The annual service on Ash Wednesday usually concludes with one receiving an ash cross on the forehead or hand, depending on the faith tradition you follow. Ash Wednesday is not in the Bible, but the use of ashes is common. In Biblical times people would sit in ashes as a sign of humility, sorrow, and repentance of sin. The act of doing this did not remove their sin, but it was an outward symbol of the contrition of their heart and desire to receive God’s mercy. While you see this in a national sense, such as Nineveh, you also see it personally in the life of Job. In His rebuke of a few towns, Jesus mentions that others towns in history would have responded with sackcloth and ashes instead of disrespect.
Ash Wednesday is 40 days, not counting Sundays, before Easter. The number 40 has a long history in scripture.
40 days of the flood
40 days spying the Promised Land
40 years in wilderness for lack of faith
40 days of temptation for Jesus
What do we do on Ash Wednesday? Isn’t this just some Catholic thing? I have been asked that on several occasions. Actually many denominations that follow a litany will have an Ash Wednesday service. So why would anyone else? Let’s look at the process of this type of service and how it can benefit our lives. During the service you would hear from scripture, such as Psalm 106 to remind us of our sin and need to confess and be purified by God. This particular Psalm recounts the mighty acts of God and the forgetfulness of humanity about those mighty acts. After recounting Israel’s history, the Psalm closes like this:
47 Save us, Yahweh our God,
and gather us from the nations,
so that we may give thanks to Your holy name
and rejoice in Your praise.
48 May Yahweh, the God of Israel, be praised
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, “Amen!”
Now, what if we were to recount our personal history of how God provided and protected? What if we were to annually remember the mightiness of God and the forgetfulness of ourselves? In those moments, we would confess to God how we have sinned, repent of that sin, and turn back to God. As a reminder, we would be encouraged to “give up” something until Easter as a sign of sincerity. This sign would also serve as a reminder to us of our decision to repent and walk with God. Obviously we are not to proclaim publicly what our decision would be. Jesus clearly teaches on this as Matthew 6 records for us.
Ash Wednesday can be very helpful in our relationship with God because it encourages a spiritual catharsis. Whatever we continue to harbor in our lives raises the spiritual toxin level. Empty yourself before God and allow His Spirit to fill you.