On Wednesday, February 26, we will observe Ash Wednesday. In our Ash Wednesday Service, we will have the traditional placing of Ashes on the foreheads of congregants as they come forward. All too often, we find ourselves doing such things without any base knowledge for the action, no understanding of the real purpose. It’s what our parents did and raised us to do. That being said, here is a little history of Ash Wednesday:
Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of prayer and fasting. It falls on the first day of Lent. As most of you know, Lent is six weeks and is a time of penitence before Easter. Part of that penitence has always been “giving up” something like our favorite food or drink and/or just good old fashioned “fasting,” where we do not eat at all on Ash Wednesday.
Where did Ash Wednesday get its name? Ash Wednesday got its name centuries ago from the placing of ashes on the foreheads of the penitent as the priest, rabbi or minister says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
You may ask: “Where do these ashes come from?” The answer is the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These are burned and the ashes used for Ash Wednesday.
Is there biblical basis for Ash Wednesday? Since Ash Wednesday denotes the start of a 40-day time frame before Easter, it alludes to the period when Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days and 40 nights. You may recall Moses also repented and fasted for 40 days in response to the making of the Golden Calf.
Isn’t it more than 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter? Ash Wednesday is actually 46 days before Easter Sunday but during this period Sundays do not count. Therefore, starting with Ash Wednesday, you can count every day except Sundays, and you will arrive at 40 days before Easter Sunday.
How long are you to keep the Ashes on your forehead? There are no rules for this. Some clean the ashes off their foreheads immediately after the service. Some choose to keep the ashes on their foreheads all day or evening. Others may keep them for days.
Ashes have been used for centuries as a sign of grief. In 2 Samuel 13:19, we read when Tamar was raped by her half-brother, “Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud…” In Job 42:3-6, Job says to God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
A fun fact: Because Ash Wednesday is based on the Lunar calendar and not the Solar calendar, the earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is February 4th, (which will next occur in 2285) and the latest date Ash Wednesday occur is March 10th, (which will next occur in 2038).
Grace & Peace to you,