Bible reading, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Question: “What is Ash Wednesday?”

Answer: Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Its official name is “Day of Ashes,” so called because of the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross. Since it is exactly 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter Sunday, it will always fall on a Wednesday—there can’t be an “Ash Thursday” or “Ash Monday.” Citation

I don’t remember ever hearing anybody preach about Ash Wednesday or Lent, and I don’t remember ever receiving any teaching on it – not even at theological college – and so I thought this morning I would share some history relating to how Ash Wednesday and Lent began and what they are all about. This is what is says in ‘Common Worship’…

‘Lent may originally have followed Epiphany, just as Jesus’ sojourn [time of testing] in the wilderness followed immediately on his baptism, but it soon became firmly attached to Easter, as the principal occasion for baptism and for the reconciliation of those who had been excluded from the Church’s fellowship for apostasy or serious faults. This history explains the characteristic notes of Lent – self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter, to which almsgiving has traditionally been added.

[This, from an ancient Christian hymn]
Now is the healing time decreed
for sins of heart and word and deed,
when we in humble fear record
the wrong that we have done the Lord.
(Latin, before 12th century)

As the candidates for baptism were instructed in Christian faith, and as penitents prepared themselves, through fasting and penance, to be readmitted to communion, the whole Christian community was invited to join them in the process of study and repentance, the extension of which over forty days would remind them of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tested by Satan. Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence; from the middle-ages it became the custom to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The calculation of the forty days has varied considerably in Christian history. It is now usual in the West to count them continuously to the end of Holy Week (not including Sundays), so beginning Lent on the sixth Wednesday before Easter, Ash Wednesday. Liturgical dress is the simplest possible. Churches are kept bare of flowers and decoration. Gloria in excelsis is not used. The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare or Refreshment Sunday) was allowed as a day of relief from the rigour of Lent, and the Feast of the Annunciation almost always falls in Lent; these breaks from austerity are the background to the modern observance of Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day) on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

As Holy Week approaches, the atmosphere of the season darkens; the readings begin to anticipate the story of Christ’s suffering and death, and the reading of the Passion Narrative gave to the Fifth Sunday its name of Passion Sunday. There are many devotional exercises which may be used in Lent and Holy Week outside the set liturgy. The Stations of the Cross, made popular in the West by the Franciscans after they were granted custody of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, are the best known.’ Citation

The Bible doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday or Lent for that matter, but Lent is an early Christian tradition going back to at least before the 12th century, and it’s intended to be a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits. Ash Wednesday begins this 40-day period of spiritual discipline.

Now, whilst the Bible doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday, it does record accounts of people in the Old Testament using dust and ashes as symbols of repentance and mourning, and the tradition of using ashes to make the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead is a symbolism, which is meant to identify the repentant person with Jesus.

It’s imperative we understand, though, that remorse and repentance are not the same thing. To be remorseful is to be sorry. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, was full of remorse; in fact, he felt so guilty and sorry for himself that he went out and hung himself. But Judas didn’t repent; he didn’t seek forgiveness and restoration; he didn’t seek to live a changed life that honours Christ. He was remorseful – yes – but not repentant. To be remorseful is to be sorry, but to repent is more than just being sorry: to repent is to confess our sin and seek God’s forgiveness, to repent is turn away from your sin and to live a new life through our Lord Jesus Christ.

If a Christian decides to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, it is important to have a biblical perspective. In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warned us against making a show of our fasting; he said: “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”(Matthew 6:16-18). We must not allow spiritual discipline to become spiritual pride.

  • It is a good thing to repent of sinful activities, but that’s something Christians should do every day, not just during Lent.
  • It’s a good thing to clearly identify oneself as a Christian, but, again, this should be an everyday identification, not just once a year on Ash Wednesday.
  • And it is good to remember that no ritual can ever make a person’s heart right with God. Christianity is not about rituals it’s about relationship – a restored relationship with the living God.

Let’s have a moment of silence, to reflect on anything we need to repent of, and then we will say together the Nicene Creed; the ‘Christian Inter-National Anthem’:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic Citation and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.


As you come up for communion later, there’s a dish here with ash in it – the remains of a palm cross left over from Palm Sunday last year, which has been burnt to become ash – you might like to use your thumb or finger to dip in the ash and mark your own forehead with the sign of the cross before sharing in Holy Communion.

(For further resources see Repentance)