What is Ash Wednesday?

Ask a Pastor
03/10/2014

What is Ash Wednesday
Making the sign of the cross with ashes is a visible reminder of humility, repentance and new life in Christ.

“Would you please explain the significance of Ash Wednesday? Sometimes I see some people with black ash crosses on their foreheads.” — from an ELCA Facebook follower

Monica:  On Ash Wednesday, Christians show black crosses on their foreheads as a visible public reminder of our need for repentance and forgiveness. This ancient symbol reminds us of our mortality, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In receiving words of forgiveness, the cross is also a sign of renewal which empowers us for the Lenten journey. 

Brian:  Ash Wednesday starts the penitential season of Lent. In honesty before God, we acknowledge our need of repentance, of “turning around” those habits, opinions and words that separate us from God and one another. Applied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the ashes remind us that our physical existence is ultimately mere carbon, but the life we know in Christ is eternal. Much of what we invest ourselves in is temporary; only our life in Christ ultimately matters.

Placing the ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross has two meanings: first, a sign of humility (originally dust on the forehead was an indicator that one had bowed her or his head all the way to the ground in repentance and prayer before God) and second, a reminder that it is in Christ’s cross that we have access to unending life.

David:  Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season known as Lent, a time for self-examination and repentance. For a very long time, ashes were used as a sign of 1) repentance, that is, admitting your wrongdoing, and 2) grief. For example, see Job 42:6 and Jonah 3:6 among many others.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world publically enter into a time of repentance. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a mark of that repentance.


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You might also want to read:
Ash Wednesday: telling the truth
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes
A popular resource for Lent


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