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Ash Wednesday and its meaning

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Published: 11 Feb 2013      

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin.

Ash Wednesday services

The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.

The mark of ashes

In Ash Wednesday services, churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. “God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality”.

Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer

The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says “remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return”, or a similar phrase based on God's sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19.

The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays is for the priest to dip his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, say: “Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (or a variation on those words).

Keeping the mark

At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world. At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins.

Symbolism of the ashes

The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that:

  • Death comes to everyone

  • They should be sorrowful for their sins

  • They must change themselves for the better

  • God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes

  • The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways: The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism

  • The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin

  • The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin.


Where the ashes come from

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday.

Ashes and oil

The ash is sometimes mixed with anointing oil, which makes sure that the ashes make a good mark. The use of anointing oil also reminds the churchgoer of God's blessings and of the anointing that took place at their baptism.

From Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, the worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph. But using the ashes to mark the cross on the believer's forehead symbolises that through Christ's death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.