Ash Wednesday is 46 days prior to Easter Sunday and is the official start of Lent. It is mostly observed by Catholics, though some Protestants also observe the day. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a day of repentance and fasting. Typically, an Ash Wednesday church service features a ritual in which a priest, or occasionally a lay minister, places ashes on the observers' foreheads. The ash is usually applied in the shape of a cross. Traditionally, the ash is not washed off by observers, but rather remains on the forehead until it wears off. Some churches use burnt palm branches from the prior year's Palm Sunday service to supply the ashes.
Ash Wednesday is not mentioned in the Bible. However, the practice of recognizing the gravity of our sin and repenting is biblical. The concept of using ash as a sign of repentance and mourning is seen throughout the Old Testament (2 Samuel 13:9; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; Jeremiah 6:26). That being said, believers should not repent from sin only on specific days, but every day (1 John 1:9; John 15:10).
If a Christian chooses to observe Ash Wednesday, he should do so with proper motive. Fasting and outwardly demonstrating repentance should not be done as ways of obtaining God's favor—Jesus has fully redeemed believers, and our actions cannot change God's love for us (Romans 8:38-39). Observance of Ash Wednesday could be spiritually enriching, but it will not change one's status before God (Romans 8:15-17; Ephesians 2:8-10). Neither should fasting or repentance be done as a means of glorifying oneself. Matthew 6:16-18 says, "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
In short, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and repentance that starts the Lenten fast. Believers are free to observe the day or not. If they choose to observe the day, they should do so with a heart that seeks to glorify God (Colossians 3:17).
Ash Wednesday Calendar
2021 — February 17
2022 — March 2
2023 — February 22
2024 — February 14
2025 — March 5
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