Bible Answers: The significance of Ash Wednesday

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“Ash Wednesday is not part of my tradition, so I don’t understand it. What does the Bible say about this practice?” — Barb

Ash Wednesday, on the Western Christian liturgical calendar, is the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent.
The practice probably dates from the early Middle Ages and is common among Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other mainline denominations.
In its traditional observance, this service prompts participants to consider their mortality and to express sorrow for their sins and moral failures.
It points them to inner repentance and the importance of a transformed life.
Ashes (traditionally obtained from burning the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday) may be imposed in the shape of a cross on the forehead of the faithful. Often fasting in some form is encouraged.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is never mentioned in scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free to observe it or not. Nevertheless, there are important biblical truths to be realized in this tradition.
The modern practice reflects the ancient act of throwing ashes over one’s head to express remorse for one’s sin, to indicate repentance before God and/or to demonstrate grief (Esther 4:1, 3; Job 42:3-6; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6). Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21.
The cross symbol, worn visibly throughout the day, invites its wearer, and perhaps those who see it, to consider the message in scripture that through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection there are forgiveness for sin and new life (Rom. 5:8; 10:9-10; passim).
Some Christians readily dismiss Ash Wednesday as an empty religious gesture. One should note, however, that any religious act may be meaningless, external formality if it is not accompanied by sincere desire for connection with and transformation by God.
Regardless of the “form,” true repentance and being reconciled with God are never without value.