Not all churches have a day or service dedicated to Ash Wednesday, but many denominations do recognize this day on the holy calendar of events for that year. Ash Wednesday kicks off the start to Lent season, right after Shrove Tuesday. During this time of reflection, Christians will often fast in one way or another. This fasting might look like giving up meat, sweets, or technology. Others imitate Jesus during his 40 days in the desert and refrain from eating at all.
In either case, this somber season not only reminds us of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert and how Jesus resisted temptation (Matthew 4) but it leads up to Holy Week and the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We wait in anticipation for both. Usually, in addition to receiving an ash cross on our forehead, services also have an Ash Wednesday prayer. Whether you, as a pastor, need ideas for the prayer, or you as a laity want to pray with your family before or after the Ash Wednesday service, we’ve included an example below. Most often Ash Wednesday prayers remind us that we are but dust, and to dust, we will return (Genesis 3:19). This holiday helps us to remember that we cannot earn our own salvation, but that God allows us to come into a relationship with him after he dies on the cross and resurrects. Let’s explore what this holiday means and how we can pray for a renewing of the mind during the Lent season.
What Happens on Ash Wednesday?
Most church services follow the same format for this holiday. Palm leaves from Palm Sunday celebrations the previous year service as the ashes that the clergy place upon the foreheads of the congregation.
When the pastor or another church official marks the forehead of a person with a cross, they often will say something along the lines of, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The service will often read from a passage of Scripture either from Isaiah or Joel or some churches will read one of the Gospel accounts of when Jesus was tempted by the devil. Often the sermon or homily will contain some call to repentance and reflection, as is the motif of the Lent season.
Not all Christians participate in Ash Wednesday within their churches. Some do something similar within their homes, and some churches also offer “ashes to go.”
The Roman Catholic Church does not alone participate in any Ash Wednesday traditions. Many other denominations and Christians will either have an ash service at church or will do something on this day to commence the sobering Lent season.
Ash Wednesday Prayer
During this time of reflection and repentance, we may not know the right words to say when in the presence of a holy God who paid the penalty of our sins. We have a sample prayer below, but please feel free to deviate from it based on how the Spirit leads.
Heavenly Father, during this time of reflection I remember how you lived the life I ought to have lived. You showed us how to resist temptation during your time in the desert, and through the life you led here on earth. As this Lent season begins, remind me that I am but dust. I can do nothing without you. Help me to see the world through the eyes of those in the first Lent season, who awaited a Savior and awaited new life through you. Thank you for your sacrifice on the cross, and as I refrain from [fill in the blank, for what you choose to give up for Lent] help me to use that time I would spend on [fill in the blank item] to pray, reflect, and thank you. Amen.
Psalm 51 Prayer
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday Observation
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (provided by the Book of Common Prayer)
When Is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday changes its date based on the calendar year. As you guessed by the name, it occurs on a Wednesday, and always happens right after Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday,” “Shrove Tuesday”).
For the year in which this article is being written, 2021, Ash Wednesday occurs on February 17. Easter falls a little earlier than usual this year.
If you are not certain as to when the holiday will occur during your calendar year, check your calendar to find out when Mardi Gras happens. The day after Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday follows. But often churches will keep the congregation in the loop about holidays in the holy calendar, even if they do not have a specific service dedicated to it.
Now that we’ve established when the holiday happens, let’s explore the biblical origins of this event.
What Does This Holiday Mean Biblically?
We can find many places in the Bible that have a major influence on Ash Wednesday. As mentioned before, the “to the dust you shall return” from Genesis 3:19 plays a big role. In Genesis 3, the first sin happened. Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, and Adam passively allowed her to do so. After this occurs, God reminds them that sin has a consequence: death. And this sin has passed on from generation to generation. Death follows us. But thankfully, God offers us a chance at a new life.
We can also point to many instances in Scripture where people would pour dust or ashes over their heads as a sign of mourning or repentance:
Revelation 18:19: “And they threw dust on their heads and were crying out, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had ships at sea became rich by her wealth, for in one hour she has been laid waste!’”
2 Samuel 1:2: “On the third day, behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul, with his clothes torn and dust on his head. And it came about when he came to David that he fell to the ground and prostrated himself.”
Joshua 7:6: “Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, both he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads.”
Lamentations 2:10: “The elders of the daughter of Zion Sit on the ground, they are silent. They have thrown dust on their heads; They have girded themselves with sackcloth. The virgins of Jerusalem Have bowed their heads to the ground.”
We could go on, but ashes or dust on the head represents repentance. As Christians, we recognize that our sin had formed a chasm between ourselves and God, and we had no way of bridging that gap on our own.
Of course, as mentioned above, Jesus’ time in the desert also marks an important part of Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent that follow. During his time in the wilderness, he refrained from eating for 40 days. The devil came to taunt him and tempt him on three separate occasions, but Jesus resists him every time.
We can also point to Ezekiel 9:4 as another verse that influenced this holiday. “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”
Doesn’t a mark on the forehead sound familiar?
We could continue to point out the many parallels between Scripture and Ash Wednesday. Although we don’t have records of the first Ash Wednesday observances until the 11th century, we can know that they pulled everything directly from Scripture. Many worship songs and hymns do this as well.
At Easter, the Son of God took on the world’s sin and defeated the devil, death, and grave. How is it, then, that history’s most glorious moment is surrounded by fearful fishermen, despised tax collectors, marginalized women, feeble politicians, and traitorous friends?
In The Characters of Easter, you’ll become acquainted with the unlikely collection of ordinary people who witnessed the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection. This FREE podcast provides a fresh approach to the Lenten season and can be used as a devotional or study for both individuals and groups.
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Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.
This article is part of our prayer resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.