Ash Wednesday (from the Latin Dies Cinerum, meaning "Day of Ashes") is the first day of Lent. On this day, Christians focus intensely on their utter and complete sinfulness and the necessity of Christ's suffering and death to earn their salvation. Ashes are referred to many times in the Old Testament as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality:
- 2 Samuel 13:19
- Esther 4:1-3
- Job 42:6
- Jeremiah 6:26
Many churches use ashes during Ash Wednesday worship as part of a rite called the Imposition of Ashes. According to this ancient custom, ashes (traditionally made by burning palm fronds used on Palm Sunday of the previous year) are mixed with a small amount of olive oil and applied to the forehead of each worshipper. This mark, in the sign of a cross, can be a powerful reminder of our depraved and sinful nature and total dependence on God for forgiveness and salvation.
As you know, Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days to prepare for his ministry. It was for Him a time of contemplation, reflection, and preparation. By observing Lent, most Christians join Jesus on His retreat.
Lent consists of the forty days before Easter. In the western Church, we skip over the Sundays when we count the days of Lent, because Sunday is always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection. Therefore, the first day of Lent in the western Church is always a Wednesday.
Ashes represent a sign of remorse, repentance, and mourning. During Lent, ancient Christians mourned their sins and repented of them, so it was appropriate for them to show their sincerity by having ashes on their foreheads. The custom has persisted in the church as secular society has changed around us.
It is most appropriate on Ash Wednesday, when we begin a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.