Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian’s 40-day journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the proclamation of Easter. The 40 days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of his ministry, Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai at the giving of the Law, or Elijah’s fast on his way to the mountain of God.
Ash Wednesday begins the Christian’s Lenten journey with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance. The ancient practice of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful gives Ash Wednesday its name. The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusively Roman Catholic practice, and today is observed widely by Christians of many traditions. The church father, Tertullian (c. a.d. 160–215), writes of the practice as a public expression of repentance and of our human frailty that stands in need of Christ. The ashes remind us forcefully of our need for redeeming grace as they recall the words from the rite for Christian burial: “…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…,” words that will very likely be spoken over us all.