What Is Ash Wednesday? 2024 Guide and Meaning to Start of Lent

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Each year, Ash Wednesday starts the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. Lent is a 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent asks believers to set aside a time each year for similar fasting, marking an intentional season of focus on Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.

Ash Wednesday's Meaning and Importance

Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day that carries significant meaning as Christians turn their hearts towards God in repentance and prayer. The symbolism of Ash Wednesday and Lent is remembering our mortality, need for salvation, and the period of temptation and testing that Jesus faced in the desert.

The name "Ash Wednesday" is derived from placing ashes on believers' foreheads in the shape of a cross often accompanied by the words "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," emphasizing mortality and the need for repentance.

Whether you are looking to grow closer to God through prayer and moments of reflective meditation or want to observe Lent by fasting from certain foods or habits like social media, the important thing is using the time recommit your need of a Savior.

Download your FREE copy of our 40-Day Lent and Easter Devotional - filled with daily Scriptures, reflections, and prayers for the Lent season.

ash wednesday ashes meaningPhoto credit:©Unsplash/Ahna Ziegler

Who Celebrates Ash Wednesday?

Have you ever noticed, usually in February or March, a lot of people walk around with an ash cross on their foreheads once a year? You probably knew it had something to do with Lent, but you weren’t sure why the ash cross was significant.

Or maybe, you grew up in a Catholic or Protestant church that held Ash Wednesday services each year, so you’re already familiar with the service but aren’t too sure about the history of Ash Wednesday and Lent and what they have to do with the Christian faith. Read on if you want to learn more about this important day in the liturgical calendar and why so many celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent!

The observance of Ash Wednesday is most common in the Western Christian tradition, including Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some Protestant denominations.

Often called the Day of Ashes, Ash Wednesday starts Lent by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. This happens during a unique Ash Wednesday service.

What Happens on Ash Wednesday?

During Mass (for Catholics) or worship service (for Protestants), the priest or pastor usually shares a penitential and reflective sermon. The mood is solemn - many services will have long periods of silence, and worshipers will often leave the service in silence.

Usually, there is a responsive passage of Scripture centered around confession, read aloud about the leader and congregation. Attendees will experience communal confession and moments where they are prompted to confess sins silently and pray.

After all of this, the congregation will be invited to receive the ashes on their foreheads. Usually, the priest or pastor will put his finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.”

What is the meaning and symbolism of the ashes? Where do they come from?

In many congregations, the ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm branches to attendees, referencing the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path.

The ashes of this holiday symbolize two main things: death and repentance. “Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.”

“When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy” (The CatholicSpirit.com).

With this focus on our mortality and sinfulness, Christians can enter into the Lent season solemnly while also looking forward in greater anticipation and joy to the message of Easter and Christ’s ultimate victory over sin and death.

When Is Ash Wednesday in 2024?

Let's take a look at Ash Wednesday in 2024, the start of Lent, and the most significant dates of Lent:

Important Dates of Lent  Brief Overview of Significance2024 Date
Ash WednesdayThe beginning of Lent, a day of reflection and repentance from sinFebruary 14, 2024
Palm SundayCelebrates Jesus's triumphant entry into JerusalemMarch 24, 2024
Holy WeekThe week leading up to EasterMarch 24-March 30, 2024  
Maundy ThursdayCommemorates the foot washing and Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the ApostlesMarch 28, 2024
Good FridayCommemorates the crucifixion of Jesus and his death at CalvaryMarch 29, 2024
Easter SundayCelebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and His victory over sin and death  March 31, 2024

The History of Lent and Ash Wednesday

The history and beginnings of Lent aren’t clear. According to Britannica.com, Lent has likely been observed: “since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.” Christian scholars note that Lent became more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. St. Irenaeus, Pope St. Victor I, and St. Athanasius all seem to have written about Lent during their ministries. Most agree that “by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.”

Is there Fasting on Ash Wednesday?

Regarding the exact rules and practices of Lent, those have changed over the years. “In the early centuries, fasting rules were strict, as they still are in Eastern churches,” notes Britannica.com. “One meal a day was allowed in the evening, and meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden. The Eastern church also restricts the use of wine, oil, and dairy products. In the West, these fasting rules have gradually been relaxed. The strict law of fasting among Roman Catholics was dispensed with during World War II, and only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are now kept as Lenten fast days.”

Is Ash Wednesday only for Catholics or Protestants?

Catholic, Orthodox, and many (but not all) Protestants appreciate and observe Lent. Though Lent is not named or observed in the Bible, as Christianity Today notes, “the path of Lent—prayer, fasting, and generosity over a period of time—is heavily emphasized by the authors of and characters in the Bible, including Jesus. The Bible commands a lifestyle of worship and devotion that looks considerably like Lent. Therefore, while the word is absent in the Bible, the reality of Lent is woven throughout the whole of Scripture, as we have discovered.”

In his Gospel Coalition article Evangelicals Embracing (and Rejecting) LentTrevin Wax gives us an important reminder regardless of whether we personally observe Lent:

“I hardly think the church is suffering from too much fasting,” Wax says. “But I do think the church is suffering from too much self-righteousness (and I include myself in this indictment). Lent – being either for or against – can become a way of climbing up on to the pedestal.”

He goes on to say, “What is more important than the practices we take on is the heart attitude behind them. If there’s anything we should give up this time of year, it’s our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do.”

ash wednesday bible versesPhoto credit: ©Pixabay/GiniGeo Photography

Bible Verses for Ash Wednesday

If you’d like to start thinking through and observing Lent and Ash Wednesday, here are a few verses specific to Ash Wednesday to meditate and reflect on, and then a prayer you can pray to observe the day.

  • Our Creation: Genesis 2:7 - Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
  • Our Curse: Genesis 3:19 - By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
  • Our Cry of Repentance: Psalm 51:7- 10 - Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Read more Ash Wednesday Bible Verses for Reflection

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday:

Lord, Holy One, have mercy on us. We confess our sins to you. We have fallen short of your glory and without your mercy and grace, we would be dust. We repent now. Lord, as we enter this Lenten season, be near us. Help us, by your Holy Spirit, to feel the proper conviction and repentance for our sin. Help us, by your Spirit, to have the strength to overcome the enemy.

Thank you, Lord, that Easter is coming! Death has no sting, no victory, because of Jesus! Glory and honor and praise to His name! Thank you for rescuing us. Help us keep the weight and the joy of this season in our hearts as we move through the next several weeks. Help us bear the good fruit of your Spirit.

Thank you that the ashes on our forehead do not symbolize our ultimate reality. From dust, we might have been formed, but our bodies, our spirits, ourselves, await beautiful redemption and the restoration of all things. Help us long and look forward to that day, and let it come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen. 

Read more Prayers for Ash Wednesday

Related Resource: A Podcast to Guide You Through the Season of Lent

This guided Scripture meditation is for the first week of Lent. Listen and subscribe to the So Much More Podcast with Jodie Niznik to hear every episode in her Lenten series. In this account from Matthew 14, Jesus demonstrated that in His hands, what seems insufficient becomes more than enough. This serves as a beautiful reminder to trust in God's abundant provision in our own lives. As you move through this guided meditation, you will be invited to let the Spirit lead you to what he has for you and to reflect on areas where God is inviting you to trust him more.

Sources:

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/czarny_bez

Learn more about the meaning and significance behind the Easter holiday and Holy Week celebrations:

What is Lent? and When Does Lent Start?
What is Ash Wednesday? and When is Ash Wednesday?
What is Palm Sunday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What is Good Friday? and When is Good Friday?
What is Holy Saturday?

What is Easter? and When is Easter Sunday?
Easter Bible Verses
The Resurrection of Jesus 
Easter Prayers

This article originally appeared on Christianity.com. For more faith-building resources, visit Christianity.com. Christianity.com
 

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