Ash Wednesday celebrates the beginning of the Lent season, the 40 day period leading up to Easter Sunday. This day is celebrated on the seventh Wednesday leading up to Easter and follows Shrove Tuesday (also known as Fat Tuesday). This season is meant to spend time reflecting on your personal life and penance for your sins. The 40 day Lenten journey leads us to the ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ’s resurrection and atonement for all of man’s sins.
The Ash Wednesday ceremony, originally called dies cerinum which means the day of ashes, dates back to the 8th century. But the season of “repentance” dates back to biblical times. In Leviticus 16:34, the Lord established an annual day of repentance for the Israelites saying, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” In the old tradition, those offenders who had committed grievous sins would come before the priest wearing sackcloth. Wearing rough material or animal hair was meant to show an outward demonstration of an inward sorrow and shame. The priest would then sprinkle ashes on their head and bless them. They were expected to spend the next 40 days in penance and reconciliation and would return to the priest on Maundy Thursday for their first communion following their repentance.
Christians today have been blessed with the blood of Jesus Christ who made the greatest atonement for our sins. However, many Christians continue the tradition with a time of fasting and prayer. We spend this time of year bringing our hearts back in accordance with the will of God and giving thanks for the atonement made by Jesus Christ.
During an Ash Wednesday observance service, the cross is marked in ashes to the forehead of each church member to signify an inward repentance. This process is meant to humble our hearts and remind us of the sacrifices made for our eternal life with Christ. The service brings our focus back to the mission of the Church and the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf. It is encouraged to spend time reflecting on the last year of your life and giving a greater commitment to God and the Church.
The ashes are a symbol of man’s mortality and remind us that life is not guaranteed. Ecclesiastes 12:7 tells us, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Traditionally, the ashes used in an Ash Wednesday ceremony come from burning the palm branches used in the Easter service the previous year. The ashes are blessed with holy water and rest with burning incense to create a pleasant scent until the next Ash Wednesday service.
Because Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, Christians are free to observe this time as they desire. The most popular method for celebration is fasting, or giving something up that would be difficult during the Lent season. Others add an activity such as a daily devotional. Both are great methods that lead you constantly back to the Lord, reminding us of our need for repentance and the need for our Savior. Any activity chosen during this season is meaningless if not done with the intent for spiritual renewal and repentance.