Ash Wednesday: Let’s Google it

Justin Kollmeyer's picture

Many of us Christians around the world and right here in our own community will avail ourselves to the rituals of “Ash Wednesday,” next Wednesday, Feb. 13, which is 40 days before Easter, not counting the Sundays. This 40 days is called Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday and culminates with Holy Week and Easter.

Here at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville we will conduct our Ash Wednesday service that night at 7:30. We will offer the ash cross described below, and we invite anyone without a church home, or anyone whose church is not having this service, to attend. You may come as a one-time guest. We will put no pressure on you in the service or after the service to make any further commitment. You are always invited back, of course.

Do you know exactly what Ash Wednesday is, where it came from, and what it means today? Well, let’s Google it.

The best information I found for our purposes here was an article by Dr. Richard P. Bucher on

“Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, in which the pastor applies ashes to the foreheads of Christians to signify an inner repentance. But what is the history and the meaning of this Christian holy day?

“Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes) is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints, he writes, ‘We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.’ Aelfric then proceeds to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was accidentally killed several days later in a boar hunt! This quotation confirms what we know from other sources, that throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head, rather than anointed on the forehead as in our day.

“As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material) as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning is an ancient practice. It is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. What is probably the earliest occurrence is found at the very end of the book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, ‘Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42:6) … In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21: ‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’

“In the typical Ash Wednesday observance, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes, prior to receiving the Holy Supper. The pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, ‘For dust you are and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19). This is of course what God spoke to Adam and Eve after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin. These words indicated to our first parents the bitterest fruit of their sin, namely death. In the context of the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, they remind each penitent of their sinfulness and mortality, and, thus, their need to repent and get right with God before it is too late. The cross reminds each penitent of the good news that through Jesus Christ crucified there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt, and all punishment.

“Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, not to be showy and boastful (see Matthew 6:16-18). Rather, they do it as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance and that through Jesus all sins are forgiven through faith.

“Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is never mentioned in scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free to either observe or not observe it. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior….

“With this in mind, however, the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday is heartily recommended to the Christian as a grand opportunity for repentance and spiritual renewal within the framework of confession and absolution.”

I echo Dr. Bucher’s recommendation and encourage you to avail yourself to this meaningful personal spiritual experience.


Kollmeyer is Pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, located between Lowe’s and The Pavilion on Ga. Hwy. 314 in Fayetteville.

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