The chapel service for Ash Wednesday was our most well-attended service of the year when I worked as a hospital chaplain. Maybe it was because at a hospital, there are everyday reminders of life and death. The healthcare workers who came for the mark of ashes knew well the miracle and frailty of life. The visitors who came perhaps wanted a taste of a familiar ritual as they maneuvered the unexpected or difficult within the hospital walls.
Despite this reasoning, its popularity still struck me as odd as a young chaplain. I had noticed that our society is often “allergic” to death: People don’t like talking about it, there is a cult of youth in culture, and it’s often tempting to make decisions that do not take our finitude into account. Yet, one function of Ash Wednesday is to remind us of the frailty of the human condition in a most basic way: We are dust, and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19).
Further, I found it interesting that the sign of ashes was the most requested part of the service. Busy healthcare workers would not leave without the ashy cross. In a society where faith sometimes felt like an unwelcomed advance in everyday conversation, I marveled at how people craved this public acknowledgment of their faith. They wanted to be set apart—to be visibly marked. There was comfort in the ritual because it proclaimed the majesty of our Creator and the saving work of our Lord right where it was needed most.
What Is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is a holy day that signifies the beginning of Lent. It marks the entry into a season of spiritual preparation for Holy Week, which culminates in Easter. Any march toward the redeeming work of Christ must begin with a recognition of our need for his grace—and that reminder is Ash Wednesday. The day affirms that we are dust, as ashes are literally spread in a cross on our foreheads. The cross represents Jesus and how he has redeemed us. We are encouraged to seek repentance with humble hearts and prepare for his gift.
While Ash Wednesday isn’t mentioned in the Bible, Scripture does testify to the practice of repenting in dust and ashes. The ashes for Ash Wednesday are typically provided by burning the palms from Palm Sunday of the year prior. Christians in the early church were sprinkled with ashes during Lent; however, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the church began the Ash Wednesday practice of marking foreheads.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday
This is a prayer that draws from the chapel service in my chaplain days. I am indebted to Chaplain Nancy Waite and Evanston Northwestern Hospital for their mentorship. I invite you to pray this prayer with me:
Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth; you claimed us for Christ in the waters of baptism. Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days bearing the mark of ashes, and bless the journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth. As we remember our mortality and seek penitence today, we know you to be a God who is rich in forgiveness and abounding in steadfast love, love that culminates in eternal life with you. Guide our steps this Lent, so that we might find greater fulfillment in your promises and better serve others with a heart that’s reflective of you. Amen.
Some churches will still be celebrating Ash Wednesday but may be doing so remotely this year due to the pandemic. My church will be distributing small bags of ashes with a prayer and instructions for ash disposition. Participants will be praying the prayer above, and then they will say this line as they make the sign of the cross on their forehead or that of a loved one: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
Bible Verses for Ash Wednesday
Genesis 3:19 is one of many Scripture passages that are fitting for meditation on Ash Wednesday. I encourage you to read these others too:
Daniel 9:3 “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”
Job 42:5-6 “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Mark 1:15 "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"
Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
Psalm 103:8-14 “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 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.”
Lenten Preparation and Reflection
While these Scripture passages are meaningful on Ash Wednesday, they can also be used to spur reflection during the entire forty-day Lenten period. I invite you to also use these starters for reflection and prayer to enrich your preparation:
- I ask Jesus to free me from my sin of...
- I shine my light before others at home or at work by...
- I dedicate my life to service and healing by...
- I consider my own mortality and its gift by…
The latter is especially powerful.
While death isn’t usually an easy subject to broach, it is a fact of life. Recognizing life’s gift allows us to value each day and live it to the fullest. Ash Wednesday helps us do just that. We recognize our mortality while simultaneously proclaiming all that God has done, which propels us to embrace this life and the one to come. May the peace of Christ meet you exactly where 2021 finds you and bless you abundantly with his grace as we journey toward Easter!
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Coompia77
Rev. Noelle Kirchner, M.Div., believes we don't have to live with full schedules and thin souls. A busy mom of three boys, she is a graduate of Northwestern University and Princeton Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served in churches for over ten years. She has written for places like the TODAY Show Parenting Team, Huff Post Parents, Crosswalk, iBelieve, and (in)courage. Her faith and family cable television show, "Chaos to Calm," features parenting hot topics and has hosted four New York Times bestselling authors and two Emmy Award-winning journalists. Watch her episodes or sermons and sign up for her free devotional e-book by visiting her website, noellekirchner.com. You can connect with her on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) and also check out her book, How to Live Your Life Purpose: The Six-Step Journey to God's Best, that launched as a #1 New Release on Amazon and includes end-of-chapter Bible studies.
This article is part of our prayer resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.