As we Start Lent, Let’s Better Understand Ash Wednesday

By: Rev. Dr. Julio R. Vargas Vidal

Liturgically and ecclesiastically speaking, the months between February and March are quite hectic and busy. Our Church is heir to a tradition given to it by a church from which it has distanced itself somewhat – the Anglican Church. This, in turn, is a direct descendant of Catholicism. Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is heir to the early church, which derived many of its characteristics from Judaism.

Every year we begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, which takes place in February or March. The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) is found as early as the 8th century in the Gregorian sacramentaries. On this day, according to a very ancient custom, the faithful are exhorted to go to the altar, before the beginning of the service, where the priest, dipping his finger in ashes, will mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross, saying: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return”, a biblical statement.

In both the Old and New Testaments, we see that people who repented of their sins, or entered into a period of mourning, put ashes on themselves and dressed their bodies in sackcloth. The practice was coined by the church to begin Lent in this penitential way, meaning that they should repent of their sins throughout Lent.

Lent lasts 40 days, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Holy Thursday. Why forty days? In determining the period of Lent, the examples of Moses, Elijah, and Christ were used. In addition, the fact that Christ spent 40 hours in the tomb had an influence, not to mention the other biblical references to the number 40, namely: 40 days of the flood, and 40 years that the Jewish people walked through the desert, among others. While Pentecost was characterized by 50 days in which Christians rejoiced and prayed on their feet, Quadragesima (the Latin term for Lent) was observed with fasting.

During this time we make an effort to recover the rhythm and style of true believers who live as sons and daughters of God. It is a time of reflection, of penance, of spiritual conversion, and of preparation for the mystery of Easter. It is a time to repent of our sins, to be open to change, and to seek to live closer to Christ.

The practice of distributing ashes to public penitents was being observed by clergy and believers by 1091. Ash Wednesday emphasizes a twofold encounter: we face our mortality and confess our sins before God within the community of faith. The content and form of this service should focus on the dual themes of sin and death in light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.

Suggestions for the development of the worship service:

  1. Early in the morning, before going to work or school.
  2. At noon, perhaps observing a fast culminating in lunch.
  3. Early in the afternoon.

Environment, colors and textures

The visual environment should be solemn and concise. While purple is the traditional color of Lent, on Ash Wednesday we use gray, reminding us of ashes. Dark colors with earth tones as well as somber hues are also appropriate. Some even use rough and coarse textures, such as sackcloth, to suggest the day and the season that is about to begin.

The Theology of the Ashes

The use of ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance has a long history in Jewish, and later Christian, worship. The imposition of ashes can be a powerful, non-verbal, experiential way to participate in a call to repentance and reconciliation.

Ashes as a symbol of healing

Ashes are made by burning the palms used on Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are mixed with water and anointing oil. Let us remember that the ashes remind us of our human frailty and our mortality. Our lives are fragile and easily blown away by the wind at any time. We are dust in the wind. The oil symbolizes healing. Our human frailty (symbolized by the ashes) is healed through the oil.

Liturgical alternatives

Not all churches understand or accept the observance of Ash Wednesday. However, they can still observe the day without the imposition of ashes. Here are some ideas that can be incorporated alone or in different stations distributed around the sanctuary.

The imposition of ashes can be substituted with Holy Communion. Right before Confession and Forgiveness, you can invite the congregation to participate in the Eucharist.

On the other hand, you could have a container with sand or dirt. A minister can invite those who do not want the imposition of ashes to visit that station and put some dirt on their hands. In addition, they can be invited to reflect on their human frailty, symbolized by the fragility of the sand or soil.

One station may have a container of water and a pitcher. Those who pass through this station can pour water over their hands to remind them of their baptism.

Finally, a separate station can be set up where congregants can simply pray for themselves and others.

For a service of this magnitude (with various stations) to be carried out, it will be important to equip and count on a team of pastors or lay ministers.

It is an invitation

During Lent we are invited to change our lives. The Church invites us to observe Lent as a path towards Jesus Christ, listening to the Word of God, praying, sharing with others and doing good deeds. It invites us to transform our attitudes and become more like Jesus Christ. We acknowledge our sin, that consistently turns us away from God.

Lent is a time of forgiveness and reconciliation. Every day, throughout life, we shed our hearts’ hatred, resentment, envy, and jealousy which oppose our love for the Lord and the family of God. In Lent, we learn to know and appreciate the cross of Jesus – the same cross that many believers do not want to see on the altars, or around pastors’ necks. With this we also learn to take up our cross with joy for the glory of the resurrection.

* The Rev. Dr. Julio R. Vidal Vargas is Director of the Chaplaincy School of Optometry at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico. In addition, he serves as an associate pastor in the Methodist Church in Rio Piedras Heights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: