Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of the church year called Lent. By the fourth century the Western church determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ’s forty-day fast (Matt. 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain “feast” days in which we celebrate the resurrection), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter.
At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. Thus Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.
The aim of Ash Wednesday worship is threefold: to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance in the Lenten season and in all of life; and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin. Ash Wednesday worship, then, is filled with gospel truth. It is a witness to the power and beauty of our union with Christ and to the daily dying and rising with Christ that this entails.
The imposition of ashes is often a central part of the worship service. Ashes have a long history in biblical and church traditions. In Scripture ashes or dust symbolize frailty or death (Gen. 18:27), sadness or mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lam. 3:16), and repentance (Jon. 3:6). Some traditions also have considered ash a purifying or cleansing agent. All these images are caught up in the church’s use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent. In Christ’s passion we see God’s judgment on evil; in our penitence we express sorrow and repentance for our sins; in our rededication we show that we are purified and renewed.
The ashes, which often are the burnt residue of the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday, are often mixed with a little water and carried in a small dish. As the leader goes from worshiper to worshiper, or as worshipers come forward, the leader dips a finger in the moist ash and makes a cross on each person’s forehead (the “imposition”), saying words such as “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or, “Consider yourself dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ.”* This is not a sign of self-righteousness, but the opposite – to recieve the ashes is to say, “I am a broken, sinful person in need of redemption.”
Mark Roberts has an important insight as we observe today:
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (rather like Christmas and Easter). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for centuries… believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.
Kaleo will be joining churches all over the world by beginning the season of Lent together with our Ash Wednesday service tonight at 7:00. We will be meeting at Bellaire Central Baptist Church – if you are in Houston,we’d love to have you join us.