Thank you to our priest, Fr. Wayne McNamara, for allowing us to post this explanation of Ash Wednesday. Fr. Wayne collects thoughts and resources at his blog: An Irishman’s Mugs, Mettles, and Meanderings.
What is Lent?
The word ‘Lent’ comes from the old Saxon name for the month of ‘March.’ and came to refer also to ‘spring’. The Christian Church has observed the forty days before Easter as a time of corporate and individual self-examination, a time of mourning for our sins, of repentance, and fasting. Lent is the season where we might find ourselves like the prodigal son, finding our way home, returning to a more committed relationship with the Lord and His people, a time of spiritual renewal. It is a time where we (individually, as families, as parishes) face more deliberately all our unfaithfulness and failures. It is a time of fasting to remind us that our deepest hunger is for God and Him alone It is a time of cleansing and the removing of all kinds of impediments to the joyful coming of the Kingdom of God which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Church calendar. It is Ash Wednesday because it always begins forty days before Easter Sunday not counting Sundays and that is always a Wednesday. Lord’s Day worship is a celebration of the Resurrection and therefore not a fast day. It is Ash Wednesday because on that day Christians have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. It is also a day of fasting beginning forty days of fasting. The forty days reminds us of the fast of Jesus as he prepared for His ministry which resulted in His suffering and death for our sins.
Is Ash Wednesday based on a pagan festival?
Heck no! Ash Wednesday originated in the A.D. 900’s long after Europe had been Christianized and pagan cults had all but disappeared.
So what’s with the ashes anyway?
Ashes are a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance. The ancient custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one’s head (see 1 Samuel 4:12, 2 Samuel 1:20, 13:19, 15:32, etc.). Anymore, not too many people wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, but the custom of fasting and putting ashes on one’s forehead as a sign of humility, mourning, and repentance have survived to this day. Ashes also remind that out of the fires of testing and judgment come God’s forgiveness, restoration, and healing; that God will bring good from our adversity, that out of difficulties come new possibilities.
Why are ashes put on the forehead?
Ezekiel 9:4-6 “…and Yahweh said to him [the man in linen], “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally a ‘tav’-see below] on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it. To the other He said in my hearing, “Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the temple.
‘Tav’ is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in ancient script, looked much like the Greek letter chi , an ‘X’ or cross shape. This happens to be the first letter in the Greek word for ‘Christ’ or Christos. Church leaders noticed the tav/chi/Christos/cross connection and settled on its symbolic use in placing oil on believer’s foreheads at baptism, during prayers for healing, and of course, with ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Notice in Ezekiel the mark is placed on those who mourn for their individual and corporate sins. This is the same mark in mind in Revelation when the servants of God are sealed in it:
(Revelation 7:3) “…saying, ‘Do not harm the earth, the sea or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’”
(Revelation 9:4) “They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”
(Revelation 14:1) “Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.
Is there another significance to the ashes?
Yes. They symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. When the minister uses his thumb to sign someone with ashes he says, “Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is modeled after God’s address to Adam in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of our face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Job 34:15, Psalms 90:3, 104:29, Ecclesiastes 3:20). This also echoes the words spoken at a burial, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Abraham’s confession was, “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” This reminder of our mortality motivates us to repent of our sins, especially before we face our judge.
Where do the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from?
They are usually made by burning the palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Why are the ashes from the previous year’s Palm Sunday used?
Palm Sunday was when the people rejoiced at Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem. They celebrated his arrival by waving palms fronds, little realizing that He was coming to die for their sins. Using Palm Sunday palms reminds us that Jesus went to Jerusalem to die for us and endure God’s wrath for our sins so that we might have eternal life. He was hailed as King by the crowds with palms during this Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem yet five days later crucified as, in the great ugliness of sin, the same crowds shouted, “Crucify Him!” In considering the horror of our sin, our shame and mourning lead us to the Resurrection hope and new life.
Are we required as Christians to observe Ash Wednesday and participate in the service?
Out of godly submission to our Mother, the Church, who calls us to a yearly Lenten fast, unless something extraordinary hinders us, we should in love and faithfulness, answer her summons. In some ultimate sense, the answer might be ‘no’ because no special feast/fast days or ceremonies are explicitly commanded in the New Covenant besides Baptism, Holy Communion, ordination, and marriage. However, the Church has had a Lenten fast for over a millennium because the symbolism of this day is rich for us, and the disciplines of fasting, prayer, repentance, and confession are of great benefit to us individually and corporately in maintaining a closer more fruitful relationship with our Lord.