Whether you’re a pastor or a family wanting to read passages of Scripture for Ash Wednesday, we can find many Bible verses that point to the origins of this practice. Churches, during Ash Wednesday services, will place ash crosses on the foreheads of the people. Often a pastor, or elder, who draws the cross recites Genesis 3:19, reminding us that we are but dust. Ash Wednesday scriptures show us that we need a Savior who can give us the hope of eternal life.
In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of ashes in Scripture and include a list of some important Bible verses to read during this holiday and the start of Lent.
What Does Ash Represent in the Bible?
Ashes tend to represent repentance, self-abhorrence, and mourning in the Bible. When someone hears terrible news, such as Job when he discovers his family and possession have been destroyed, they tend to anoint their heads with dust or ashes.
Since humans come from dust, placing dust on our heads reminds us of our humanity, morality, and the finite state of our nature. This is perhaps a precursor to Auriga practice in Rome who would remind his master, “Remember you are mortal” whenever his master had just succeeded in a conquest.
Ashes also represent cleanliness. “The ashes of a red heifer burned entire (Numbers 19:5) when sprinkled on the unclean made them ceremonially clean (Hebrews 9:13).” When we sprinkle ashes on our heads or draw an ash cross, this is an act of ceremonial cleanliness. It reminds us that through the power of the cross, Jesus makes us pure as snow.
Best Bible Verses to Read on Ash Wednesday
Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Psalm 103:14: “for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
These two verses remind us that God breathed life into the dust of the earth. And when we pass away on earth, our bodies shall return to dust. Everyone will experience bodily death. Nevertheless, this next Acts passage gives us hope that we will not necessarily have to experience spiritual death.
Acts 2:21: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 10:9-10 says that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is the Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Even though our bodies will turn to ash, our spirits can live eternally with our Savior. We also have the hope of a new resurrection of the body that we will experience one day a well (1 Corinthians 15:35-58).
Job 42:5-6: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
In the Old Testament, people, when repenting or mourning, would throw ashes or dust on their heads. They often wore sackcloth as well. Lent gives us an opportunity to reflect and repent. We remember our sins and also remember what comes at the end of Lent: Christ’s death and resurrection.
As far as the palm branches used in Ash Wednesday, specifically, we do have another verse that either a pastor or family prior to an Ash Wednesday service can read.
John 12:12-15: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
Most often, churches will use the ashes of palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Ash Wednesday serves as the event to kick off Lent in the Western Church. (The Eastern Church usually starts on Clean Monday). We remember the events that took place nearly 40 days after Ash Wednesday where Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the people cried out, “Save us, now!” Less than a week later, they called for his death. That glorious death and resurrection that offered us new life in him.
Ezekiel 9:4: “And the Lord said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.”
Ash Wednesday services often involve a pastor marking an ash cross on the foreheads of all the congregants. We can date this practice, the marking of ash on the forehead, back to the Old Testament. Ezekiel existed during the time of the Babylonian exile. Israel, immersed in the muck and mire of their sin, had been taken over and sacked by a foreign nation. They cried out for a Savior. That Savior would come five hundred years later.
What Is the Significance of Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten calendar for the Western church. A period of 40 days (excluding Sundays), to remember Jesus’ trials in the desert. Where he resisted the temptations of the devil (Luke 4). Starting on Ash Wednesday, Christians often engage in some sort of fast. Whether they choose to give up social media or sweets, or if they follow the traditional model and don’t eat meat on designated days of the church calendar, they remember how Jesus overcame temptation and came out of the desert unblemished.
We also remember from Ash Wednesday onward, what happened at the end of the 40-some days in the first century AD. That Jesus was tried, sentenced to death, executed, and on that Easter Sunday, he rose again. Ash Wednesday commences a time of reflection, repentance, and waiting. We remember how God offered a way of salvation, and that we will experience life in full once we pass from this earth.
Prayer for Ash Wednesday
To accompany the above passages, we would love to include an Ash Wednesday prayer that you can read with friends, family, or by yourself.
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. —Hope Bolinger
Ash Wednesday grants us an opportunity to await with joyful anticipation for Easter Sunday. We praise Jesus during this time for his beautiful sacrifice and eagerly await the new life we will spend with him after the end of this one.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/azerberber
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.