The Church Traditions of Ash Wednesday and Lent

David Norczyk
5 min readFeb 13, 2024

The old hymn encourages us to take time to be holy. The temptation is always there for self-sufficiency and indulgence. Lovers of this world do not have the love of God the Father in them (1 Jn 2:15). Therefore, the writer of Hebrews assures us that those whom the Father loves He disciplines (Heb 12:4–11). In this way, the Christian walks humbly with his God (Mic 6:8).

Jesus Christ humbled Himself in leaving the glories of heaven (Phil 2:5–11). In His incarnation (Jn 1:14), Jesus also suffered, eventually succumbing to death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience as a human by suffering in many ways (Heb 5:8).

Remembering and joining in the sufferings of Christ is good for the soul (2 Cor 12:9; Col 1:24; 2:1; 2 Tim 2:10). In church history, church traditions have appeared at different points. Some ancient traditions remain with us, today. Further, some traditions are designed to remind penitent sinners of Christ’s sacrifices on our behalf and for our benefit. This includes both Ash Wednesday and the 40-day season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday begins the period leading up to Good Friday at the close of the passion or holy week on the Christian calendar. Holy week remembers the final days of Jesus’ life before He offered Himself to God as the better sacrifice to secure the new and eternal covenant (Heb 8:6; 9:15, 23; 12:24). During His week of passion (suffering) at Jerusalem, Jesus taught and prophesied many things, including His own trials and death.

Humans are made from dust and at the death of one’s body, he or she returns to the dust from which he came (Gen 2:17; 3:19). The ashes of palm branches, burned from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, are employed in the shape of a cross on the forehead of worshipers. Again, the symbolism is remembrance of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, especially on the day of crucifixion.

Ashes were a natural part of the workings of the tabernacle/temple (Num 19:1–10). Burnt offerings on the altar of sacrifice left ashes, of course, and these served as a reminder of death. The death of a substitute sacrifice was a constant reminder of sin and the cost of its consequences (Lev 16). Thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace was also mixed into the various emotions.

Added in A.D. 601, Ash Wednesday has been with Western Christianity ever since. Mostly Roman Catholic, but also some Protestant traditions maintain the practice of an Ash Wednesday Mass or Service of Worship. Those who hold to the regulative principle in service and worship do not include this tradition. The regulative principle restricts practices to that which is observed in the New Testament and the earliest Christian church during that era. Neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent are biblical, although the themes of burnt offerings (sacrifice), testing, fasting (self-denial), and repentance are evident in Holy Scripture

Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Good Friday (excluding Sundays in the count). In this, the Christian calendar is linked to the Hebrew calendar, especially to the date of the Passover. Passover and Good Friday carry the same themes. Passover was inaugurated in the Exodus of 1446 B.C. It is explained in Exodus 12 and again in Deuteronomy 16. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover type in the Old Testament (1 Cor 5:7).

In offering Himself as the better sacrifice in the new and better covenant, Jesus suffered in both life and death. He suffered temptation for 40 days in the Judean wilderness at the commencement of His earthly ministry (Mt 4; Lk 4). Lent extends for 40 days as a way of remembering Jesus’ self-denial. This is why Christians who practice Lent will give up some pleasure as a way to focus.

Collectively, the Lent-practicing community gives up meat on Fridays, hence, the popularity of the Friday fish fry during this period. Again, the purpose of self-denial is devotion to the One who loved us and gave Himself over to death for us (Gal 2:20). In part, sacrifice is an act of self-denial. Christian sacrifices are not meant to compete with or add to the finished and perfect work of our great high priest on the cross (Heb 4:14; Jn 19:30).

Jesus, the unblemished Lamb of God (Jn 1:29), offered Himself as the one-time perfect and permanent sacrifice for sins (Rom 6:10; Heb 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Pet 3:18). All the sins of all God’s elect from every place and age have been imputed to Jesus Christ (Is 53:5; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24) and have been atoned for by the blood of His cross (Col 1:20). There never was — nor will there ever be — another sacrifice acceptable to God that effectually and permanently reconciles us to God (Rom 5:9–10; 2 Cor 5:18–20).

Lent also leads us out of winter and into the season of new life (2 Cor 5:17). Spring-time and the resurrection from the dead simply go together (1 Cor 15). Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, the night in which Jesus’ was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane across the Kidron Brook from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Then comes Good Friday, the day we remember the darkest day in human history. On that day, Jesus’ final test and final work were successfully completed. The Son of Man finished the course of suffering set before Him. He endured the cross (Heb 12:2). His death and resurrection have given His people the pardon of sin and resurrection life (Jn 3:1–8; Eph 1:13; 1 Pet 1:3)…with more to come (Jn 5:28–29; 1 Cor 15).

On this Ash Wednesday, the commencement of another season of Lent, let us together, in unity, remember all that Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf and for our benefit. Dating back to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, Lent has a long history as a Christian tradition. The rhythms of the calendar year are built into the seasons of God’s design in creation (i.e. winter, spring, summer, autumn). Ash Wednesday and Lent are built into the traditional church calendar. They help Christians to contemplate and prepare for the coming holy week remembrances.

May God richly bless you during this season of remembrance and preparation. May the focus of this season be Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). May the meditations of your heart be filled with much thanksgiving as you humbly reflect on Jesus’ self-denial.

Finally, may God’s Spirit and His written Word sanctify you in the loving discipline of your heavenly Father (Jn 17:17; 1 Pet 1:2); and may you be all the more conformed to the image of God’s Son, in whom He has always been well-pleased (Rom 8:29).

David Norczyk

Spokane Valley, Washington

February 13, 2024

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David Norczyk

Some random theologian out West somewhere, Christian writer, preacher