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What Ash Wednesday Means

Rick Hamlin reflects on the beginning of Lent.
Woman with an ash cross on her forehead for her ash wednesday reflection
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
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Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the office, you notice a smudge on your colleague’s forehead—it looks to be in the shape of a cross—and you’re about to offer them a handkerchief. Then you remember. It must be Ash Wednesday. Consider what we can learn from this day. Could an Ash Wednesday reflection bring us closer to God?

Ashes and a cross in a bowl on top of palm fronds for an ash wednesday reflection service

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. On this day, many people attend church service, where a cross will be put on their forehead with ashes. These ashes are meant to signify our mortality. The tradition is accompanied with the sacred words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the date many people start their Lenten fasting or the practice of giving something up.

Lent is a time to prepare our hearts for Easter and growing our relationship with Christ. It takes place during the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting Sundays). Those 40 days is a reference to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His ministry. A chance for us to take our own wilderness journeys.

Taking the time to reflect on what this single day of Ash Wednesday means can be an important step to making your Lenten season more meaningful and spiritually fulfilling.

5 Ash Wednesday Reflections

Here are some lessons we can learn from this holy day. Reflect on them and how you can bring them into your own life. Is there something else we can take away from Ash Wednesday after the service is done?

Woman looking at herself in the mirror reflecting on ash wednesday
Getty Images/iStockphoto

1. We are human

The words from Genesis are read at most Ash Wednesday services, what God told Adam and Eve when they were kicked out of Eden: “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of our own mortality, something we all have in common. I like to hold that thought in prayer. It’s reassuring, a chance to step back from my ego-centric wishes and let God enter in.

Group of people holding hands and praising God for their ash wednesday reflection

2. We are God’s children

A small group from our church stands on a busy New York City corner on Ash Wednesday and offers “ashes to go.” They mark passersby with the sign of the cross and pray for them. When my son Tim did it, a bus driver pulled up, opened the door, signaled for Tim to come in so he could get ashes on his forehead, then drove off. Whether you ask for ashes in a church–or on a street corner–they are a mark that we’re all made by same Maker. Good to remember on a busy day.

Woman walking along a misty path in the woods on ash wednesday

3. We’re not stuck in the wilderness forever

Jesus was there for only 40 days. There was an end to His trials. While He was in the desert He had to say no to the temptations of power, success, wealth, prestige (the devil can be so sneaky) and then the angels came and took care of Him. Think of that when you face a time of trial. Stay true to who you are. The angels are ready to help.

A wooden cross wrapped in purple ribbon with lent symbols like ashes and palm to show an ash wednesday reflection

4. Be startled by the cross

Crosses are so fashionable these days, appearing on dresses, cloaks, gowns, jewelry, that it’s easy to forget how shocking the cross really is. Someone once said it would be like wearing an image of an electric chair around your neck. But most often that cross is empty, a reminder of what’s coming. “He is risen,” we say at Easter. He is risen indeed.

Woman praying for others on the beach during her ash wednesday reflection

5. We are what we believe

I confess that I felt so self-conscious about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday and everybody seeing them on my forehead (“Why is that person on the subway staring at me?”) that I avoided it for years. Even now I do it at the end of the day. But to believe something is like putting a “heart” emoji on it for all to see. Seems like the cross on my forehead says the same thing.

Ash Wednesday and Lent Quotes

  • “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.” —Thomas Merton
  • “God refuses to give up, and we who are enlisted to be fellow-workers with God know that the only reason we continue is that death did not have the last word; that Good Friday was not the end of the story.” Desmond Tutu
  • “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Make for it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.” —Saint Augustine of Hippo
  • “O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.” —Henri Nouwen
  • “The Lent period of fasting should be passionately pursued.” ―Lailah Gifty Akita


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