What Is Ash Wednesday?
What is Ash Wednesday, and why have a worship service celebrating it? This post will take a shot in answering the first question, and next week I will offer my take on the second.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. Lent derives from the Latin word that means to lengthen, referring to the longer daylight hours of spring. Lent is the 40-day season that marks the spring time of the church, wherein God’s people move towards Easter. In that way, Lent is a period in which we prepare to enter the desert with Jesus and move with him towards Jerusalem, the cross and the tomb.
This is why Lent is also a time in the church year when Christians can place a special emphasis on repentance and renewal. Renewal is something for which we long, and repentance often looks to us like a really good thing; however, we find it easier to talk about these things and not really work on them. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity to work and press deeper into our life practices. As we seek to turn away from our sin, we also turn toward the grace and reality of Jesus, the friend of sinners. We do all of this only by God’s grace and his Spirit’s helping presence. We also do this in the community of sinners who are being redeemed by his grace, and we invite any who desire to take this journey with us. Ash Wednesday marks the first of these 40 days.
Why 40 days? Because this timeframe imitates Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert (Matt. 4:2) where he was tried and tested by Satan. Jesus invites us likewise to take up our crosses and follow him.
Why start on a Wednesday? Because this penitential season is oriented to the date of Easter Sunday. When you count back 40 days from Easter (except for six Sundays along the way, since Sundays are always “feast” days), you always land on a Wednesday.
The aim of any Ash Wednesday worship service is threefold:
(1) to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need for a Savior
(2) to renew our commitment to daily repentance in the Lenten season, and in all of life
(3) to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin by his cross.
One of the outward signs employed in an Ash Wednesday service is the imposition of ashes. This has been a central part of the worship service on Ash Wednesday and has a long history in biblical and church traditions. In Scripture, ashes or dust symbolize our frailty or death (Genesis 18:27), sadness or mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lamentations 3:16), and repentance (Jonah 3:6). All these images are caught up in the church’s use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent. We remember that we are but dust. We mourn our sins. In Christ’s passion, we see God’s judgment on evil; and in our penitence we express sorrow and repentance for our sins and look for God’s renewing grace.
Therefore, let us remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but also that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. The ashes are placed upon us in the shape of the cross, reminding us that the cross of Christ is our only hope to be freed of sin’s curse and to experience life anew.
If you attend the Ash Wednesday service, you are not required or expected to receive the ashes; you are simply invited to do so if you desire to express these spiritual realities outwardly. There will be other aspects of the service that will engage your heart and mind as well.
Next week, I will share with you my own experience with Ash Wednesday and why I want to invite you to enter into this service and the fuller season of Lent together as a community.