Ash Wednesday: Why The Ashes?


Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, which is a 40 day period of preparation prior to Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like many Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday has its origins in Old Testament times and in the formation of the early Christian church.

Ashes were used in ancient times to express 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 sins and faults. In Job 42:3-6, Job says to God: "I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  In the early Christian Church, earliest references to Ash Wednesday probably date from at least the 8th Century. Anglo-Saxon Abbot Aelfric writes: “Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."

At Creator Lutheran, during the Ash Wednesday service, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes. The pastor or a worship assistant applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). God spoke these words to Adam and Eve after they eaten of the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin. With the imposition of ashes, we are reminded of our sinfulness and mortality and our need to repent and get right with God. But the cross also reminds us of the good news that through Jesus Christ that there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt, and all punishment.

Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance AND that through Jesus all sins are forgiven through faith.

Not all Christian Denominations practice the tradition of Ash Wednesday, but most Lutheran churches do. Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is not mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free to either observe or not observe it. With this in mind, the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a great opportunity for Christians to experience repentance and spiritual renewal.