What is Ash Wednesday?
From The Worship Sourcebook
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. By the fourth century the Western church had determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ’s forty-day fast (Matt. 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain “feast” days), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter. At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. Thus, Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.
Ash Wednesday worship, then, is filled with gospel truth. It is a witness to the power and beauty of our union with Christ and to the daily dying and rising with Christ that this entails.
The imposition of ashes is often a central part of the worship service. Ashes have a long history in biblical and church traditions. In Scripture ashes or dust symbolize frailty or death (Gen. 18:27), sadness or mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lam. 3:16), and repentance (Jon. 3:6). Some traditions also have considered ash a purifying or cleansing agent. All these images are caught up in the church’s use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent. In Christ’s passion we see God’s judgment on evil; in our penitence, we express sorrow and repentance for our sins; in our rededication, we show that we are purified and renewed. The ashes, which often are the burnt residue of the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday, are often mixed with a little water and carried in a small dish.
As the leader goes from worshiper to worshiper, or as worshipers come forward, the leader dips a finger in the moist ash and makes a cross on each person’s forehead (the “imposition”), saying words such as “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or, “Consider yourself dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ.”