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A reflection on Ash Wednesday

A woman with ash placed in the shape of a cross on her forehead. Photography by Annika Gordon.
Hayley Tearall

Digital Content Producer

My personal journey of delving into the significance of Ash Wednesday for the first time. 

‘…for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ Genesis 3:19

My introduction to Ash Wednesday

As someone who grew up in evangelical, charismatic and independent churches, Ash Wednesday is a concept I wasn’t very familiar with until these last few years. In the expressions of faith I have experienced, there wasn’t a huge focus on things like the Church calendar (where different days and seasons are marked across the year, and specific Bible verses are read), liturgy (shared practices of Bible reading, prayer or worship) or other more formal church traditions. We occasionally shared communion, but it was a quick moment in a service rather than a significant event of its own.

So when I first began to learn about Ash Wednesday a few years ago (through speaking to friends and reading books such as Found’ by Micha Boyett and Tables in the Wilderness’ by Preston Yancey) I was intrigued, and somewhat drawn in by the idea.

Since then, I’ve been keen to go along to an Ash Wednesday service and experience it for myself, and I hope that this year I can. If you, like me, are relatively unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday, what it is and why it’s significant, I hope this blog can offer some insight into the things I’ve been learning.

What is Ash Wednesday and where did it come from?

Since the 5th-8th Century (approximately), Ash Wednesday has marked the start of Lent, a 40-day period for Christians to self-reflect, repent (say sorry for our sins and turning back to God) for both our individual and collective wrongdoings, and seek to follow him more faithfully. The 40 days symbolise Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, which may be why some people choose to give something up for Lent.

The name Ash Wednesday’ comes from the act of placing ash on people’s foreheads.

Ash Wednesday in particular offers an intentional pause at the start of Lent. It is a day to reflect on all the ways we as humans (collectively and individually) have fallen short, and not loved God or people well. It’s a time to acknowledge our humanity and our reliance upon God, and to thank him for his grace that’s saved us.

When is Ash Wednesday this year?

This year, Ash Wednesday is on Wednesday 14 February 2024.

How is Ash Wednesday celebrated?

Every church celebrates Ash Wednesday in their own way. In many Church of England traditions (especially within Anglo-Catholicism), Mass is held, including both communion and the placing of ash on people’s foreheads.

The ash is typically mixed with a little bit of water, and the priest or church leader will place the ash on the recipient’s forehead in the shape of the cross, usually while saying the phrase remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’ The service focuses on themes of repentance and forgiveness.

Why are ashes placed on people’s heads for Ash Wednesday?

Historically, ashes symbolise grief or mourning. In the Old Testament, people would wear sackcloth and ashes to show publicly that they were in mourning, and whole communities would mourn collectively for a set period of time.

For example, when God was going to destroy the people of Ninevah, they declared a fast (fasting, or voluntarily reducing or eliminating food intake for a specific purpose like devotion or prayer, is also observed by some people during Lent) and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least’ (Jonah 3:5). God saw a change in their hearts as they genuinely repented. It’s from verses like this that some believe the ash’ part of Ash Wednesday was inspired.

In the early Church in Rome, they’d also observe times of public penance, where they’d confess their sins and repent for wrongdoing. They’d dress in sackcloth (which was typically worn by those in mourning) and be sprinkled with ashes.

In the same way, the practice of having ash placed upon one’s forehead is seen as a public sign of repentance before God, as well as echoing the shared mourning’ that many communities historically observed. This time of intentional grief and repentance serves as a reminder of the vastness of God’s mercy and grace, given freely to us despite our failures.

As a long-standing custom, the ashes used to mark people’s foreheads during an Ash Wednesday service are sometimes made from the palm crosses from last year’s Palm Sunday, used to remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before he was crucified. As well as the fact they may have been blessed by a priest, using the palm leaves serves as a reminder that we have not always welcomed Jesus.

Ash Wednesday summed up

Overall, Ash Wednesday is marked at the start of Lent every year. It focuses on two main themes: our sinfulness before God, and our mortality as humans, and offers a time for self-reflection and repentance. There’s a joy in Ash Wednesday too, though, as our sins and failures have been overcome through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I’m looking forward to experiencing a taste of the whole thing firsthand this year.

A special thanks to Marianne, Rachel, Jo, Tom. Elaina, Alice and Lucie for all your wisdom, insight and input on this topic.

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