Ash Wednesday – what questions should I ask?

Today is Ash Wednesday…what is it and should I participate?

This day of repentance, which for many in the Western church marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting before Easter following the example of our Lord who spent 40 days in the desert to fast and pray (Matthew 4:1-11).  It is also known as the “Day of Ashes,” so called because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.


In the Old Testament ashes were used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. Ancient examples of expressing one's penitence are found in Job 42:3-6, Numbers 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13 and Hebrews 9:13.

The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom. Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century.

For many Christians, the practices of Ash Wednesday and the 40 days following of Lent are the annual reminder of where our hearts should be in relation to God in deep appreciation of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross.

Dr. Barry Jones, Dallas Theological Seminary professor offers, “In Lent we are invited to stop playing and to take our faith seriously, to enter into a focused time of spiritual reflection and renewal, asking God to help us uncover the junk in our lives that chokes our souls, that weighs us down and trips us up.””

Not having grown up in a liturgical tradition, I have discovered that participating in this ancient practice of the church, Ash Wednesday and the 40 day season of Lent, offers me an opportunity. It gives me a time to listen, to question, to anticipate, to prepare, to purify by giving up something and to focus my heart by adding a spiritual practice.

It is a time to seriously reflect on the state of my spiritual life, to inventory the strategies of my flesh to protect myself, and to ask the hard question of myself – in what ways am I making my life work apart from God? Where are my soul blind spots? What have I neglected noticing in the midst of the busyness of fast lane living?

      Consider – practicing confession and soul examen each evening .

It is a time dedicated to seek God and detox from the impact of the daily bombardment on our souls and minds by: the 24/7 news feed, electronic images, myriad of catalogues and blog spots, incessant noise and demands of life in the technological hyper 21st century. A time to ask myself: why do I do what I do? What am I longing for? What does God want to say to me through the scriptures? What is He inviting me to do or be in considering how I am currently living my life? What to leave out, what to add?

   Consider – practicing silence -pausing for detox from all distractions for a portion of each day.

It is a time to seek God’s wisdom and discernment for my personal and shared global burdens. How do I relate to the increasing degradation of the view and holiness of marriage, the evil assault and martyrdom of Christians globally and the increasing threat of global terrorism? In what ways can I partner with God in His deep desire and love to redeem the nations and all that is within? What do I do with the burdens that seem too heavy to carry?

    Consider – seeking in prayer God’s heart for the world, for my family, for the families of the martyrs.

Be Still and Know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” Psalm 46:10  God is still in charge. He is still Present. He was present with the 21 Coptic Christians who were martyred by evil Isis. He is present with their families. He welcomed each one of them into His Presence when they breathed their last breath. He is present with you and with me. 

May you know His deep care of your soul as you begin this Lenten Season.

Lectionary Readings for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21; for more Lenten suggestions -
 see Dr. Sandra Glahn’s Engage post February 16, 2015 .

Gail Seidel served as Mentor Advisor for Spiritual Formation in the Department of Spiritual Formation and Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and as an Adjunct Professor in the D Min in Spiritual Formation in the D Min Department at Dallas Theological Seminary. She has a BA in English from the University of Texas, a Masters in Christian Education from Dallas Seminary and a D Min in Spiritual Formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is a contributor to the textbook, Foundations of Spiritual Formation, Kregel Academic. She served as co-director for Christian Women in Partnership Russia with Entrust, an international church leadership-training mission. She and her husband Andy live in Fredericksburg, Texas. They have 2 married children and 6 wonderful grandchildren--Kami, Kourtney, Katie, Mallory, Grayson, and Avery.