Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

What Is Ash Wednesday?

ash wednesday

Wednesday, Februrary 17th, marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. For Christians, Lent is a 40-day season of fasting, reflection and penance culminating in Holy Week and the Easter Sunday commemoration of Jesus’ Resurrection.

On Ash Wednesday, clergy use ash to place a mark of the cross on foreheads. The ash is used to represent our humanity "dust to dust" (Genesis 3:19) and to call us into repentance for our sin.

Here are a few more basics on the Ash Wednesday tradition:

What is the significance of Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday has major religious importance because it marks the most important dates of Holy Week. A pastor will place a cross on the forehead of every congregant, made of palm branch ashes. Below I've categorized some important dates that lead up to Easter Sunday and beyond that churches across the world, and throughout history, have celebrated.

Ash Wednesday happens before these events, right after Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday). But it sets the stage for this timeline to come.

Palm Sunday: One week prior to Easter Sunday, we celebrate Palm Sunday. This commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21). Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, as prophesied. The inhabitants laid down palm branches on the road and shouted, "Hosanna!" Save us now! They wanted a conqueror to topple Rome. When Jesus didn't fit the picture, they killed him less than a week later.

Holy Monday: One of the more obscure dates, where Jesus clears out the temple. A number of merchants had set up shop in the house of the Lord, turning it into a den of thieves (Luke 19). Jesus drives them out. This could also have shown how much the religious institutions of the time had deteriorated.

Holy Tuesday: On this day, Jesus curses the fig tree. Like the religious leaders, it had a nice appearance but bore no fruit. It later shrivels up.

Spy Wednesday: As explained in this article, we don't know much about what happens on Holy Wednesday. Most likely Jesus and his disciples prepared for Passover, which would occur on Friday. The term "Spy" refers to Judas and how he betrayed our Lord to the religious leader in exchange for silver coins.

Maundy Thursday: The night in which Jesus is betrayed. Jesus broke bread, passed around wine, and shared the Last Supper with his disciples. He then goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray prior to his arrest and trial. We commemorate Maundy Thursday through our communion practices. Many churches participate in communion once a week or once a month.

Good Friday: Jesus is found guilty for a crime he did not commit and sentenced to execution on a cross. Many churches will hold a somber service on the Friday before Easter to remember Jesus' sacrifice for us.

Holy Saturday: After he died on Friday, they buried him in a tomb. On Saturday, he remains buried, and the whole world holds a collective breadth in this period of limbo. Many people have equated our walk here on earth as a Holy Saturday, in which we await our eternal Resurrection.

Easter Sunday: Jesus conquers death and rises again. First, he appears to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples, then to over 500 witnesses. The period between his resurrection and ascension is known as Epiphany.

And Ash Wednesday kicks off this entire event. We spend Lent fasting and remember Jesus' 40 days in the desert as we anticipate the events of Holy Week.

When was the first Ash Wednesday celebrated?

Early Christians celebrated the first Ash Wednesday sometime around the Early Middle Ages, Panula said. Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a liturgy specialist at Catholic University, said the practice started in the 10th century and became an official liturgy in the 13th century.

Is Ash Wednesday a Roman Catholic observance?

Catholics are not the only group observing Ash Wednesday. Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists and other liturgical Protestants partake in receiving ashes. Historically, the practice has not been common among evangelicals.

Panula said Muslims, Jews and even people who aren’t religious can honor the tradition as a reminder of man’s shortcomings. “People recognize that it is a symbol of our mortality,” he said. “It gives us a profound sense that we are mortal, and Ash Wednesday is a reminder of that.”

In a typical Ash Wednesday service, a minister recites; Genesis 3:19— “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” — while applying the ashes in the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead.

Does the service have to be performed in a church?

No. While Catholics almost always receive the ashes inside a church, people in other religious traditions now celebrate the ritual without necessarily having to step foot inside a church. Some churches offer “ashes to go,” which gives busy participants the option of receiving ashes on a street corner, at a train station or in some other public venue. A state-by-state list of churches in the U.S. that administer on-the-go ashes can be found at Ashestogo.org. A pastor, deacon or lay person can administer the ashes. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday rites usually (but not always) consist of Mass.

Where do the ashes come from?

Typically, the ashes that are placed on the forehead of the individual come from branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, which falls one week before Easter and commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The palms themselves don’t necessarily come from the Holy Land, but instead from various religious suppliers around the country.

What do the ashes on the forehead represent?

The ashes are a profound symbolism for observers. Ash Wednesday is not an official “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, but it is a deeply ingrained tradition, even for people who may not be particularly observant. The ashes — a traditional sign of mourning and repentance — are meant to remind people that life is short.

“It is a time for Christians to carry the cross,” Panula said. “The observance is a symbol of our Lord emblazoned on the forehead of Christians.”

Ash Wednesday reminds us of the events of holy week. That the palm branches once used to shield a donkey's hoof from the ground of Jerusalem are now stamped onto our foreheads in the shape of a cross. We remember Christ's death and resurrection, and that as we endure this Holy Saturday here on earth that we know we have a glorious resurrection to come.

Bible Verses for Ash Wednesday

Ezekiel 9:4 - "Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it."

Genesis 3:19 - "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your good until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

Joel 2:12-18 - "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning."

Read more Scriptures that can be used for Ash Wednesday at BibleStudyTools.com

Use our 40 Day Devotional Guide to lead you in prayer and scripture reading through the Lenten Season!

Courtesy Religion News Service. Used with permission. Publication date: March 5, 2014

Photo credit: Ahna Ziegler/Unsplash


This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What is the Holy Week?
What Is Palm Sunday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What Is Good Friday?

What Is Easter?
Easter Prayers

At Easter, the Son of God took on the world’s sin and defeated the devil, death, and grave. How is it, then, that history’s most glorious moment is surrounded by fearful fishermen, despised tax collectors, marginalized women, feeble politicians, and traitorous friends?

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