Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck6 Minutes

Throughout the Old Testament, ashes were used as a sign for sorrow and repentance for sin, but also as a sign of humility and mortality. In Esther chapter 4, after Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews, he “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes …” to mourn the disaster. When Jonah declared to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them for their wickedness, the king covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes to show his repentance (Jonah 3:6).

Sackcloth and ashes were an outward sign of the inward condition of the heart. This symbolism made one’s change of heart and repentance visible as a witness of humility before God.

This concept was carried over into the church as the ‘Day of Ashes’ where Christians received the mark of the cross on their forehead as a sign of their repentance before God. In time, this ritual became the beginning point for the season of Lent – a 40-day fast to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Man is Mortal

There is also a connection in the Old Testament between ashes and human mortality. As Abraham intercedes for the righteous in Sodom he declares: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27, ESV)

Jeremiah speaks of the dead returning to ashes in chapter 31 verse 40. So ashes are also a symbol of our impending death and act as a reminder of our need for humility before Almighty God. Ash Wednesday, is a solemn reminder that mankind is mortal and in need of reconciliation with a holy God.

While there is no New Testament call to observe such a ritual, there is a clear connection to the Old Testament practice associated with repentance. Thus this tradition has become an outward expression of a heart of repentance – a penitent posture before God that the New Testament clearly endorses. Some examples include James 4:10: “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up” (NKJV); or Acts 3:19: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out…” (NIV).

History of Ash Wednesday

During the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, church leaders adopted Ash Wednesday as the first act of a 40-day period of fasting and preparation prior to the observance of Christ’s death and resurrection during Holy Week. The 40 days were chosen in honor of the time Jesus fasted during his desert temptation.

Eventually this time of fasting became known as “Lent” – a season of preparation to better appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This is done through self-examination, fasting, prayer, repentance, and self-denial.

Church leaders drew from the customs and key Scriptures of the Old Testament in the establishment of this sacred ritual. They pointed to the Adamic curse as the source for the ashes: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, ESV)

In 601 AD, Pope Gregory established the beginning of Lent at 46 days before Easter – 40 days plus the Sundays. He also instituted the marking of believer’s foreheads with the shape of a cross. According to, Irenaeus, Pope Victor I, and Athanasius all mentioned the practice of Lent in their writings.

In many churches, the ashes come from palm leaves saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. These dried palms are then burned to provide the ashes for the ritual.

Today, Ash Wednesday is often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also observed by several other Christian churches, including Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Baptists. There are also several denominations that refrain from participating in Ash Wednesday observances. Since the Bible does not mention the observance of Ash Wednesday, Christians are free to decide whether or not to participate in the ritual.

Humility Before God

No matter the official stand of your church or denomination on the observance of Ash Wednesday, taking time for self-examination, repentance, and humble devotion in preparation for the observance of Christ’s resurrection are all practices that will draw any believer closer to God.

Repentance and humility before God are part of the Christian lifestyle that should be observed every day of the year, and not just during the season of Lent. But like some other ancient Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday can be an important part of your devotional relationship with God.

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