Ash Wednesday marks the first day or the start of the season of Lent which begins 40 days prior to Easter.
Lent is a time when we prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. During Ash Wednesday services, the minister will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the foreheads of worshipers.
Not all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. They are mostly observed by the Roman Catholics, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations.
Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday and Ash Wednesday is not observed.
The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in – – – 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3;
Meaning and purpose of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is a wake-up call. Ash Wednesday hits us squarely between the eyes, forcing us to face mortality and sinfulness. We hear Scripture readings that are urgent and vivid. We have black ashes rubbed into our foreheads. We recite a Litany of Penitence that takes our breath away, or should. It is a tough day, but take heart! This is one religious day that won.t fall into the clutches of retailers. There aren.t any Hallmark cards celebrating sin and death; no shop windows are decked out with sackcloth and ashes.
On Ash Wednesday we come to church to kneel, to pray, and to ask God’s forgiveness, surrounded by other sinners. Human sin is universal; we all do it, not only Christians. But our church tradition sets aside Ash Wednesday as a particular day to address sin and death. We do this mindful that “God hates nothing God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.” We are ALL sinners, no better and no worse than our brothers and sisters. This is not a day to compete (“my sins are worse than yours are”), but to confess..
Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent.We have forty precious days to open ourselves up most particularly to God, to examine ourselves in the presence of one who created us, knows us, and loves us. We have forty days to face ourselves and learn to not be afraid of our sinfulness. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but with God’s grace we can learn to live this life more fully, embracing our sinfulness, allowing God to transform us.
– – – The Rev. Margaret Jones – from “Ash Wednesday : A Wake-up Call”