Today is Ash Wednesday. For many Christians, it is a day of prayer and fasting and the beginning of the journey to Easter. Before the joy of the resurrection, comes the realization of the human condition and the painful reminder that our sins made the crucifixion necessary. What does Ash Wednesday mean for you?
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants to either the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or the dictum “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is a day to express genuine sorrow for our sins. This tradition, like most, can be extremely meaningful and powerful if you enter it with the right frame of mind.
Ashes in the Bible and Beyond
Ashes were used in ancient times to express all types of grief. When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, “she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying” (2 Samuel 13:19).
The gesture was also used to express sorrow for injustice and pain. In Job 42:5–6, Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
However, ashes were most often associated with repentance from sin. The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel pleaded to God: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
Christians continued the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance from sin. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) said that confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes.
What does it mean today?
Today we can observe Ash Wednesday for five reasons.
1. It gives us a framework to begin preparing for Easter.
I’ve learned to set alarms on my phone for just about everything. It helps me remember something important is coming. That’s what Ash Wednesday does for us with Easter.
2. It reminds us of our need for a Savior.
We are forgetful creatures. Recently, my family went through a series of losses. It’s been a reminder to not take the good times for granted. We need a constant reminder that no matter how good we have it — we always need a Savior.
3. It connects us to millions of Christians around the world.
I attended the Baptist World Alliance Meeting in England a number of years ago where I had the chance to worship with fellow Christians from around the globe. Thousands of Christians singing Amazing Grace, each in their own language, was a moving experience.
There is something powerful about community. We all need to feel connected to others.
4. It grounds us in our collective Christian history.
I love to study history. Certain periods are especially inspiring.
The passion of the American founding fathers, the underground resistance to the Nazi horror, and the tireless sacrifices of the Civil Rights leaders are just a few who inspire me.
Feeling connected to the millions of Christians who have come before me, gives me a sense of being a part of something far greater than my solitary life.
5. It is the first step to healing from our pain.
The first step in the wildly successful Alcoholics Anonymous program is to admit that you are an alcoholic and are powerless to overcome it. The second step is to let go and let God.
The first step in healing from our pain is to admit that we are in pain and that we have no power to fix it. The second step is to let go and let God.
On Easter Sunday God fixed all our brokenness. He healed all our pain forevermore.
Jesus has Risen! And all is well with my soul.