The Purpose and Meaning of Ash Wednesday

February 23, 2022 | Read Time: 3 mins

By: Dr. Bob Hayes

As we approach the observance of Lent—2022—we would do well to focus on the purpose and significance of this holy season that begins on Ash Wednesday and extends for forty days (excluding Sundays), leading up to sunset on Easter Eve. It is a time when Christians all over the world consider thoughtfully the implications of their loyalty to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Celebrated by followers and disciples of Jesus since the early second century in the days of Constantine—and perhaps even earlier—its purpose was to instruct pagan converts in the faith and to prepare those “backsliders” to return to the fold. The original practices of this sacred season included fasting, prayer, and self-examination. Later, other outward requirements that focused on deepening the devotional life and growth of faithful Christians were added. Today, Lent has become a time for the “reawakening” of our souls, victory of our spirits over material things, of life over death, and of God’s creative and renewing love that breaks through our waywardness and sins. In fact, the word “Lent” is taken from the Anglo-Saxon “Lencten,” meaning “spring.” Its very meaning signals renewal and great adventure into the depths of God’s being and our own.

This forty-day journey is also symbolic of the forty-day wilderness experience Jesus had immediately following his baptism (Matthew 4). There, in the wilderness, Christ overcame the temptations of the devil. Lent is that time which shows us that if we examine our lives, pray, fast and meditate, we, too, can overcome the temptations of this world.

Lent is vastly more important than foregoing some trifle each day. It is the letting go of the time we waste in frivolous pursuits, our selfish vanities, and yes, our very food itself. It signals that season of the year where we are asked to give up what is good, as a personal, intentional and lively sacrifice. We give up the good for the “temporary better,” which is proving to ourselves that under God and with God, we are in control of our desires and appetites and legitimate pleasures, and that they are not in control of us.

In other words, Lent is our opportunity to get right with God, with ourselves, and with others. Within all of us there are planted innumerable, hidden and buried possibilities, and it is only when our lives come into the right adjustment with the source of light and life, will our possibilities become realities. Simply put, Lent can be a “springtime” for your soul if you make the needed and necessary correction of your life with God.

As I said earlier, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which always happens on the seventh Wednesday before Easter. Surprisingly, the ashes that were most often used in this observance were from the burned branches of the palms of the previous year, remembering Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, signaling the beginning of Holy Week. The words of imposition—the placing of the ashes on the forehead—are taken from the Book of Genesis (3:19) when God declares to His broken humanity, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” These words are a reminder of our mortality and our penitence, signifying that for the next forty days we should meet the responsibility of that day as if an obligation has been placed upon us.

The color of Lent is purple. It is the color of penitence. It is also the color used to signify royalty, as that of a “King” who goes before us as the sacrificial lamb of God.

Lent is a time for humility and repentance. Prayer. Self-examination and self-denial. With God’s help, Lent is that season where we are asked to look deep within ourselves, finding those faults and feelings that have kept us away from a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God and with Jesus Christ, seeking to ignite the change that will both transform and renew.