Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (just like Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter. In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.
How Do We Observe Ash Wednesday?
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. More and more Protestant and even evangelical churches hold some sort of Ash Wednesday services. At Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served for sixteen years as pastor, and at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas, where I now attend, the distinctive activity of Ash Wednesday services is the “imposition of ashes.” Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
Why Should We Observe Ash Wednesday?
There is no biblical commandment that requires us to observe Ash Wednesday. Thus, I believe this one of those practices that Christians are free to observe or not to observe. The theological core of Ash Wednesday is, however, shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace, and salvation. It also enacts biblical injunctions to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.”
What I value most about Ash Wednesday worship services is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Ash Wednesday is that it begins the season of Lent. This is also a foreign concept for many evangelical Christians. In a couple of days I’ll weigh in on the meaning and benefit of Lent.
to read more about Ash Wednesday... http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/ash-wednesday-practice-and-meaning/