On the first day of Lent, we come before God recognizing our humanity and repenting of our sin.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. Lent ends at sundown on Holy Saturday, the evening before Easter.
Ashes are placed on the forehead, usually in the sign of a cross, in a ritual known as the Imposition of Ashes. The ash cross on the forehead is an outward sign of our sorrow and repentance for sins. The palms waved the previous Palm Sunday to welcome Jesus as our King, have been burned to form the ashes.
Ashes are an ancient symbol. In Genesis, we read that God formed human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). After expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first human beings are told by God, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). The Hebrew word translated dust, is occasionally translated ashes elsewhere. Throughout scripture, ashes are part of rituals when people seek forgiveness and mourn their sin (see Numbers 19:9, 17; Hebrews 9:13; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13, among others).
When we participate in the service of ashes, we confront our sin. We recognize our inability to live up to all God has created us to be, and our need to be forgiven. No matter how often we go to church, how far we have come in our spiritual journeys, how accomplished we may feel, each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
–excerpted from umc.org