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Imposition of Ashes--Medieval or Relevant for Today?

Updated on January 10, 2014

Ash Wednesday & Lent

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent—one of the most important seasons in the Christian liturgical year—which leads up to Easter Sunday and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Lent is traditionally a time when Christians reflect on their lives (including sins and excesses), practice prayer and devotion, along with Bible reading, with many Christians also fasting during this time. Lent is also a time when Christians remember the sacrifice Christ made for them in dying on the cross for their sins. It is a special time for Christians to cleanse themselves (body, mind and soul) and to experience a renewal of life and focus on their love for God. Many Christians observe Ash Wednesday with prayer and fasting, and then gather at special church services to receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads (in the shape of a cross) from their pastor or priest.

Meaning and Significance of the Ashes

Why do Christians practice the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday? The ashes received by Christians on Ash Wednesday are traditional signs of penitence and mourning. The practice of receiving ashes as a sign of penitence began among the early Christians. When a person, who had been separated from the church because of sin, wanted to seek readmission to the church, they were often received back into the church after a very strictly observed Lenten period. During this strict observance of Lent, the penitent was covered with ashes, or given a garment of coarse fabric, sprinkled with ashes, to wear as a sign of their penitence. After the forty days of Lent, on Easter Sunday, the penitent was then accepted back into the body and life of the church. Ashes are also seen as a reminder of our own mortality—by reminding us that we are created from dust, and to dust we will return when our lives are over.

While Ash Wednesday is not a Biblical sacrament, there are instances in the Bible where ashes are used as signs of mourning and penitence. Here are some Biblical references to using ashes: Genesis 18:27; Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21. The ashes are also viewed as symbols of humility and sacrifice. Humility and sacrifice are important aspects of the Lenten Season, which are practiced by following prescribed devotions, prayer time, reflection on one’s life, and even fasting. These practices are seen as ways of cleansing one’s spirit, mind and body in preparation for the celebration of Easter. The ashes are a sign and symbol that a Christian is participating in this special time of penitence, reflection and purification.

Cross draped with purple during Lent.
Cross draped with purple during Lent.

Are Ash Wednesday and Lent Still Applicable for Us Today?

The answer is a resounding yes! Many see the celebration of Ash Wednesday and Lent as medieval and no longer necessary or applicable in our modern world. Surely these celebrations and practices are more necessary now than ever when we look around and see the effects of excess on our world and in our own lives. Examples of excesses in the world are consumerism, overuse of natural resources, and war and violence committed against humans around the world, and lack of care for the poor. In our own lives, there are many examples of excess. Excess can take the form of alcoholism, over eating, falling into the trap of consumerism (needing the very newest and best), and poor management of our own resources such as finances and even our talents. There are too many examples to list here, but this short list gives you an idea of what excesses exist in our world and in our own lives.

The period of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is traditionally a time of eliminating excesses of any kind from our lives, and for reflection on our own sins and failings, feeling remorse and sorrow for our sins, and committing to change that brings about new life for us on all levels in our body, mind and soul. Ridding ourselves of these excesses allows us to better focus on God, and develop a stronger and deeper relationship with Him. We, as Christians, are then ready to go on with our lives in Christ and better prepared and equipped to face the challenge of a Christian life in the midst of a secular world.

Ash Wednesday

Bible with rose.
Bible with rose.

Resources on the Web

Here is a list of resources available on the Web that will guide you through the Lenten season with prayer and devotions, Bible readings, and liturgical practices.

Bible Gateway Lent Reading Plan 2010: Bible reading plan for Lent 2010 This site offers many links to different denominational liturgical resources for Lent, including devotions, prayers and Bible readings.

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Image Credits

Ash Wednesday image by divaregi on Photobucket

Cross draped in purple cloth by wildernesscc on Photobucket

Bible with rose by melissaalps01 on Photobucket


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