Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. Here’s an overview from the United Methodist Church:
Ash Wednesday emphasizes two themes: our sinfulness before God and our human mortality. The service focuses on both themes, helping us realize that both have been triumphed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Ashes are an ancient symbol. In Genesis, we read that God formed human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). After expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first human beings are told by God, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). The Hebrew word translated dust, is occasionally translated ashes elsewhere. Throughout scripture, ashes are part of rituals when people seek forgiveness and mourn their sin.
Ancient Ritual, Modern Meaning
The imposition of ashes on the foreheads of Christians to mark the beginning of Lent can be traced at least to the 10th century. As the ashes are placed on the forehead, words such as these are spoken: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” recalling God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, or “Repent, and believe the gospel” recalling the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus (Mark 1:15).
While many think of actions such as the imposition of ashes as most associated with Roman Catholics or Episcopalians, there has been a move among Protestant churches, including United Methodists, to recover these more multisensory ways of worship. This is in keeping with a growing recognition that people have multiple ways of learning and praying.
Here are some additional sites providing an in-depth look at the traditions associated with Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season.