Ash Wednesday

Selah - Life in a Minor Key

Ash Wednesday, Year A

Ash Wednesday begins with a need for repentance and the call to walk with Christ.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season. It was authorized by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. According to Christian scholars, Ash Wednesday was not considered to be a biblical requirement, but the practice of repenting in dust and ashes accompanied by fasting can be found in Esther 4:1, Job 42:6, Jonah 3:5-6, and Daniel 9:3-4.

Ash Wednesday follows Shrove Tuesday[1] as a ritual symbol of contrition/confession/repentance from the wild and unruly activities of previous days. One of the primary biblical verses that informs the Christian observation of this Day of Ashes is taken from the Creation story:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7 NRSV).

Primary Symbols

The symbolic ashes are typically created from burnt palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. They are mixed with olive oil[2] to create a gritty paste to be placed on the foreheads or on the hands of the faithful in the shape of the cross. This gesture acts as a sign of confession, repentance, metanoia (turning back to God), through the practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.

How Do We Help Children Understand this Ritual Practice?

The visual of ashes on the foreheads or hands of children bears explanation. You are encouraged to take time for sharing the method and meanings for the symbol as well the symbolism. The prayers and stories found in Genesis 2:4-9, Genesis 3, Jonah 3:6-9 can serve as excellent examples of what it means to repent, to have a change of heart, to spend more intentional time with God for the forty-day Season of Lent.

Primary Themes: penitence, reflection, repentance, forgiveness, communal confession, silence, solemnity, contemplation, prayer (corporate and personal), forty-day fast, abstinence, temptation, life of Christ, penitence,

Liturgical Symbols: bowl of ashes, olive oil (Do not use water!), course fabric for altar coverings (minimal), posture of kneeling, praying hands

Colors: black, gray or purple

Litany of Penitence

Corporate Action: Depending on the architecture of the room, worshipers may come forward to kneel, kneel at their seats, or be seated with hands together.

LEADER: We kneel [come] before God as a sign of our humility and submission to God.

Corporate Action: The minister and people kneel or sit.

ALL: Most holy and merciful God, we confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we lack any righteousness of our own, that we kneel before you, unworthy of your love. We have often failed to be your people, by our own fault, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

LEADER: We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

PEOPLE: Have mercy on us, Lord.

LEADER: Too often, we have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.

PEOPLE: Have mercy on us, Lord.

LEADER: We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: our pride, our hypocrisy, and the impatience of our lives,

PEOPLE: We confess to you, Lord.

LEADER: Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,

PEOPLE: We confess to you, Lord.

LEADER: Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,

PEOPLE: We confess to you, Lord.

LEADER: Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,

PEOPLE: We confess to you, Lord.

LEADER: Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to bear witness to others the faith that is in us,

PEOPLE: We confess to you, Lord.

LEADER: Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done; for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,

PEOPLE: Accept our repentance, Lord.

LEADER: For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,

PEOPLE: Accept our repentance, Lord.

LEADER: For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,

PEOPLE: Accept our repentance, Lord.

LEADER: Restore us, O Lord, and let your anger depart from us.

PEOPLE: Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

LEADER: Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,

PEOPLE: That we may show forth your glory in the world.

LEADER: By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,

PEOPLE: Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Action: Minister, standing and facing the people:

LEADER: The Lord is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance [2 Peter 3:9]. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness [1 John 1:9]. God so loved this world and this people that God sent Christ to reconcile the world to [God’s] self. The good news for you this day is that God pardons those who truly repent and transforms those who trust in God for salvation with sincere hearts. In the name of Jesus, who is the Christ, I proclaim the forgiveness of sins to all who have drawn near to God in sincere confession. Know that you are reconciled, accepted, and loved. Let us pray:

ALL: O God, we implore you to so fill us with your Holy Spirit that those things we do on this day may please you and that the rest of our lives may be pure and holy, lived in the service of others, and that at the last, we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

LEADER: Rise, people of God! Action: The people stand.

Scattering to Minister/Benediction

LEADER: Go in peace, remembering that you are but dust and ashes and unworthy of being called the people of God. But also remember that you who were no people, God by His [God’s] love and grace has made a people, children of [God’s] own household. Let us go forth in humility to be Christ to the world.

PEOPLE: Thanks be to God!

The people depart in silence

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2016, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved

Change: A Prayer Poem for Ash Wednesday

Cover me with ashes,
the thick-smoke soot of the earth.
Make my breathing like the journey
from death into life — second by second,
prayer by prayer.

Cover me with a cloak — bring me low to the earth,
your justice whispering to me like the gleam of red rocks,
the colors dancing in the darkness.
Let me know the power of sage and cedar in my bones,
not that I may trap them there,
but bring them forth in words.

Cover me with darkness —
with the presence of my elders, their tears falling around me,
reminding me of why we are here —
sighing, groaning with our singing, longing to hear us into being,
stretching us beyond breathing and praying and weeping.

Cover me with mercy —
let the bones you have crushed rejoice,
like the woman who channeled every ounce of courage and dignity
to touch your cloak and find new life.
Breathe unto me life anew,

of possibility,
of beauty,
of balance,
of grace.

Cover me with mud —
bring me to my lowest state, so that in my weaknesses
I see your strength —
the reflection of your eyes in the brokenness around me,
the fullness of your love in the depths of our hearts.

Cover me with ashes —
the ashes of my grandmother,
who in living her days knew no strangers,
worked tirelessly with worn hands
and lifted grandchildren high into the air.

Cover me with mercy —
let my cheek come to rest on the cold earth,
its faithful presence a call to walk humbly
beyond myself
beyond my fears
and ever on to the red road that leads to your love.

x̣áýəs — Changer
Cover me.
Cover me with ashes.
Change me.

Adrienne Trevathan is the Director of Christian Education at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston, IL. As a Native American (Port Gamble S'Klallam) and United Methodist, Adrienne is currently looking for new ways to weave these traditions together as a part of her teaching and work in the church.

Other Resources

“A Service of Worship for Ash Wednesday” Copyright © 1979, 1986 by Abingdon Press.

“Invitation to the Observance of the Lenten Discipline,” “Thanksgiving over the Ashes,” and “Pardon” from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church, 1979), 264-269. Public Domain.

[1] The word shrove is a derivative of shrive meaning confession of sins or self-reflection. Shrove Tuesday is also referred to as Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday”. It a pre-Lenten custom involving raucous parties, parades, masked balls, lavish food, rich sweets, and so on.

[2] Adding water to ash, as suggested in the original version, can create a caustic mixture that may seriously burn the skin.

In This Series...

First Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes