By Richard Rossow
Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes), is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the 8th Century A.D. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints, he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth as an outward sign of inward repentance and contrition. We do thus likewise.”
Ashes are also mentioned several times in the Old Testament. What is probably the earliest occurrence is found at the end of the book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1&3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3.
In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
In the typical Ash Wednesday observance, Christians are invited to receive the imposition of ashes prior to receiving the Holy Supper. The ashes are usually inscribed on the forehead in the shape of a cross or impressed on the forehead with the thumb (the thumb being oval produces a mark to indicate the nail wounds of Jesus).
Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, not to be showy and boastful (see Matthew 6:16-18); rather, they do it as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance AND that through Jesus all sins are forgiven through faith.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free to either observe or not observe it. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, is meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance.
With this in mind, the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday is heartily recommended to the Christian as a grand opportunity for repentance and spiritual renewal within the framework of confession and absolution and reception of the Lord’s Supper.
Join us this Ash Wednesday, March 1, at 7 p.m.