Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Not all Christians observe these because they are only inspired, not commanded, by the Bible. Here’s what you need to know about these observances, their origins, and tradition.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
– Matthew 4:1-2
For certain religious denominations, Catholics in particular, Ash Wednesday is a day that marks the beginning of Lent, which always occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, according to Christianity.com.
Not counting Sundays, Lent is a 40-day season that commemorates the 40 days Christ spent under the devil’s temptation in the wilderness while he fasted.
During Lent, believers are also asked to do similar, by spending the forty days focusing on Christ’s ministry, sacrifice, life, and resurrection. They are also encouraged to fast, although not necessarily for the entire 40 days.
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
–Genesis 3:19 (bold emphasis added)
On the humorous side, many Christians who observe Ash Wednesday had the experience of someone not familiar with the observance walking up to them and saying: “You have dirt on your forehead.”
On Ash Wednesday, using ashes typically made by burning palm fronds, clergy around the world draw the sign of the cross on the forehead of believers. This idea of ashes comes from Genesis 3:19, Huff Post explains. It serves as a reminder that our lives are short.
The observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent are not in the Bible. Rather, they are drawn from biblical events such as these:
“Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
– Job 42:6
There are other associations of repentance and ashes found in Esther, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
These led to the observances becoming part of Christian traditions rather than practices commanded by or outlined in the Bible.
While in the past Catholics were the largest group celebrating Ash Wednesday, today, most ‘liturgical churches’ (those with a regular, calendar-based liturgy or set of rituals and observances) observe the day, including Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other Protestants, according to the Huff Post.
The majority of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe the day.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe Lent or Easter.