Observing Ash Wednesday is not a biblical command. We are free to observe it and we are free not to. So what is it? Why have Christians around the world, for over ten centuries, attended Ash Wednesday service as a way to begin the liturgical season of Lent?
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. It is a day where we take a page from the Book of Job and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). We remember that we are mortal.
During an Ash Wednesday service, people make their way to the front of the church as a minister moves down the line holding a bowl of ashes made from the palm fronds of the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The minister might whisper into the worshipper’s ear as he smears ash in the shape of a cross onto the worshipper’s forehead: “Remember, mortal, that from the dust you were made, and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Some ministers put it more plainly, saying simply, “Remember that you have to die.”
Without Christ, these are hard words. With Christ, they are a reminder that, though our bodies will one day return to dust, we have the hope of the resurrection. Still, even for those in Christ, these words are a sober reminder that only Jesus’ death and resurrection could pay the wage of our sin and reconcile us to our Maker.
The ashen cross is an outward sign of both repentance and hope. It is a way to repent of our rebellion against God and “confess our sins one to another” (James 5:16). It is appropriate to enter into a season of celebrating the finished work of Christ by assuming a posture of repentance, confessing our need for a Savior.
On Ash Wednesday we admit our limits and acknowledge the brevity of this life. Whether in a formal Ash Wednesday service or privately in our homes, let’s use the first day of the Lenten season to remember that from the dust we were made and to the dust we shall return.
Written By Russ Ramsey