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The History of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity.  It occurs 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays).  Ash Wednesday is observed by many Christians.

Lent had its origins in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert, where he overcame three key areas of temptation (Matt 4:1-11): denying Himself with instant gratification, the approval of people and a shortcut to the plan of God.  John the apostle summarizsed these temptations as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).  Jesus’ fast was in preparation of the ministry He was on earth to complete – the salvation of all.  The purpose of Lent is to fast for 40 days as preparation for Easter.  Sundays are not included because Sunday is seen as a commemoration of the Day of Christ’s resurrection and so it should be a feast day and not a fast day.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Both of these statements are vital truths in the Christian faith in which we are reminded of our sinfulness and mortality, and thus our need to repent and get right with God before it is too late.  The simple good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt and all punishment.

Ash Wednesday was originally called “the day of ashes”.  It is first mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates back to at least the 8th Century.  One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020).  In his “Lives of the Saints” he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

Sackcloth and ashes (or dirt/dust) are mentioned 23 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and four times in the New Testament.  As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material made from goats’ hair) was an ancient practice as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning.  In the New Testament, Jesus mentions the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

The practice of the Ash Wednesday tradition – or the season of Lent – is meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior. This is made clear in Isaiah 58:5-7 when God says,

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

The true fasting that God requires is that His people would go without something in order to give to others who have little or nothing.  Fasting is not just self-denial but rather a way of bringing equality into a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider.

And so with that in mind I encourage you at this time of year to remember what Jesus has done for each one of us.  He has paid the death penalty on the cross; He took the punishment for our wrongdoing upon Himself; He rose again – defeating death, giving eternal life and offering a full pardon to all who place their faith in Him.

During this 40 Days of Prayer and Fasting draw close to Jesus and look for ways in which you – by denying yourself – can bring some life and joy into the lives of others and provide for those who are doing it tough.  As Jesus said, “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters [the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner] you were doing it to me!’ (Matt 25 :40)


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