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What Is Ash Wednesday All About?

Written By Bill Gorman

It feels so weird for someone to be touching my forehead. That was the overwhelming thought racing through my mind the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service. 

I was a seminary student and had started attending a wonderful evangelical Anglican church plant on the North Shore of Chicago. For someone like me who was raised attending churches where the Christian calendar was not emphasized, Church of the Redeemer was a whole new experience. I loved it, but it also felt strange and different. And no more so than on that first Ash Wednesday service. (That is until a foot washing service later that year on Maundy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter. But that’s another story for another post.)

I just remember thinking: I like Jay, the pastor. I have gotten to know him. I have shaken his hand many times, but now he’s touching my face and rubbing grimy ash on it. I think this is cool? But also so strange.

Now if you grew up in a Roman Catholic church context or in a Protestant denomination with a higher liturgy—like a Lutheran, Methodist, or Episcopal/Anglican church—the whole ritual of Ash Wednesday may seem as normal to you as attending church on Christmas Eve. But maybe you’ve still wondered why we keep this tradition and what it is actually about. If you didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday, you may wonder if it is even right for Christians to celebrate it.  

So what is Ash Wednesday all about? Where did it come from? Why do (should) Christians celebrate it? What is the meaning and significance of the ashes? 

The Basics

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is the six-week season (40 days, not counting Sundays) culminating in the celebration of Easter. Churches were already observing this 40-day season of preparation and fasting by the AD 300s. The widespread practice of people receiving ashes as part of this Wednesday service dates to at least the 8th century, if not earlier. (You can read more about Lent here.)

In his excellent and practical book Living the Christian Year,
Bobby Gross explains that the dust and ashes symbolize
“our creaturely mortality and our moral culpability” (127).

Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a physical, tangible, enacted way of reminding ourselves of our mortality (we are dust, we will die) and our need for a Savior (we sin, we need forgiveness and healing).

There is nothing “magical” about the ashes. Rather, they are an outward sign and symbol of sorrow and repentance for sin. They are a sign both of our mortality and of our intention to die to old ways and live a new life in Christ.

Gross goes on to point out: “Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the season [of Lent]: humility, simplicity, sobriety, and even sorrow” (LTCY, 128). A theologian named Alexander Schmemann described Lent as a “bright sadness.” According to Schmemann, Lent is like “…walking in a still-darkened valley even as the morning sun lights the top of the mountains around us” (LTCY, 129). 

There is darkness, yes. We must acknowledge and repent of the darkness—in ourselves and in our world. That’s what Lent is about. But hope is on the horizon. That is the feeling and tone that Ash Wednesday sets for Lent. As we embrace the truth of our mortality and brokenness on Ash Wednesday, we are able to more fully rejoice in the hope of the resurrection on Easter.

Ash Wednesday at Christ Community

At Christ Community the Brookside and Leawood Campuses offer Ash Wednesday services. The Brookside service includes singing, prayer, a short reflection, with the “imposition of ashes” (that’s the part where someone rubs ash on your forehead). The Leawood service is a quiet contemplative service of reflection and examination. Limited childcare is available at Leawood with REGISTRATION

Here are few questions people often ask about these services at Christ Community:

  • How long is it? About an hour.
  • Do I have to receive ashes if I attended? Will it be weird if I don’t? No. We know we’re all coming from different places with Ash Wednesday. You are more than welcome to attend the service and just observe while others receive ashes if you’re not comfortable with receiving yourself. 
  • How long should I leave the ashes on my forehead? It’s up to you. You can wipe them off as soon as you get to your car after the service or you can leave them on until they naturally wear off. Or anywhere in between. Just know if you sleep with them still on your forehead you might have a little ash on your pillowcase in the morning. 😉
  • Is this a service I can invite friends, co-workers, and neighbors to? Yes! Especially if they have grown-up in a tradition where Ash Wednesday was a part of their regular practice but have not participated in a long-time. This could be a great opportunity to invite them back to church. For others, who have not experienced the church, you could invite them to observe and learn about the meaning of a practice that millions of Christians around the world practice every year.

Whether Ash Wednesday services have been a part of your life from an early age or you’ve yet to ever experience one, we’d love to have you join us this year and receive the invitation to remember that we are “dust and to dust we will return” while also anchoring our hope afresh in Jesus who makes beautiful things out of the dust.


Lent Resources:

Show Me The Way by Henri J. M. Nouwen
Genesis of Grace
by John Indermark
The Scriptures, the Cross, and the Power of God by Tom Wright


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1 Comment

  1. laycistercians

    Every ash Wednesday is God reminding us of our mortality, our sin, and our deep need for the glorious grace that is offered to us in Christ. “You are dust, and to dust, you shall return”. Thank you so much for sharing this information. It means a lot.


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