What is Ash Wednesday

by Brother Lawrence Damien CoS

Dear Family,

In a week we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and many of us will be going to church to get our foreheads marked with the sign of the cross from ashes made from burning last year’s Palm Branches that were used and blessed on Palm Sunday. So why will we be doing this? What is the significance of having ashes in the sign of the cross put on our foreheads? What is the biblical support for the practice? The following is a study I put together that I hope will answer the above questions and help those to understand who belong to churches which don't practice it or help those whose churches do practice it to better understand why we do it? Hope you will all be blessed by it.

I. What is Ash Wednesday All About?

Ash Wednesday is the day when we are reminded of our own mortality. We are reminded that we will all die one day and so keep that in mind as we plan our lives. As the priest says as he makes the sign of the cross on you with the ashes

"...For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

We will all die there is no escaping it and whatever we have here will be left behind for someone else to inherit as we can't take it with us. Thus it is a call to remember the things that are truly important, which will produce fruit for eternal life and last for eternity.

It is also the beginning of the Lent marking the 40 feast days to Easter. There are 6 Sundays in Lent but they are not counted as feast day. It is a penitential season for us to examine ourselves and get ourselves ready for the resurrected Christ at Easter and the renewal of our baptismal vows at that time.

Also it commemorates two events. One is the 40 days Jesus spends in the wilderness, fasting, be tempted and preparing for ministry. The other is a focus on the events leading up to the events of Holy Week culminating in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. It can also commemorate the two 40 day fasts Moses has atop Mt. Sinai which resulted in the giving of the Ten Commandments.

Traditionally if you were able you were supposed to eat only one meal a day during this period and a couple of small snacks if you were between 18-59. Also you are supposed to give up something you really enjoy for Lent. That way you are supposed to feel some of the sufferings of Christ and in spirit participate with Him in His fast.


The imposition of ashes is an old rite going back to Old Testament times as a sign of repentance and deep sorrow. It’s first mentioned in the Book of Numbers where is says:

"Then a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and store them outside of the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for the water of purification; it is for purifying from sin."

In context a red heifer without blemish or defect and which was never yoked is taken out once a year and slaughtered by the High Priest outside the camp. The heifer is then burned and its ashes then are collected and stored in a clean place. Then whenever someone sinned some of the ashes would be mixed in with water sprinkled on the person and he or she would be cleansed. We see this repeated in verses 17-19 of the same chapter. In our case today the placing on our foreheads of ashes in the sign of the cross reminds us that we have been cleansed through the shed blood of Christ on Calvary which has also been sprinkled upon our hearts.

Another reason for the imposition of ashes on one’s self was as a sign of deep sorrow. This we see after Tamar is raped by her brother Ammon. It is recorded after being thrown out by her brother after the rape she does the following

"Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly."

Here we see Tamar putting ashes on herself as a sign of great mourning for all that had just happened to her. She had just been forcibly raped, lost her virginity, have become ineligible for marriage except to the one who raped her and would be disgraced because of it. She was also filled with shame, guilt, probably wondering why it had happened at all and why by her brother would do this to her. Then to top it all of her father King David chooses to do nothing about it and simply ignores the fact it happened. Ultimately her other brother Absalom would arrange to murder his brother Ammon and thereby avenges his sister.

In our case then ashes can represent our deep sorrow for all the ways in which we have offended God throughout the year and our desire and need for forgiveness and to make a new start.

In the Book of Esther when Mordecai hears of the decree of Haman and King Ahasuerus calling for the slaughtering of all Jews that he puts on sackcloth and lays in ashes at the front of the kings gate. Many others in the provinces when they heard the news also put on sackcloth and ashes. In this case the ashes had a twofold purpose to show great sorrow of the people and to get God upon seeing their great sorrow and repentant hearts presumably would then hear their cry and save them which He ultimately does. In our case then ashes can be a representation not only of our great sorrow and repentance but that we like Esther and the Jews of old wish to be heard also and saved.

When Job gets struck with boils it says

"And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of ashes".

At this point Job is in extreme discomfit from the boils, has no idea what is going on so goes and sits ashes as a sign of great mourning over all that has happened to him. Also as a sign he wants to talk to God and find out what is going on and why everything bad seemingly is happening to him. When Job finally gets his wish and has his audience with God his reply is

"Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

Here we see Job so ashamed of his lack of understanding and stupidity in challenging God who is far smarter than Job that Job repents in sackcloth and ashes. Again Job is showing a sign of deep contrition and sorrow.

In Jeremiah the people and the priests are told to roll around in ashes for all their sins and what was about to come upon them.

"O daughter of my people, dress in sackcloth and roll about in ashes. Make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; For the plunderer will suddenly come upon you."

He repeats the warning to the shepherds of God’s people.
In our case then ashes can also be a sign of mourning for us and s seeking to avoid whatever disaster may be coming upon us through God's help.
In Lamentations Jeremiah says God has covered him with ashes. In this case I believed it shows God great hurt, sorrow, pain from the carrying on of His people Israel that leads into captivity and the destruction of His Holy Temple and City. That would match the pain felt by Jeremiah also or be even greater.

In Daniel, Daniel prays with fasting, sackcloth and ashes for understanding from God. In the book of Jonah we find Jonah going to Nineveh and preaching that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. When the King hears it he takes off his robes, puts on sackcloth and ashes. He then proclaims a fast for every man, woman, child, and animal and God hears and spares the city. For us then the ashes can express our desire for God to spare us, our families, pets and so on and have mercy on us.

In I Maccabeus we see the people putting ashes on their heads as a sign of mourning for their brethren who had turned away from the true God to worship false gods and as a means of rejoicing and cleansing themselves after a victory over their enemies. This would have been necessary as they would have come into contact with dead bodies, false idols which would have made them unclean and they would have needed to be cleansed from coming in contact with them.

Finally in closing let’s have a look on what Jesus has to say on the subject. In reference to the cities where much of His ministry had been done and miracles performed and yet they didn't repent Jesus has this to say

'Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."

Here we see Jesus saying if these cities had repented in sackcloth and ashes they would have been forgiven. Please note Jesus does not condemn the practice and therefore I think we can presume He has no problem with it.

So keep in mind all I have just shared as you go to get marked Ash Wednesday and I hope perhaps you have learned something. As always comments or feedback welcomed.

God Bless you all on this Ash Wednesday and we continue on o our journey of Lent

Brother Lawrence Damien CoS

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