Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day of prayer and fasting. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and falls on the first day of Lent, the six weeks of penitence before Easter. Ash Wednesday is traditionally observed by Western Christians.
As it is the first day of Lent, some Christians begin Ash Wednesday by marking a Lenten calendar, praying a Lenten daily devotional, and abstaining from a luxury that they will not partake of until Eastertide arrives.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants to either the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or the dictum "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the forty days of Lent.
Christians have been preparing for the celebration of Easter by walking through a “Holy Lent” since ancient times. This is patterned after Jesus temptation in the wilderness.
Lent is a season of repentance, fasting, and self-reflection. Of course, all of this happens with the sure knowledge of God’s love and grace to us through Christ. Lent and Ash Wednesday are in no way about condemnation. They are a time in which human beings, given a pronouncement of forgiveness and absolution through Christ, can be honest with God, with ourselves, and with each other. With the terror of judgment removed, we can speak the truth.
Ashes on the head have signified repentance from biblical times. Job said, “I repent in dust and ashes.”
Ashes also represent mourning, as Tamar in the Old Testament used them to mourn her abuse which was not in any way her fault, but which devastated her.
Ashes are the result of burning. This burning in our lives is from our own sins and follies and from the abuse of others, and ashes represent both. They remind us that we are living in this mortal world, this fallen world, and that we are made from dust, when all else is burned away. We are mortal and will return to our maker.
Christians believe, rightly, that God is good and that he loves us. We believe that through Christ we can be forgiven and “boldly go before the throne of grace.” We know that even though we don’t understand exactly how God will make the wrongs of the world right, he will.
And yet we live in a time in which all of those promises are not yet fulfilled. We feel the pain of sin and brokenness. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that we still live in this fallen world, and that we are a part of that fallenness. No one is free of sin. It gives us permission, in fact it calls us, to acknowledge the reality we see within ourselves, and around us.
The Anglican Pastor