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  • Writer's pictureKeith Haney

Uncovering the Origins of Ash Wednesday: A Historical Perspective

"My transgressions were bound into a yoke;

by his hand, they were fastened together;

they were set upon my neck;

he caused my strength to fail;

the Lord gave me into the hands

of those whom I cannot withstand."- Lamentations 1:14


The History of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the 40 days of Lent. Lent is six weeks (not including Sundays) dedicated to reflection, prayer, and fasting (or giving up certain foods or activities) in preparation for Easter. It ends on Maundy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) that marks the Last Supper.

Lent is a season in the life of the Church to provide Christians a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the purging of activities. These spiritual disciplines can lead to priorities getting back in line with our faith walk. Ash Wednesday is the launching of this period of spiritual renewal. Most Catholics and some Protestant denominations observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not observe Ash Wednesday; instead, they start Lent on "Clean Monday."

The people in the Old Testament used dust and ashes as symbols of repentance and mourning.

  • And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went. 2 Samuel 13:19

  •  When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. Esther 4:1

  •  And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. Job 2:8

  •  Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3

The ashes, usually made by burning the palm fronds distributed on last year's Palm Sunday, making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads forehead of Christians, begin the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday. As they "impose" or "dispense" the ashes, the pastor or priest reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: "For dust you are and to dust, you shall return."

The Human Condition

The final verse of the classic hymn, "Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing," summarizes the challenge we Christians face, that of a wandering heart.

 O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!

Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love

Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above

The wandering soul plagued the Children of Israel. The prophet Jeremiah warned them of the pending punishment due to their unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness separates us from the Creator. That unfaithfulness is sin, and sin strains our relationship with God. Sin creates the need for God to discipline His wayward children.

Lamentations 1:8-9 describes just how far Israel had fallen.

Jerusalem sinned grievously;

therefore, she became filthy;

all who honored her despise her,

for they have seen her nakedness;

she herself groans

and turns her face away.

 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;

she took no thought of her future;

therefore, her fall is terrible;

she has no comforter. [1]

  The uncleanness of Israel found in v.9 is the effect of the sins she has committed. That uncleanness is symbolized by referring to menstrual blood, which has stained her clothing. Her sin is out front for the whole world to see. Jerusalem's sins render her unclean just as menstruation makes a woman ritually unclean. "If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. [2]” Lev 12:2. You can see how this description would also be offensive in the public proclamation, so this is to give you a deeper understanding.

Sadly, Israel "Took no thought of her doom." In her unfaithfulness to the LORD,

Jerusalem had overlooked the possibility of punishment. Isaiah 47:7 uses similar language concerning Babylon, also pictured as a woman. The expression no thought of her doom or "fate" may, in some languages, require saying, for example, "she did not think about where she would finally end," or idiomatically, "she closed her eyes and did not see where she could come out." Therefore, her fall is terrible is the consequence of failure to take thought for her future in the previous half-line. Fall refers to Jerusalem's downfall or defeat. [3]

We like Israel can escape punishment, only with true repentance. We need to confess our sins and God who is faithful and will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

"The more secure and content we are with our current status in life, the more the soul of mankind tends to see little need for the Divine." Keith Haney

As we lament and contemplate our sinfulness, our hearts are prone to wander and see the need for the savior. Our hearts are prone to wander into self-reliance. Prone to wander away from the truth of God's Word. God's Word calls us to repentance. The prone to wandering of the human heart find comfort in the forgiveness of the Lamb of God received through faith.

The Redemptive Power of God

A drunkard husband, spending the evening with his jovial companions at a tavern, boasted that if he should take a group of his friends home with him at midnight and ask his Christian wife to get up and cook supper for them, she would do it without complaint.

The crowd considered it a vain boast and dared him to try it by a considerable wager. So the drunken crowd went home with him, and he made the unreasonable demands of his wife. She obeyed, dressed, came down, prepared a very nice supper just as quickly as possible, and served it as cheerfully as she had been expecting them.

After dinner, one of the men, a little soberer than the others, asked how she could be so kind when they had been so unreasonable, and, too, they knew she disapproved of their conduct. Her reply was: "Sir, when my husband and I were married, we were both sinners. It has pleased God to call me out of that dangerous condition. My husband continues in it. I tremble for his future state. Were he to die as he is, he would be miserable forever; I think it my duty to render his present existence as comfortable as possible."

This wise and faithful reply affected the whole company. The husband thanked her for the warning and became an earnest Christian and a good husband.—Sunday School Times[4]

I am amazed at the lengths God will go to to bring back the wandering. In dealing with our unfaithfulness, God is patient. His punishment is designed to bring back the straying.

Repentance and restoration start by turning away from sinful behavior and receiving forgiveness. The Gospel proclaimed to the sinner that recovery is possible. God's forgiveness is there and available to the one who has wandered. The picture of the lost son in Luke 15 is an excellent reference here.

Repentance is identifying behavior that is out of line with God's will for us and seeking God's forgiveness. God offers This forgiveness freely through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. God desires to pour out His love and grace lavishly upon humanity.

Paul states this beautifully in Romans 3, 3. What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God's faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true and every human being a liar. As it is written:

"So that you may be proved right when you speak

and prevail when you judge." [a]

Some struggle with the state of a sin-filled world and lament how long God will tolerate it. As Christians, we don't focus on the punishment. We point people to the lavish grace of the God of the universe. Because of His great love for us, he sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue us through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Proclaim the love of Jesus boldly to comfort the wandering. Give peace to the anxious, and be Ambassadors of reconciliation. Remind them that their sins are forgiven, and God's grace abounds.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (La 1:8–11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Le 12:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (1992). A handbook on Lamentations (p. 25). New York: United Bible Societies.

[4] Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (p. 554). Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.

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