Millions of people celebrate Ash Wednesday, but how many of us think about the history and meaning of Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday is traditionally celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other Churches as the start of Lent. Lent is a 40 day church season that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter. It is used to symbolize the 40 days that Jesus Christ was fasting in the wilderness mention first in the Book of Matthew as well as the other Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, those who fast during lent are tempted by hunger.
Ash Wednesday is supposed to be set aside as a day of penitence in order to clean the soul before the fasting of Lent begins. Typically there is a special church service on Ash Wednesday. The church burns the palm leaves that are left over from the Palm Sunday service of the previous year. The priest or pastor then uses the ashes of the palm leaves to mark a symbol of a cross on the foreheads of the members of the congregation. My pastor says the words “Remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is to help us to remember that we should not hold anything in this world above or relationship with God. The ashes are used as an illustration that just like sin ashes are dirty, but they are easily washed away.
Ash Wednesday is not mentioned in the Bible as a season that all Christians must honor. However, Ash Wednesday’s historic symbolism does have Biblical references. In the Book of Job (42:6) it says “wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. In the Book of Numbers (19:17) sin is again linked with ashes “And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin”. These verses and others give us a Biblical link to the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
According to the Catholic encyclopedia the history of Ash Wednesday began in the 10th century A.D. The first recorded link to Ash Wednesday history was by the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric when he wrote this:
In the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.
As we all celebrate for the Lenten season let’s all remember what gives Ash Wednesday meaning. It is in remembrance of what Jesus Christ did for all of us. We may give something up for Lent, but Jesus Christ gave up his life for us. We may be tempted by sin, but Jesus overcame temptation and became the sacrifice for all of our sins. Those ashes are just like the sin in our life. Even though we may feel dirty about our sins; Jesus Christ has provided the way for us to be cleansed.
The Lutheran Church
The Holy Bible (KJV)