You may have attended an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic or Protestant church. Or, maybe your school held an Ash Wednesday service and you remember being led through thoughtful, reflective prayers there.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. During the Lent period, Christians often fast and then celebrate together once Easter arrives. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, can be a more solemn occasion.
What’s the difference between Ash Wednesday and Lent?
Lent represents the 40 day period Jesus spent being tempted in the desert, during which time He fasted. Lent tradition holds that we set aside 40 days every year to think about Jesus’ life and sacrifice. We use fasting as a tool to help us to enable this focus.
Ash Wednesday is traditionally commemorated with a sombre service or period of worship with a reflective focus. On Ash Wednesday, Christians are encouraged to begin their period of Lent fasting with a time of repentance for their sins.
Why the ‘Ash’ in Ash Wednesday?
The ashes used in many Ash Wednesday church services symbolize death and repentance. They serve as a reminder that as humans we came from dust and will return to dust.
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
Traditionally, the leaves from Palm Sunday celebrations are burnt to create the ash used on Ash Wednesday.
While a day dedicated to reminding us of our fleshly mortality and sinful natures sounds a little bleak, it’s actually a powerful part of the Christian journey. By going through the process of reflection and repentance that Ash Wednesday encourages, we find ourselves better positioned to celebrate Easter. It’s easier to celebrate the triumph of Jesus Christ over death and sin with genuine joy after taking time to reflect on how much His victory impacts us personally.
Is it in the Bible?
Ash Wednesday, like many of the festivals associated with Easter Sunday, isn’t found in the Bible. We do, however, see ashes appear throughout the Bible as a way of symbolising penitence.
In the book of Esther, we see Mordecai ‘put on ashes’ as a statement of his grief: “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city wailing loudly and bitterly.” (Esther 4:1)
We see a similar use of ashes referenced in 2 Samuel 13:19: “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.”
It’s because of biblical references like these that the tradition of marking a time of repentance with ashes began. A monk named Aelfric, writing in the tenth century AD, provides one of the first records we have about beginning Lent fasts by applying ash to your forehead:
“Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent, then we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during Lenten fast.”
What is Ash Wednesday’s significance for my personal prayer life?
If you are not planning on attending an Ash Wednesday service, you may be wondering whether Ash Wednesday has any significance for you personally.
Ash Wednesday provides an opportunity to talk to God about your own transformation as you journey with Him. During one of your quiet times, try praying about things in your life that you’d like to change. Think about your lifestyle, how you spend your time, what you’re going after at the moment and invite God to come and reorder your priorities.
Repentance can be as simple as making a decision to turn away from one thing, towards another. As such, that could mean turning away from a habit or a way of thinking towards God.
What is there in your life that God wants you to turn away from? If He is asking you to lay something down it’s because He has something better for you.
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Jeremiah 29:11
Inspiring quotes, prayers and scriptures
Ash Wednesday is a brilliant opportunity to go a little deeper in your relationship with God. It can be a time to explore what He has on His heart for you. Here are some quotes, prayers and scriptures to help fuel your quiet time.
A prayer inspired by Psalm 51: “Create in me a pure heart, O God. Cleanse and wash me; wash me cleaner than snow. I open up my heart and life to You and invite You in. Please wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Have mercy on me, O God. I rely on Your unfailing love and Your great compassion. Blot out my transgressions, merciful God.”
“The real question of the Lenten season is, how will I clear out the junk and garbage in my life so that I can be restored to God in some fresh way? What are the disciplines that will open up space for God to create a clean heart and new spirit in me?” Ruth Hayley Barton
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9