What a weird thing it is to put ashes on your head. I can honestly say when I was an atheist I never understood the significance of ashes. At the same time, when I would ask someone who had ashes on their head why they did they would say something to the effect of, "It's to say I'm sorry or repentance." Even with that answer, I was still confused.
Moving forward some years, I became a follower of Jesus. In that time I learned many things. I still found some Christians with ashes on their head walking around once a year. So I decided enough was enough. I was going to do my research. So, for anyone who has had questions about Ash Wednesday, or wants to know more just out of curiosity I am offering my findings. Why? Because after I learned about Ash Wednesday, I have embarrassed the season as an intentional time to focus on my journey and relationship with Jesus.
Early Christians wrote about preparing for the celebration of Jesus' resurrection day aka Easter by having a few days of intentional self-examination and repentance, usually done by actions of fasting. Irenaus of Lyons who lived around 130 to 200 was one of the early Christians writing about this time of preparation. It wasn't until around the Council of Nicea that we have Christian's thinking about making a 40 day fast and therefore a season, a regular church event.
How the early church would celebrate the season of preparation was by abstaining from animal byproducts like meat, dairy, and fish. The dietary fasting reminds me of the fasting of Daniel that I believe is based on the diet of Adam and Eve. The diet that is meant to bring to mind Eden and the peace and abundance of God and all of creation. As time went on, there has been a relaxing in most traditions to have only fasting on certain days and even relaxing on what is fasted. Lent is not only celebrated by not eating a certain food, but should also include intensifying of prayer and spiritual exercises, go to church services more often, studying the scriptures, and limiting their entertainment and spending to focus on charity and service.
Why the 40 days? Thematically in the Bible, the number 40 comes with the identity of testing. Moses stayed in God's presence for 40 days without food or water, the people of God were tested in the wilderness for 40 years relying on limited food, Elijah fasted and prayed for 40 days before going up on the mountain with God, and finally, Jesus in his temptation fasted and prayed for 40 days. So many traditions have some with the number 40 before Easter. Sometimes fasting ends on Sundays because it is a celebration of the risen Lord.
Where do the ashes come from? Well in the Bible many times people show their grief or repentance by putting ashes on themselves. Ashes have become symbols that represent a person acknowledging of not walking in God's ways or God's love. The act of ashes is then a rededication if you will, of intent on being with God and following God's ways.
I hope this helps anyone reading. I hope that Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent become a help to you as it has for me. Lent should be a season of recentering and a renewed focus on our shared life with Christ. I believe all Christians can benefit from having a dedicated time of remembering and refocusing on Jesus. I believe Christians should spend time in prayer and fasting, scripture reading, repenting, and doing acts of charity and service. However, I recognize that life is busy and chaotic, that we are not always or constantly in "on fire" moments with God. So, Lent becomes a season and a symbol time to remind us of who we are, what we can be, and to strengthen our lives centered on Christ.
Sisters and Brothers, I hope this helps you and gives you life. My prayer for you is that God reminds you of the love you share and the life of love you are called to live.