“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Genesis 3: 19
During my time serving as a United Methodist minister I have been blessed to serve in communities of faith that have had the tradition of observing Ash Wednesday. Serving in these churches over the years, I have been given the opportunity to explore the meaning and spiritual depths of Ash Wednesday in ways I was never able to previously. Because of this, Ash Wednesday has become one of the most important services on my calendar.
Some Protestants don’t observe Ash Wednesday. This may be because they may not fully understand its meaning or they believe it is a Catholic observance. For those who may feel this way, let me impart just a few things that I have learned about the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday that is not a biblical requirement (the same as Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for possibly over twelve centuries. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which is a six week period of spiritual preparation and penitence leading to Easter. Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality, sinfulness, and need for the forgiveness found at the cross of Jesus. The pastor imposes the ashes and quotes what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This means that one day our lives will end as a result of our sin, and for this we must all be prepared. However, the sign of the cross that the pastor makes on the foreheads of the worshipers is the symbolically pointing to the good news that although our mortal lives end, our spiritual lives are secure in the forgiveness found at the cross of Christ—our sins are forgiven.
You see, Ash Wednesday is not a service of death, or a fascination with darkness, or just for Catholics, or about missing school and getting dirty. Ash Wednesday is about so much more. It is about being able to look into the reality of our human condition of sin and death, and envisioning the forgiving, sacrificial love of Christ on the other side. This is a vision that enlightens us to the reality that our death is not the end, that our death does not have the last say, that because of the work of Jesus Christ, we will be resurrected.