This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 10, and is a special time when Christians worldwide begin to prepare for Easter -- the celebration of Christ's resurrection -- through fasting, repentance and prayer.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter. During this period, believers are encouraged to focus on spiritual renewal and reflect on Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
History and Meaning
While there is no specific mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, the practice of repentance and mourning in sackcloth and ashes is found throughout the Old and New Testaments.
The prophet Daniel speaks of seeking the Lord for the release of his people from Babylonian exile with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (Daniel 9:3). Jonah 3:6 states: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust."
Additionally, Matthew 4 speaks of Jesus' period in the Judean Wilderness, where He spent 40 days and 40 nights in solitude, prayer, and fasting. Thus, the forty days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan.
The Huffington Post notes that by the 10th century, the monk Aelfric tied the practice, which dates to the eighth century, to the period before Easter, writing, "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."
By the 11th century, the practice was widespread throughout the church
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the tradition of placing ashes on the foreheads of believers as a sign of repentance and humility. While the day was originally observed by the Catholic Church, it now extends to Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations.
Oftentimes, religious leaders will mark the foreheads of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, while speaking the words, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). Traditionally, worshippers choose to leave the ashes on their foreheads for the remainder of the day as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance, and that through Christ, all sins are forgiven through faith. Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division from God.
In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or volunteering and giving of themselves for others.
While some observers abstain from food, other believers make personal vows of abstinence during this day, such as refraining from meat or chocolate, vowing not to gossip, or practicing greater humility.
For Christians, Ash Wednesday is an annual reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and a time to prepare our hearts for the Easter celebration of His resurrection. Here are some Bible verses to help us focus our hearts and minds on the finished work of Christ.
2 Samuel 13:19 - "And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went."
Matthew 6:16-18 - ""And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
John 3:16-17 - "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Esther 4:1 - "When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry."
Job 2:8 - "Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes."
Daniel 9:3 - "Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes."
1st Corinthians 5:7-8 - "Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
Matthew 11:21 - "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."