage to rituals.

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 from worship and intimacy with the Lord to help us attain redemption.

Significance of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is a time to prepare our hearts to celebrate the season of Easter. Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent is a chance to appreciate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Also, Ash Wednesday falls at a time when 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 as a way to prepare their hearts and celebrate. Thus, Ash Wednesday marks a great opportunity to begin penance for our sins but also a good time for fellowship with your family. Doing family devotions, prayers, and the like strengthens your faith and family ties.

How is Ash Wednesday Observed?


Holy days 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 entire 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. In order to attain redemption, having an ash mark on our foreheads isn’t enough; we still need to come together in genuine prayer. During Lent, we remember that penitential prayer is made possible only because of the redemptive work of Jesus.

As we do a penitential prayer 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

In the liturgical calendar, Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday is the last day of feasting before Ash Wednesday opens Lent. It’s why many Christians emphasize fasting and abstinence at the beginning of Ash Wednesday. Fasting is not only part of Holy Wednesday but also symbolizes the believer’s effort to repent for their sins.

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. Others not only eat one meal for the day but also abstain from eating meat. For some theologians, believers should avoid all products derived from animals. Moreover, Ash Wednesday marks a forty days penance where you fast for forty days. This practice models the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert before starting His earthly ministry.

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.”


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.

Using the seven penitential psalms can also help you reflect during Ash Wednesday and the rest of the season of Lent. The theme of the seven penitential psalms allows us to honestly plead for God to help us repent and genuinely ask for forgiveness. The seven penitential psalms are Psalm chapter 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. You can freely use them during the penitential procession during the season of Lent up until Palm Sunday.

Ash Wednesday Ashes

The Ash Wednesday ashes symbolize death and repentance. Biblical characters use ashes as a symbol of mourning and repentance. For example, Job repented using 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 that ashes symbolize penance.

Nowadays, Christians observe Lent with solemnity as they bring attention to their sinfulness and humanity. This focus allows for joyous anticipation of Christ’s resurrection and Easter Sunday celebrations.

Many denominations celebrate Lent Ash Wednesday, and they involve pastors distributing ashes and using them to mark church members, usually on the person’s forehead. Historically, Pope Gregory established the Ash Wednesday practice of placing ash marks shaped like a cross on the forehead of parishioners.

In the Catholic faith, the priests administer ashes on a person’s forehead in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. For other Protestant churches, they involve pastors distributing ashes in public areas. Ashes symbolize penance, and placing them on the practitioner’s forehead is a visible symbol of their devotion and participation in the penitential procession.

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

Bible Verses to Ponder Upon on Ash Wednesday

As Christians observe Ash Wednesday this year, here are some Bible verses that we can ponder during the Lenten week.

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 for dust you shall return to.” (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 divine 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 during the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Let your Holy Spirit guide and lead me this Lenten season. Allow me to worship you with a pure mind and heart. Please remind me not only to receive ashes but also to remember that they symbolize grief and my intention to repent for my sins.

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 divine mercy that abounds every season. I pray this in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.

In Summary

Do not just celebrate Ash Wednesday but open the week with a Palm Sunday celebration where you excitedly wave palm branches and remember the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. Enjoying a time of celebration and feasting, however, there has to be a time for fasting and repentance. As you receive ashes that symbolize grief and repentance, let us remember the importance of the days leading to Palm Sunday.

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 parish church where priests administer ashes on the participant’s forehead. Ash Wednesday marks the start of engaging in spiritual disciplines done during the Lenten fast, like worship service and Sunday mass. Many Christians pray, fast, abstain, and receive ashes on their foreheads. 

As you commemorate Ash Wednesday, may you have a genuinely repentant heart. Observe the forty days of penance with fasting and unceasing prayers. Attend the Palm Sunday mass and focus your worship 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 Christ’s resurrection!

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Alex Shute
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.

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