What is the Purpose of Ash Wednesday?

For Ash Wednesday, our devotion comes from Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church, Second Edition.

Scripture Readings

Joel 2:12–19
Psalm 51:1–19
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21


Reader, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. As you receive ashes on your forehead today, you will also hear those words from your pastor. Though the ashes and these words will remind you of your sin and mortality, do not forget your Baptism, the day you were born anew in water and the Spirit, when all your sins were washed away.

Devotional Reading

Lutherans join liturgical Christians around the world to set aside the six weeks prior to Easter as a time for the preparations of Lent. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this season. For many Lutherans, the name of this day has been lost through negligence of an expressive practice. While the use of ashes is not a necessity for Ash Wednesday, it can provide several teaching moments. Ashes may be obtained by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday, then mixing the ash with a little olive oil before applying. A children’s message can explain the significance of ashes during biblical times. The ashes are not “blessed,” but a prayer spoken prior to the distribution of the ashes can recall the sign of the ashes as a symbol both of our repentance and of our mortality. Such symbolism accentuates our need for Jesus and for the forgiveness and life He freely provides. Lutheran Service Book recommends that “the imposition of ashes should be followed by the rite of Confession and Absolution,” so that the use of ashes is a kind of preparatory rite for the worshipers in anticipation of their confession of sins. . . .

Although the “wearing of the ashes” has a long tradition, members should not feel uncomfortable if they choose to wash off the ashes. Rather, the significance and blessings of one’s Baptism should be affirmed by the minister as it is underscored by such washing. The sense of cleansing and relief should be tied to Christ’s glorious cross and resurrection. To that end, the pastor’s explanation is crucial as an introduction to the rite:

Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day the Church begins a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection. Our attention is especially directed to the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.

Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of His beloved Son and in the power of His Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth. 

Devotional reading is adapted from Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church, Second Edition pages 294–95 © 2003, 2009 Timothy H. Maschke. Published by Concordia Publishing House.

Pastor’s explanation is from Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book page 483 © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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