Ash Wednesday: What is it?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent season (more to come on Lent soon).  It is a day to remind us of our need of a Savior for the remission of our sins.  The ashes signify two things.  One, a feeling of sorrow, as when various Biblical characters adorned themselves with sackcloth and ashes.  The sorrow on this day would be our fallen state and how it has separated us from God.  The other is to remind us of our mortality.  That we came from ashes and to ashes (or dust) we will return.

The entire idea of Ash Wednesday is to set apart a day in which the opportunity for true repentance can come to the believer.  I John 1:9 is one of the common finishing scriptures for an Ash Wednesday service.  “If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive you, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”

Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday isn’t only celebrated by Catholics and Anglicans.  Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians also observe Ash Wednesday.  Many Christians may feel that there is unnecessary emphasis on the sinful nature of the believer during this observance.  That may be so, but also consider the fact that the American church very rarely meditates on true repentance and our need for a Savior based on our sinful nature.

Here is a prayer commonly spoken at an Anglican service from the Book of Common Prayer for an Ash Wednesday service.  Notice the contrite and broken language, and the acknowledgment of how empty and religious things can become once they become religion with no understanding.  This is from the 1689 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

BRETHREN, this time of Lent upon which we are now entered was, by the Ancient Church, observed very religiously, and set apart; all men examining themselves for true fasting, and for the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter, and was of good use till superstition corrupted it, when all the fasting of this season came to be placed in a distinction of meats, upon which an undue value was set; and instead of men’s humbling themselves before God, and mourning for their sins and turning to God with all their hearts, and bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance, Auricular Confession, together with Outward Penances, were the things mainly insisted on. But in order to the rectifying these abuses, and returning to the ancient practice, you must know that fasting is of no value, but as it is joined with prayer, and the afflicting of our souls before God. Nor does it consist in the distinction of meats, but in such a restraint of bodily appetites as disposes the mind more for prayer. Nor are fasting, prayer, or our sorrowing for sin, of any value in the sight of God, but as they tend to work in us true repentance; which is a real change both of our heart and life by which we become assured of God’s love and favour to us; since by this only we can certainly know that God has forgiven our sins, if we ourselves do truly forsake them. But in order to your understanding aright the necessity of fasting and prayer, I shall set before you good and evil, life and death, blessing and cursing, in the words of God himself, who cannot lie, and in whom there is neither variableness nor shadow of turning. I shall read to you both some of the blessings of the Gospel, as also some of the heavy denunciations of God’s wrath, that are set down in the New Testament: that in these you may see both the blessedness to which our Saviour calls us, as also the dreadful judgments of God against impenitent sinners; and that by these you may be warned to flee from the wrath which is to come, and to lay hold on eternal life.


Hope this helps…

3 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday: What is it?

  1. Thanks for this blog. Coming from one of those “American” protestant churches that do not celebrate lent…..I find this information intriguing and inspiring. I will study up on this in Church History.


  2. I sure wish I had understood as a child why I was walking around with ashes on my head… For some reason I was terrified that if it brushed off – or if I smeared it – it was all over for me.
    Accurate presentation of truth within context and history is essential for true faith to flourish. Otherwise we are all whacked out thinkin if we scratch our foreheads – God is going to be mad at us.
    Thanks for sharing this dear friend!

    • @ guineveresj You make me giggle…But you are correct in that when we don’t explain why we do what we do to the next generation, any meaning in a ritual is left behind and becomes empty tradition.

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