Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Meaning of Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and I taught the teens at our Wednesday night youth group all about what it means. Since I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Ash Wednesday, I had to invest some time learning about myself before I could teach it to others. Then I had to explain it to a group of young people that mostly come from non-religious families. I was impressed with how well they grasped the concept. I thought I would share the basic ideas with my readers.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Many Christians observe Lent during the 40 days before Easter. Traditionally, Christians prayed and fasted during Lent as a way to re-energize their faith in preparation for the Easter celebration of the resurrection of Christ. For those who may not know, fasting means going without food.

In modern times, some people still fast during Lent, but most people chose to give something else up instead of food. For example, people may give up dessert, cigarettes, video games, television, etc. The point of going without something during Lent is to demonstrate our willingness to sacrifice for Christ since He sacrificed so much for us.

The reason Lent lasts 40 days is because that was how long Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan. Since very few of the young people in our church are familiar with that story, I read the story from Luke 4:1-11.

In the story Jesus went out into the desert where He was tempted by Satan. This was a particularly challenging temptation because Jesus had gone 40 days without eating, so he would have been physically weak. Satan tempted Jesus three times.

1. Satan tempted Jesus to show off His power by turning stones into bread.

2. Satan tempted Jesus to bypass God’s plan for establishing the Kingdom of God by worshipping Satan instead of God.

3. Satan tempted Jesus to test God by jumping off the top of the temple.

In each situation, Jesus refused to sin and instead quoted scripture to Satan. Satan then left Jesus alone, at least for a time.

How does this story relate to our lives? We all go through “desert” times in our lives when things get difficult. When we are going through hard times, Satan loves to tempt us to try to make things easier on ourselves through some sin. We must refuse to sin because though sin may give us a momentary sense of relief, it creates bigger problems down the road. Since Satan is crafty, it can sometimes be difficult to recognize his deceptive ways. Therefore, we must learn the Bible, which will help us understand God’s opinions on things and not be fooled by Satan. When we go through a time of testing and are victorious, then Satan will leave us alone for a while.

What does this story have to do with Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter? When we remember that Jesus was tempted, just like we are, but overcame those temptations, it helps us to find new strength to overcome our own temptations. When we give up something we like for a period of time, it helps us become more dependent on God, as well as builds up our will power, both of which are helpful in overcoming sin in our lives.

What does the ash have to do with it since Jesus did not use ash to resist Satan’s temptations? In ancient times ash symbolized people’s desire to turn away from sin and follow God. People often repented in sackcloth and ashes. Therefore, on Ash Wednesday those who want to make a commitment to focus on prayer for 40 days and give up something for the Lord for 40 days would have some ash put on their forehead in the sign of the cross. This was an outward physical sign of an inner spiritual decision the person was making. Traditionally, the ash came from palm branches that had been used the year before in Palm Sunday services. But since I did not have any of those on hand we asked the young people present to write one sin they struggled with on a piece of paper, which we then burned, creating ash to use on their foreheads as a symbol of repentance from sin and a willingness to sacrifice something for the Lord.

Though Ash Wednesday is not a part of my normal religious tradition as a Baptist, I was moved learning about it and it seemed to me that the young people who took part in this special emphasis were moved as well. Perhaps it is something more Christians should consider taking part in.


  1. Gary and Margaret RogersFebruary 23, 2012 at 9:21 PM


  2. Thanks Terry, very informative......

  3. If Father Manahan at St. Mary’s in Milford, MA had explained it this well, I may have remained a Catholic!!

  4. I like this too.

  5. Gary, Mom, Jeffrey, Bill and Deanna,
    Thanks for all the kind words. Glad you liked it.

  6. That was an awesome learning experience/activity for all involved!!