Each year when Ash Wednesday arrives, you probably notice people with a grey smudge on their foreheads. However, the history behind the day is not widely known, even to most Christians.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and it is meant to remind us of our humanity and total reliance on Christ’s salvation. This is why the person administering ashes at an Ash Wednesday service will traditionally say the verse from Genesis, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, ESV).
When Did Ash Wednesday Start and Why?
Though the exact date is unknown, we know that Ash Wednesday began as a tradition in the early church. However, certain practices, such as applying ashes, may have started way later.
Lauren F. Winner, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. believes that common Ash Wednesday traditions can be dated back to the 11th century. Winner explains the Biblical significance of the day in an interview with Time Magazine: “You see that in the book [of Daniel in the ninth chapter] there’s a line about associating fasting with ashes, so ashes are associated with penance, which is the dominant theme of Lent.”
Where do the Ashes Come From?
Traditionally the ashes administered on Ash Wednesday are from the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday, when the church celebrates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem with the laying of palms at his feet (Matthew 21:1-11).
Where Else Can I Find Ash Wednesday in the Bible?
Besides the verses mentioned above, some other verses pointing to Ash Wednesday include:
“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” -Ezekiel 9:4, NIV
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” -Job 42:5-6, NIV
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” -Joel 2:12, NIV
Doesn't the Bible Say Not to Draw Attention to Your Fasting?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16, NIV). This may have you wondering why one should put ashes on their forehead for all to see. However, Christians do not get ashes to show-off. Rather, it is a personal expression to celebrate the first day of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It is also a way of reminding oneself to set one’s hearts on the upcoming feast of Easter, which marks the day Christ abolished death and opened the gates into eternal life.
Can Observing Ash Wednesday Actually Enrich Our Prayer Life?
Yes, the practice of Ash Wednesday is a day to help prepare us for Easter. However, Ash Wednesday is just one day of 40 days in Lent. It is up to you to spend all 40 days in a spirit of preparation for Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. If you’re looking for more ways to enrich your prayer life this lent, be sure to check-out PureFlix.com's free Fruit of the Spirit devotional. This inspirational eBook features movies, discussion questions, prayers, and actionable ways for you and your family to practice living by the Spirit this Lenten season.