What is Ash Wednesday?

The 2004 Church of Ireland Prayer Book includes the following exhortation on Ash Wednesday: Many churches include in their liturgical observance the rite of imposition of ashes. The worshipper hears the words “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”. The theme of the day is penitential, including prayers of confession and reading of Psalm 51. 

Brother and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the Church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time the Church came to recognize that, by careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaim din the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

I invite you, therefore, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and my reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer Collect is one of the most beloved in the Anglican tradition, and in some places is said in Lent:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

(Adapted from Anglicans Observe Ash Wednesday")

"Ash Wednesday" by Malcom Guite

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.