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Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It may be a day that you faithfully observe every year, or maybe it’s a day you’re only familiar with because it comes pre-printed in your calendar. Many churches hold Ash Wednesday worship services, which are often solemn and involve the imposition—or spreading—of ashes on participants’ foreheads. Here’s a little bit about the meaning of Ash Wednesday and some Ash Wednesday service ideas, including orders of worship with optional prayers, Scripture passages, and suggested hymns and songs.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Easter. This first day of Lent and the following liturgical season are marked with a somberness as Christians reflect on their mortality, their sinfulness, and the dying of self that comes with new life in Christ.

While there is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, the Old Testament records acts of repentance or mourning accompanied by symbolic ash and sackcloth. Recall stories of David, Esther, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.

Why do we put ashes on our foreheads?

Ashes are a biblical reminder of our mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The spreading of ashes on foreheads is a visible reminder of this. The ashes also represent sorrow and repentance for sin.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that two things are involved in genuine repentance: “the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer #88). The way to Easter is the way of the cross. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). New life with Christ involves a daily surrendering of the old life. Ash Wednesday, the first step of this Lenten journey, invites us to acknowledge our mortality and our sinfulness by the imposition of ashes.

How to observe the imposition of the ashes in your worship service

Traditionally, the ashes for the service are prepared (well ahead of time) by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance. The ashes should be ground to a fine powder and mixed in a shallow bowl with a little water or oil. Churches can also purchase palm ash from a number of vendors. It is also helpful to have a damp towel available for the hands of those who impose ashes.

As each worshiper comes forward, the ashes are imposed on the forehead in the sign of a cross and the words of Genesis 3:19 are repeated: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of ashes is often preceded by a call to confession and followed by a litany of penitence or a corporate prayer of confession, calling to mind the words of Job: “I repent in dust and ashes.”

Imposition of ashes can be a deeply moving, though sobering experience. If imposition of ashes is likely to be new and unfamiliar to people in your congregation, care should be taken in introducing the practice and in preparing the congregation for their participation. There should be adequate explanation and ample opportunity for discussion and decision by the worship committee and consistory. If the consistory decides to include imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service, no worshiper should feel required to come forward to receive ashes, nor should the practice be seen as a way of displaying one’s piety before others. It is simply a vivid and tangible reminder of our sinfulness, our mortality, and our utter dependence upon the grace of God and the power of Christ’s resurrection.

Additional Ash Wednesday Worship Service Ideas

Call to worship, prayer, and song suggestions and a sample order of worship for Ash Wednesday.

Call to Worship

Two ideas for opening worship during an Ash Wednesday service. The congregation’s parts of the call to worship are in bold.

Adapted from Joel 2

Blow the trumpet in Zion and let the people tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming. The God of glory is near.
Never has there been such darkness and never have we imagined such glory.
The ruler of all ages will triumph with greatness and power.
This is our Lord who is above all others.

The earth quakes and the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened; the stars no longer shine.
The Lord utters his voice and all hosts are commanded.
Truly, the day of the Lord is great. Who can endure it?
Hallelujah! Only God can endure it!

—Katherine Lee Baker, M.Div.

Based on John 3:16–17

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17)

O God the Father, creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy on us.
O God the Son, redeemer of the world
Have mercy on us.
O God the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide,
Have mercy on us.
Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity,
three persons and one God,
Have mercy on us.

John Paarlberg

Imposition of Ashes Prayer

These suggested prayers are a way to enter into the imposition of ashes.

Option #1

Almighty God,
you have created us out of the dust of the earth.
May these ashes be a sign of our mortality and penitence.
and a reminder that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior.

John Paarlberg

Option #2

Gracious God,
you created us out of the dust of the earth
and breathed into us the breath of life.
By your hand we live and to your hands we return when all our days are done.
Grant that the awareness of our mortality may lead us not to fear, but to faith.
In our weakness teach us to look to you for strength,
in our failures to turn to you and find forgiveness,
and in our dying to await the gift of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Paarlberg

Prayer of Confession

Through the prayer of confession, we acknowledge our sin and need for God’s mercy. While this is an important thing for us to do all year, it is of particular significance on Ash Wednesday. Here are two suggested prayers of confession.

Option #1

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You are compassionate beyond comparison, loving beyond imagination, and faithful beyond our betrayal.

Just as the psalmist declares, “our sin is ever before us.” We, too, admit our transgressions: We have become stained with wrongdoing, sacrificing the goodness of your love for the demise of this world. We have abandoned your law, caring less for your creation and more for our own ambition.

Wash us clean, God of mercies, and deliver us from bloodshed. Help us to hear your voice calling us back, remind us of your love bringing us home, and renew our spirits that we might believe the covenant again.

For the sake of Jesus Christ, we pray in our hearts,

Amen.

—Katherine Lee Baker, M.Div.

Option #2

Have mercy upon us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies, blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sin. For we know our transgressions, and our sin is ever before us. Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John Paarlberg

Prayer for Illumination

A prayer of illumination that would fit well for an Ash Wednesday service.

We Reflect upon Our Lot

Our hearts burst for Jesus Christ;
Our thirst cries out in awe.
The one who has broken bread for us
Was broken without flaw.

And blood was poured to quench our lives
Never as we had thought
But salvation came and taught us love.
We reflect upon our lot.

—Katherine Lee Baker, M.Div.

Hymn and Song Suggestions

Before the Throne of God Above”

Be Thou My Vision”

Bless the Lord, My Soul” (Taize)

Change My Heart, O God”

Have Mercy on Us, Living Lord”

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

Piedad” (“Have Mercy, Lord on Me”)

Psalm 51”

Sample Ash Wednesday Service Order of Worship

Adapted from an order written by John Paarlberg

Call to Worship

Hymn

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture

Sermon

Prayer for the Imposition of Ashes

Imposition of Ashes

Responsive Reading:  Psalm 103

Closing Prayer

Hymn

Charge and Blessing