Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday 101

For those who are unfamiliar with participating in Ash Wednesday, I thought I’d write up a short overview of the history and meaning of this day.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, which is the 46 days (40 excluding Sundays), that lead up to Easter. One of the earliest descriptions of the service comes from Anglo-saxon abbot Aelfric who wrote in the 9th century, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. 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.”

As Aelfric points out, ashes symbolize repentance in the Bible. People would put on ashes as a sign of their repentance from sin. There are numerous examples of this. Job for example writes, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3. Jesus refers to this himself in Matt 11:21, saying, “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 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.”

In a typical Ash Wednesday service a pastor will place ashes in the symbol of the cross on ones forehead. They will often read out either Genesis 3:16 which says, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,” or Mark 1:15, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The ashes remind us of our sin and mortality and call us to repent and turn back to God. The symbol of the cross points us to the gospel hope that Christ has come to atone for our sin.

Thomas Merton has some helpful thoughts on the purpose of Ash Wednesday. He reminds us that repentance is not a heavy burden, but rather an invitation to liberation. He writes:

“In laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens—the crushing load of worry and guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love. We should not take upon ourselves a “burden” of penance and stagger into Lent as if we were Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders. . . Penance is conceived by the Church less as a burden than as a liberation. It is only a burden to those who take it up unwillingly. Love makes it light and happy. And that is another reason why Ash Wednesday is filled with the lightness of love.”

If you are around tonight I’d encourage you to come and participate in our Ash Wednesday service. We’ll start with a simple meal at 6:00 followed by a short service at 6:30. Ash Wednesday can be a meaningful way to usher in this new season of Lent. The psalmist reminds us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” This suggests to us that our encounter with God can be strengthened by engaging all the senses. Perhaps the sight and the touch of ashes can be a powerful way for us to experience Jesus’ call to turn back to Him!


  1. Thank-you for blessing me with this description/revelation that Ash Wednesday doesn’t necessarily mean heavy, guilt-laden self-incrimination….. We (I) have to learn to celebrate with joy the liberation that the symbol of ashes means in the context of the grace and justification Jesus gifted me. Phil, thank-you for blessing us with your gifts of writing and teaching.

  2. Thanks Eric. Blessings to you this Lenten season!

  3. Amen to Eric’s comments, the service was a blessing and joy. peace to all……

  4. […] Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a day that marks the beginning of Lent. Tonight we will be having a simple soup supper at 6:00 PM in the fellowship hall followed by an Ash Wednesday service. For a fuller reflection on the history and purpose of this church holiday see my post from last year titled “Ash Wednesday 101.” […]

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