Here’s the definitive meaning of Ash Wednesday:
Ash Wednesday (or Day of Ashes) is an annual Christian holiday that involves rubbing ashes on one’s forehand in the sign of a cross.
It’s predominantly observed by Catholics (including some Protestants) and it always falls on Wednesday, exactly 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the penitential Lenten season., which is a 6-week period that leads up to Easter and it includes a time of fasting, self-denial and turning away from sin.
Note that both Lent and Ash Wednesday are primarily observed by Catholic Christians, although some Protestant denominations observe it as well.
However, keep in mind that nor Ash Wednesday, neither Lent are mentioned in the Bible.
To expand on this, in this article we’ll focus on:
- The origin and history of Ash Wednesday
- What is the significance of Ash Wednesday?
- What does the Bible say about Ash Wednesday?
- 3 Theological Problems of Ash Wednesday
- Is Ash Wednesday a Catholic thing?
- Should Christians observe Ash Wednesday?
- Interesting Facts About Ash Wednesday
The Origin and History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday’s (officially known as Days of Ashes) roots date back to 325 AD as it was during that period that the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea adopted this holiday into its belief system.
This was also when the 40-day fast was accepted as the standard length of observing Lent.
Sometime after around the 10th century the popular practice of rubbing ashes on the foreheads of those participating in Ash Wednesday observance.
In fact, in 1091 Pope Urban II issued a decree regarding applying ashes to one’s forehead and this practice has continued to this day.
Both holidays have questionable and rather pagan, non-Biblical origins because they were accepted by the Catholic Church at the time of Emperor Constantine, who aimed to mix Christian with pagan beliefs and customs.
Constantine basically wanted to make a peaceful religious group within the Roman empire that had holidays that cater to different denominations and sects.
A few centuries later Pope Gregory issued the move the beginning of Lent to Ash Wednesday or exactly 46 days (or 40, excluding Sundays) prior to Easter.
It was during that time that the same pope instituted the popular Ash Wednesday tradition of marking the foreheads of participants with ashes in the shape of a cross.
What Can You Eat on Ash Wednesday?
You can eat the following foods on Ash Wednesday:
And these are the foods that you have to abstain from on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and every Friday during the Lent season:
Note that these foods are forbidden for every adult Catholic (i.e. everyone over 14 from their perspective).However, there are exceptions to these rules as the elderly, ill, very young and pregnant women are all exempt the diet rules of Ash Wednesday.
Something that’s often misunderstood is what the terms fasting and abstinence mean in relationship to the Ash of Wednesday holiday.
Here’s the definition of each, based on Catholic interpretations:
- Abstinence – It means that you abstain from i.e. choose not to consume any type of meat and any products containing meat.
- Fasting – It stands for eating much less than usual, although this is not an actual fast as in not eating all day.
What is the Significance of Ash Wednesday?
The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we’re mortal sinners that need to depend and seek reconciliation with the Lord.
The period between Ash Wednesday and Lent is 40 days (not counting the Sundays) to represent the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, after which He was tempted by the devil.
Jesus’ 40-day fast is described in Matthew 4:1-2: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”.
Now, the main things used in this holiday are fasting and ashes, with the ashes, typically being prepared by burning palm branches from the last Palm Sunday holiday.
During Palm Sunday, the attendees receive palm branches in reference to Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1–11; Luke 19:28–44 and John 12:12–19).
The ashes from the burned palm branches are then used by the priest to make a cross on the worshipers’ foreheads while quoting part of Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”.
The main idea and goal of Ash Wednesday is to provoke a believer to repent of sinful activities, which is a Biblical truth.
It’s a period of self-denial and spiritual discipline that’s meant to prepare those celebrating it for Easter, focusing on Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for mankind’s collective sins and eventual victory over both death and sin.
However, repentance should be a part of the daily life of every Christian, not just something that we practice once per year on a specific holiday.
Let’s not forget what the Bible says in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Ash Wednesday is a Rather Controversial Christian Holiday
On one hand, Ash Wednesday observers focus on Biblical and Christ-like characteristics such as fasting, prayer, self-denial and repentance.
But the real issue of this holiday that stems from early Roman Catholicism is the obvious insertion of pagan rituals.
Although Bible-believing Christians would be more than familiar with certain Ash Wednesday aspects such as prayer and fasting from Scripture, the ashes practice of this holiday is more controversial.
What Does the Bible Say About Ash Wednesday?
The Bible doesn’t specifically mention Ash Wednesday and you won’t find this particular holiday both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Living Word of God doesn’t say anything about applying ashes to the foreheads of worshippers as means to signal our repentance.
Remember that we can’t reconcile with the Lord by doing something specific or through some weird pagan ritual.
We’re saved by grace through faith as Apostle Paul points out in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
However, it’s worth noting the practice of using ashes and dust as a symbol of mourning and repentance is recorded in the Old Testament.
Bible Verses about Using Ashes for Repentance
Here are some relevant examples from Scripture that involves using ashes for repentance:
- 2 Samuel 13:19 – “And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.”
- Esther 4:1 – “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.”
- Job 42:6 – “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
- Jonah 3:6 – “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
- Jeremiah 6:26 – “O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”
- Daniel 9:3 – “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”
Note that in the Bible, repenting with dust, sackcloth and ashes is often accompanied by fasting.
But this is still different from rubbing a cross made of ashes on the foreheads of participants as in the Ash Wednesday tradition.
3 Theological Problems of Ash Wednesday
Despite some similarities between this holiday and the Old Testament practices of repentance and mourning that involved ashes, Ash Wednesday isn’t exactly theologically bulletproof.
It has pagan roots that date back to the Roman Empire, which is and rightfully should be an issue for every born-again, spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christian.
Let’s now take a closer look at 3 significant theological problems related to Ash Wednesday observance:
1. Receiving a Mark on Your Forehead is Found in Last Days Bible Prophecy
Okay, so the Ash Wednesday tradition involves putting a mark in the form of a cross made of ashes on one’s forehead.
Perhaps you’re familiar with another type of “mark” that’s spoken about in the last book of the Bible – Revelation.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, John wrote this apocalyptic book about the last days prior to Jesus Christ’s second coming and this is what he wrote about the popular mark of the beast:
- Revelation 13:16-17 – “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.”
- Revelation 20:4 – Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Now, this is not the say that receiving the ash cross on Ash Wednesday is the mark of the beast.
But it’s something to make you think and realise that this practice is rather controversial.
2. It Involves a Self-Righteous Display of Christianity
Okay, during Ash Wednesday the part of the body where the ashes are applied is the forehead.
But why not put the ash on one of your knees, elbows, shoulders, etc.?
Perhaps to publicly indicate that you’re observing Ash Wednesday?
This sounds very similar to what the religious hypocrites of ancient Israel who did everything they could to make it known to others that they’re fasting.
This type of self-righteous display of Christianity is condemned by Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 6:16-18: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
3. Applying Ashes on the Forehead has Pagan Roots
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes are used to form the shape of a cross on one’s forehead as a symbol of their belief in Jesus Christ.
So far, so good.
But certain pagan rites such as Hinduism involve putting ashes on the forehead, which is a huge red flag for any genuine Bible believer.
In Hinduism, the forehead is marked using sacred ashes as the mark of auspiciousness that they call Tilaka.
Another striking similarity between the ash marks of Ash Wednesday and Hinduism are the red marks that Hindu women have on their foreheads, between their eyes as they believe that there’s a third eye, according to their pagan customs.
Is Ash Wednesday a Catholic Thing?
Ash Wednesday is most definitely a predominantly holiday as it was first adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the third century.
But there are some Protestant and Anglican Communion churches that observe Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent in fact.
Interestingly, some Catholics such as Roman Catholics attend Mass on the same day as Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent.
While Easter Rite churches for example don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday and their Lent starts on the previous Monday.
Although both Ash Wednesday and lent aren’t found anywhere in the Bible, these two holidays still carry fundamental Christian aspects such as fasting and prayer.
It’s a time during which Christians look inwardly as they single out sinful attitudes and habits that hurt their walk with Christ.
This can include various different things, from idolising a particular movie star to playing video games and even spending too much on a particular hobby.
The 40 days (not counting Sundays) that kick off on Ash Wednesday and lead up to Easter are meant to represent repentance and departure from sin in the life of a believer.
And as you can see, despite the dubious pagan origins of this holiday that are directly tied to the Catholic church there are still some positives to take away from it.
Namely turning your back on the desires and lust of the flesh, repenting for your sins and focusing exclusively on drawing close to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
Should Christians Observe Ash Wednesday?
It’s not recommended for any genuine believer in Christ to celebrate Ash Wednesday due to its controversial pagan roots and self-righteous display of religiousness.
Although the concept of repentance and turning from sins is very Biblical indeed, the accompanying ritual of applying ash on one’s forehead is suspiciously pagan.
Yet, some believers argue that it’s up to the person to decide for themselves whether it not it’s okay to observe Ash Wednesday.
However, even the slightest doubt that Ash Wednesday is pagan in origin should be more than enough for a genuine believer to abstain from observing this holiday.
Let’s not forget what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
Still, it’s worth noting that observing Ash Wednesday isn’t explicitly condemned or commanded anywhere in Scripture, although there are examples in the Old Testament of using dust and ashes as a symbol of repentance.
Practicing repentance, fasting, praying and focusing on the Lord is something that we have to make an integral part of our lives as Christians.
It’s not something that should exclusively happen during the Lenten season each year.
No amount of works and/or specific religious rituals can make your heart right with the Creator.
And if you’re still wondering whether or not you should observe Ash of Wednesday, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Interesting Facts About Ash Wednesday
Below are a few intriguing facts about Ash Wednesday that you might not know about:
1. Two Phrases are Used When Applying the Ashes
The first phrase comes from a 12th-century missal, which is a ritual book containing information related to celebrating the Eucharist and it is the popular reminder from Genesis 3:19 that life is short and death is imminent: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”.
This phrase from Genesis was the go-to phrase on Ash Wednesday prior to the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council that took place during the 1960s.
That’s when the second phrase came about but this time it was a New Testament verse.
More specifically, the second phrase contains the words of Jesus Christ as He began His earthly ministry and they come from Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
2. It’s Not Necessary to Receive the Ashes at the Chruch
Due to the hectic lifestyles of many nowadays, pastors who observe Ash Wednesday have turned to their creative side by offering ashes on the go.
The practice of receiving blessed ashes isn’t a sacrament, meaning that the associated rules aren’t that strict compared to the Catholic church holy communion.
That’s why a lot of churches that observe Ash Wednesday offer participants the option to take ash packets for home.
3. There’s a Poem About Ash Wednesday
During the 1930s US-born poet Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote a thematic poem titled Ash Wednesday.
This poem that focused on the enduring power of the Lord’s Word came about to strengthen the traditional Christian faith.
Eventually, Ash Wednesday is a rather controversial Christian holiday that’s primarily observed by Catholics.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season and it always falls on Wednesdays, 40 days before Easter Sunday (not counting the Sundays).
It was adopted by the Roman Catholic church during the third century at a time when Emperor Constantine wanted to merge paganism and Christianity.
Thus, the pagan roots of this holiday should be a big cause of concern for any born-again believer in Christ.
Let’s not forget what the Living Word of God says in 1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from every form of evil.”.