Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year's Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, "Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.
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Ash Wednesday has a non-Christian origin and was accepted into the beliefs of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The council also settled upon the 40-day fast period as the standard length to celebrate Lent. During this time period the goal of Constantine was to combine pagans and Christians into a peaceable unit within the Roman kingdom.
Even after the Council of Nicaea the beginning start date of Lent was still questioned. In 601 Pope Gregory moved the beginning of Lent from the fourth Sunday of the year to Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter. This changed allowed for 40 days of fasting with six Sundays counted as feast days, for a total of 46 days for Lent. Pope Gregory also instituted the tradition of marking parishioners forehead’s with ashes in the shape of a cross.
Ash Wednesday is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, however, from Biblical times, sprinkling oneself with ashes has been a mark of sorrow for sin. Several times the Bible mentions people repenting in dust and ashes; for example: Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Job (Job 42:6), the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-6), and Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4). Repentance in dust and ashes often was accompanied with fasting during Bible times.
The type of fast Jesus himself endorsed was the following, found in Matthew 6:16-18, "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Additionally, Isaiah 58:5-7 says, "Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Jesus is calling His followers to avoid making a show when fasting, but rather to help those in need. He is calling Christians to think externally in avenues of service, instead of only thinking internally toward themselves. The point of that matter is this; Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show. As you think about your life, repentance, and fasting where is your heart? Are you others focused or self focused? Do you desire to have true repentance and fasting as mentioned in Psalms 51 (especially verses 10-13, 17), or are your actions merely based on outward tradition?
As mentioned before, the Bible directly talks about repentance and fasting, but doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday specifically. Therefore, Christians are under no obligation to celebrate the holiday. The important fact to remember is that Christians should be ready and willing to repent, fast, and focus on God throughout the year and not just during the Lenten season.
Additionally, Ash Wednesday is not a day of holy obligation, although Roman Catholics attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. The churches of the Anglican Communion, as well as some other Protestant churches observe Ash Wednesday. Eastern Rite churches, however, do not observe Ash Wednesday, their Lent begins on the preceding Monday.