You may have seen Christians, mostly Catholics, walking around with a smear of ash on their foreheads and wonder what it means. The practice of Ash Wednesday is symbolic within the Christian church to recognize our frailty as humans. It also marks the beginning of the Lent season. Let's take a look at the meaning of Ash Wednesday, how it's celebrated, and it's Biblical purpose.
What is Ash Wednesday?
While the observation of Ash Wednesday has historically been within the Catholic Church, several protestant denominations have begun to commemorate the day with similar services. In the Catholic observation of Ash Wednesday, a priest applies a smudge of ash on people's foreheads in the shape of a cross. As it is applied, the phrase "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" is often spoken. The ash is meant to communicate grief and sorrow over sins and repentance through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Ashes are blessed in the Church on Ash Wednesday. They are used to keep us in mind of our humble origin, and of how the body of Adam, our forefather, was formed out of the slime or clay of the earth; also to remind us of death, when our bodies will return to dust, and of the necessity of doing penance for our sins. These ashes are obtained by burning the blessed palms of the previous year. (The Baltimore Complete Catechism)
The symbolism of repentance and grief continues from Ash Wednesday into the Lenten season through the observation of fasting and prayer. The 40 day period of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter is a time to reflect on man's sinful humanity and Jesus's sacrifice for our sins. The 40 days also commemorates the time in which Jesus withstood temptation from the devil in the desert.
While the ashes remind us that we will die and return to the ground, if we believe in Jesus we will be raised with him in glorious new bodies.
Ash Wednesday and Fasting
Although Ash Wednesday is enriched with Christian symbolism, we don’t actually find an instance of this particular holiday in the Bible. The holiday didn’t have a biblical origin but owing to the Council of Nicea implementing a 40-day fasting period prior to Easter, many debated as to when that period would start. In the fifth century, Pope Gregory transferred the beginning day of Lent from a Sunday to Ash Wednesday. However, the practice of fasting and prayer has strong Biblical foundations and guidelines.
While modern-day rules for Ash Wednesday and Lent fasting differ among Catholics, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays and one meatless meal a day on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, many Christians find Lent to be a valuable time of abstaining from specific foods, social media, television or other indulgences in order to focus on our need for a Savior and the sacrifice of Jesus. Just as Jesus used fasting and prayer to strengthen his faith during his temptation in the desert, we too can receive power and strength through these Biblical practices.
Use our 40 Day Devotional Guide to lead you in prayer and scripture reading through the Lenten Season!
Ash Wednesday in the Bible
While Ash Wednesday is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, the phrase "ashes to ashes dust to dust" is commonly referenced on Ash Wednesday. The Scriptures usually referred to are from the Old Testament:
Genesis 2:7 - “God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Genesis 3:19 - “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ecclesiastes 3:20 - “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return”.
The blessing of Ash Wednesday is the reminder that though we are born from dust and return to dust and that sin brought the curse of death to the world, on Good Friday Jesus paid the penalty for the curse with his death on the cross. Our sins are forgiven on the cross. Then, on Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the dead and we have been given the gift of eternal life with Him in new heavenly bodies that will never turn to dust! Let's look at a few Scriptures that can encourage us on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten season.