Ash Wednesday: Practice and Meaning
Copyright Â© 2011 Mark D. Roberts and Beliefnet
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What is Ash Wednesday?
What is Ash Wednesday? For most of my life, I didn’t ask
this question, nor did I care about the answer. I, along, with most
evangelical Christians in America, didn’t give Ash Wednesday a thought.
But then, in 2004, Ash Wednesday loomed large in American
Protestant consciousness. Why? Because on that day Mel Gibson released
what was to become his epic blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ.
For the first time in history, the phrase “Ash Wednesday” was on the
lips of millions of evangelical Christians, not just Catholics and other
“high church” Protestants, as we anticipated the official release of The Passion.
I grew up with only a vague notion of Ash Wednesday. To me,
it was some Catholic holy day that I, as an evangelical Protestant,
didn’t have to worry about, thanks be to God. In my view, all of “that
religious stuff” detracted from what really mattered, which was having a
personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In my early evangelical years
it never dawned on me that some of “the religious stuff” might actually
enrich my faith in Christ.
the spring of 1976, my first year of college, I was startled to see a
woman who worked in my dining hall with a dark cross rubbed on her
forehead. At first I wondered if it were a bizarre bruise. Then I
noticed other women with similar crosses. It finally dawned on me what I
was seeing. Here was my introduction to Ash Wednesday piety. These
women, who were are Roman Catholic, had gone to services that morning
and had ashes placed on their foreheads. I felt impressed that these
women were willing to wear their ashes so publicly, even though it
seemed a rather odd thing to do. It never dawned on me that this would
be something I might do myself one day.
Fast forward sixteen years, to the spring of 1992. During
my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I learned
that this church had a tradition of celebrating Ash Wednesday with a
special worship service. It included the “imposition of ashes” on the
foreheads of worshippers. I, as the pastor, was expected to be one of
the chief imposers! So I decided it was time to learn about the meaning
of Ash Wednesday. I wanted to be sure that the theological underpinnings
of such a practice were biblically solid, and that it was something in
which I could freely participate.
Here’s some of what I learned . . . .
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not
a biblical requirement (rather like Christmas and Easter).
Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten
centuries at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for
Easter. In the earliest centuries, Christians who had fallen into
persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of
repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around
the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for
repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a
cross. Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet
to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing
holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches
that recognize this holiday. More and more Protestant and even
evangelical churches hold some sort of Ash Wednesday services. At Irvine
Presbyterian Church, where I served for sixteen years as pastor, and at
St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas, where I now attend,
ashes are placed on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and
sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what
God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust
you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness
that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
I value most about Ash Wednesday worship services is the chance for us
all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that
often expects us to be perfect, on Ash Wednesday we freely confess our
imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with
each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the
youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy
God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus
we all need a Savior.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Ash Wednesday is
that it begins the season of Lent. This is also a foreign concept for
many evangelical Christians. In a couple of days I’ll weigh in on the
meaning and benefit of Lent. Tomorrow I’ll stay focused on Ash
The denial of death . . . it’s all around us. When people
die, they are often alone, sequestered in hospitals far away from the
sad eyes of friends and family. If someone happens to die at home, the
corpse is quickly sent away from the grieving relatives. In polite
society one doesn’t talk much about death. And when it’s necessary to
say something that has to do with dying, nifty euphemisms keep us from
confronting the brute facts. When I lived in California, people would
say, “Uncle Fred passed away.” In Texas, for some reason, people are
more succinct, saying, “Uncle Fred passed.”
Of course our own fears concerning our own demise match
our cultural squeamishness about death. We don’t want to think about our
own mortality, and we do many things to pretend that its not
approaching. We dye our graying hair. We cover our age spots with make
up. We get cosmetic surgery to preserve the image of youth. Rarely do we
seriously think about our own death. As a pastor, I’m amazed at how
unusual it is for someone to make plans for his or her own memorial
service, or even to leave notes for the family. These are things we’d
rather not have to bother with.
I’m reminded about a story told by my friend Tim, who was a
restaurant manager. Part of his job was to explain the company’s
benefit package to his new employees. One time, Tim hired a young man
who didn’t speak English very well because he had recently immigrated to
the United States. Tim explained the vacation policy, sick leave, and
health insurance, all without incident. Then he came to the life
insurance. He showed that if the employee died, his family would get
At this point the employee had a shocked look on his face, and said, “No, no, Tim!”
Tim wasn’t sure he had been clear, so he explained, once again, “Look, if you die, your family will get $25,000.”
Again, the employee was unhappy. “No, I don’t want it,” he said urgently.
“Why not?” Tim asked. “If you die, this will be good for your family.”
“But Tim,” the employee cried, “I don’t want to die!”
Ash Wednesday is a day when we stare death in the face.
Christians who observe this holiday get ashes “imposed” on their
foreheads, while a minister or lay church worker says, “You have come
from dust, and to dust you will return.” In other words, “You are going
to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve
For sixteen years of Ash Wednesday services at Irvine
Presyyterian Church, I put ashes on the heads of older adults, some of
whom had serious cancer and didn’t live much longer. I also put tiny
black crosses made of ash on the foreheads of babies far too young to
realize what was happening to them. I imposed ashes on teenagers and
senior citizens, on men and women, on boys and girls. All of these I
reminded of their mortality, and they freely received the reminder. “You
are dust,” I said, implying, “You are going to die.”
gives us such freedom to think about death? Are we Christians morose?
Do we have some peculiar fascination with dying? I don’t think so.
Rather, what allows us to stare death in the face is the assurance of
life, real life, eternal life. When we know our lives are safe in the
hands of God, and that this physical life is just the beginning of
eternity, then we’re free to be honest about what lies ahead for us. We
can face death without fear or pretending, because we know the One who
I’ll never forget my last visit with a dear member of my
congregation named Helen. She was a tiny woman when healthy, but old age
and disease had ravaged her body. I wouldn’t be surprised if she
weighed 75 pounds on the day of my last visit.
There was no question that Helen was soon to die. And there
was no point for me to pretend as if that weren’t true. So I asked her
straightaway: “Helen, it’s obvious that you don’t have too much time
left in this body. How are you feeling about dying?”
“Mark,” she said with a weak but confident voice, “I’ve
lived a good, long life. I’ve been blessed far beyond what I could have
hoped. You’re right, my body is giving out. I don’t have much longer to
live. But I want you to know that I am ready. I’m not afraid. I’m eager
to see my Lord. I hope I get to soon.”
Talk about staring death in the face! What gave Helen such
unusual bluntness and boldness when it came to her own imminent death?
Her faith in God. Her confidence that her life was really just
beginning. Her assurance that her soul was safe in the hands of a
gracious, loving God.
And so it is for Christians on Ash Wednesday. We can face
death. We can admit our own mortality. We can talk openly about the
limits of this life. Why? Because we know that through Christ we have
entered into life eternal, the fullness of life that will not end when
our bodies give out.
emotional result of Ash Wednesday observance isn’t depression or gloom,
but gratitude and new energy for living. When we realize how
desperately we need God, and how God is faithful far beyond our
desperation, we can’t help but offering our lives to him in fresh
gratitude. And when we recognize that life doesn’t go on forever, then
we find new passion to delight in the gifts of each and every day, and
to take none of them for granted.
One year, as I returned to my seat after imposing ashes
upon dozens of worshipers, I sat next to my 12-year-old son. I couldn’t
help but notice the prominent black cross on his forehead, placed there
by another leader. All of a sudden it hit me that my dear boy will die
someday. Though I knew this in principle, I had never really thought
about it before. My boy won’t live forever. His life, like mine and that
of every other human being, will come to an end. At that moment I
prayed that God would give Nathan a long and blessed life. And then I
hugged him for a good minute, treasuring the life we share together.
How grateful I am for the grace of God that allows us to
stare death in the face so we can live with greater passion and delight!
And how thankful I am for a day that allows me to think about death so I
can cherish life even more!