I can remember being in elementary school and going down the aisle of my church to receive ashes in a cross on my head from the pastor. This service was intriguing to me as a young person and honestly continues to draw me in each year. I love the visible sign of our death and new life in Christ. Not every church celebrates with an Ash Wednesday service, but many around the world still share in this remembrance. Ash Wednesday is the start of a season of reflection and preparation for Easter. If you are wondering when is Ash Wednesday this year, we are only a few weeks away. February 17, 2021, is the day when many believers will recognize the beginning of Lent.
What Is Ash Wednesday?
So, what is the point of lining up and getting ashes smeared across your forehead on a Wednesday night? Why should we celebrate when not all churches participate? This is by no means a mandatory service, but honestly, a blessing to be a part of each year. It is invaluable to take time to reflect on our sinfulness in confession and prayer as an individual, as well as corporately. Many times, the church emphasizes grace, but we grasp a better concept of grace when we realize how sinful we are and how much God has loved us in the midst of our disobedience.
Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. According to Liz Auld from Crosswalk, “Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter Sunday and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. Lent is traditionally a 40-day fast — a reference to the time Jesus spent being tempted in the desert — that seeks to prepare the heart of the believer for the solemn remembrance of Jesus’ death. It concludes and is followed by a joyous Easter Sunday celebration of the resurrection of Christ.”
We cannot completely appreciate the reality of where we are heading until we sit in the truth of where we were going. This not only a day of thinking on Christ’s death but each of our own deaths. All of our hope was ashes until Jesus. All of our future was hell until the empty tomb. But because of Christ’s sacrifice, all of our sins have been removed as far as the East is from the West (Psalm 103:12).
Romans 3:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ash Wednesday is a day to focus on sin in preparation of the celebration of the gift of Christ on Easter Sunday. However, may we be cautious not to make these practices two days per year. We can confess our sins and be in awe of salvation each day. We can live in the victory of the cross and His new mercies every morning because He is so faithful.
The act of placing ashes on our heads and confessing our sins does not save us, but it reminds us of our Savior. It is always important to remember that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Anytime we place our faith in our works and traditions, we miss out on the true meaning of our actions. Services, ceremonies, and symbols should always be held loosely. We should continually remember that even if something like COVID prevented us from gathering for an Ash Wednesday service, that we can still celebrate in our hearts. The purpose of the day does not change, regardless of the circumstances. Ash Wednesday can be remembered wherever you are, and it will be a sweet time offered to the Lord whether you are in your living room or in the church sanctuary.
When Was the First Ash Wednesday?
According to Kelly Givens at Christianity.com, “The history and beginnings of Lent aren’t clear. According to Britannica.com, Lent has likely been observed: “since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.”
Why Is the Holiday Called Ash Wednesday?
The word ash represents death. When we think about ash, we think about destruction from fire. About two months ago my uncle and aunt’s house caught fire and was unfortunately destroyed. There were a lot of ashes as a result of the damage. An ash symbolizes brokenness and ruins. Ash Wednesday is a day to remember that Jesus came down into our ugly mess and became sin for us so that we could have forgiveness. Only God can restore ashes. Only God can bring life from death.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is a time of remorse and gratitude for the great love and mercy our Father has on us. Ashes could denote our death, but instead, they represent Jesus’ death and our life.
The curse of sin upon Adam was revealed in 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.” In order to more fully celebrate the joy of our salvation, it is important to ponder the depth of our sins and the fragility of our human nature. We were made from dust and one day our bodies will be dust again. However, as the pastor brushes the ashes on your head in the shape of a cross, it is a reminder that Jesus came and died the ultimate death leading the way for hope and redemption.
How Do We Celebrate Ash Wednesday?
According to Kelly Givens of Christianity.com, “Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. This happens during a special Ash Wednesday service.”
When we participate in focusing our hearts on the cross, we can step into the season of Easter in its entirety. It takes discipline to slow down and center our thoughts on the weight of death. It is not a fun topic, but it is important. Ash Wednesday is the springboard to the time of fasting in Lent. When we realize how much of a sacrifice Christ made on our behalf, it provides a confidence boost as we prepare to enter our 40 days of sacrifice.
Popular hymns sung in an Ash Wednesday service include: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Before the Throne of God Above,” and “Jesus I Come.”
A few popular modern worship songs for Ash Wednesday include: “At the Foot of the Cross (Ashes to Beauty)” by Kathryn Scott, “Beautiful Things” by Gungor, and “You Alone Can Rescue” by Matt Redman.
What Does the Bible Say about Ash Wednesday?
An exact reference is not made for Ash Wednesday in Scripture. However, the concept of ashes is mentioned throughout the Bible.
Ashes Represent Death & Mourning
Abraham mentioned being but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).
Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her clothes when she was in mourning from sin that was done to her (2 Samuel 13:9).
Mordecai tore his clothes and put ashes on his head when he learned of Haman's plan against the Jewish people (Esther 4:1-3).
Jeremiah encouraged his people to mourn in ashes (Jeremiah 6:26).
Ashes Signify a Burnt Offering
The burnt offering was one of the Jewish sacrifices found in the Old Testament. During the priestly sacrifices before Christ came as the ultimate sacrifice, animals were burned, and their ashes were the result of the burnt offerings. Leviticus 6:8-13 shares the instructions on the burnt offering. Leviticus 6:10-11 says, “The priest shall then put on his linen clothes, with linen undergarments next to his body, and shall remove the ashes of the burnt offering that the fire has consumed on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he is to take off these clothes and put on others, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a place that is ceremonially clean.” Ashes were the result of a sacrifice. Jesus became our Sacrificial Lamb. The ashes of the cross on our heads represent the burnt offering that is the gateway to our new life. This is also displayed in Numbers 4:13.
Number 19:9 tells us that ashes left over from a sacrifice were used for the purification of sins.
Ashes Are Used in Repentance
Job 42:6 says, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Daniel made a huge confession and put ashes on his head on behalf of his people (Daniel 9:1-19).
The New Testament Shares of Ashes
Hebrews 9:11-14 says, “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
The passage says, “The ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean” (Hebrews 9:13b). This means that when we place ashes onto our heads, we are essentially joining in saying that our sacrifices are not enough, that the burnt offerings of the priests in the tabernacles covered sin outwardly, but only Jesus can forgive the sins of the heart. The blood of Christ sets us free.
How We Can Apply Ash Wednesday To Our Lives?
Isaiah mentions what true fasting is in Isaiah 58. Isaiah 58:5 challenges us, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” He goes on to talk about the value of helping the oppressed, providing food for the poor, and clothing those in need.
This challenges me to remember that Ash Wednesday is simply one day of the year, but the attitude of that day needs to be carried through the entire calendar. These moments should simply be springboards to our faith and reminders of Christ’s love for us and for the world. But our ashes marked on our heads should remind us to share that cross with others so that they too can join in the joy of wearing the cross of Christ proudly.
Profound words were spoken in Matthew 16:24. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” May the cross of ashes remind us of the daily cross that we should carry with us with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/azerberber
Emma Danzey’s mission in life is to inspire young women to embrace the extraordinary. One of her greatest joys is to journey with the Lord in His Scriptures. Emma is a North Carolina resident and green tea enthusiast! She is married to her husband Drew and they serve international college students. She enjoys singing, dancing, trying new recipes, and watching home makeover shows. During her ministry career, Emma recorded two worship EP albums, founded and led Polished Conference Ministries, ran the Refined Magazine, and served in music education for early childhood. Currently, she is in the editing stages of her first two writing projects: a Bible study on womanhood and a non-fiction book on singleness. You can visit her blog at emmadanzey.wordpress.com