Well, in church traditions across the world, it basically means forty days until Easter!
Looking a bit deeper, Ash Wednesday is actually forty-six days before Easter, and marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Why 46 days, I hear you ask? Well, because during the period before Easter, the six Sundays are never considered as days to fast; instead they are days to celebrate the reality of the third-day resurrection of Jesus. So that leaves forty ‘other days’, which is period of Lent.
Lent is a period of forty days in church tradition (rather than a Biblical practice) which is meant to mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
(Mark 1:12–13 ESV)
Lent is a traditionally a period of fasting – giving up worldly comforts in reflection of Jesus doing the same when he went into the desert. Christians do any number of things. Some give up TV, some give up chocolate. Of course, many then make up for their chocolate-fast when Easter finally arrived. In fact, plenty of non-Christians use at as a motivation to begin dieting (again). When was at Bible College, one of my flatmates though it would be a good idea to give up the dustbin in the kitchen for Lent, and reduce waste. The result was a smelly pile of health-hazard on the verandah, which he claimed was a compost heap!
Whatever the practice, the principle is to spend time focussing more on God, and less on the things of this world, preparing our hearts for the celebration of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
You might want to use a devotional series something like The Journey to the Cross (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/files/2013/02/Journey-to-the-Cross.pdf) and use this time as a special personal preparation for Easter.
Preparing ourselves for meeting with God in special ways is something that has been sadly neglected in our generation. Whether it’s Easter, or just church on Sundays, we rarely spend time before the Lord in prayer, meditation and Bible reading, preparing our hearts for what we’re about to receive from the Lord. Instead, these events are reduced to an hour-long diary entry, and though we lock in the actual event, we crowd our time around it with all sorts of other things. The result is that our special times with the Lord and his people cross our field of vision for a tragically minimal time, like a car going past.
Consider the words of the Puritan pastor, George Swinnock:“Prepare to meet they God, O Christian! betake thyself to thy chamber on this Saturday night, confess and bewail thine unfaithfulness under the ordinances of God; shame and condemn thyself for thy sins, entreat God to prepare thy heart for, and assist it in, thy religious performances; spend some time in consideration of the infinite majesty, holiness, jealousy, and goodness, of that God, with whom thou art to have to do in sacred duties; ponder the weight and importance of his holy ordinances …; meditate on the shortness of the time thous hast to enjoy Sabbaths in; and continue musing … till the fire burneth; thou canst not think the good thou mayest gain by such forethoughts, how pleasant and profitable a Lord’s day would be to thee after such preparation. The oven of thine heart thus baked in, as it were, overnight, would be easily heated the next morning; the fire so well raked up when thou wentest to bed, would be the sooner kindled when thou shouldst rise. If thou wouldst thus leave thy heart with God on the Saturday night, thou shouldst find it with him in the Lord’s Day morning.”
Ash Wednesday is then, traditionally, a day to mark the beginning of Lent, and it begins appropriately with the confession of sin and repentance. This is reason many may have the symbol of the cross marked on their foreheads with ash on this day (the ash is sometimes made with the burned palm leaved of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter).
It simply calls to mind the message of John the Baptist, as he prepared the way for Jesus:
““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’””
(Matthew 3:2–3 ESV)
Maybe today you need to remind yourself that the Cross overshadows your whole life – it bought your salvation, offers you hope, and shapes your actions. Begin by confessing your sins to God, asking for forgiveness in the name of Jesus, and for the strength that his Spirit provides to live a cross-oriented life. And spend the next 6 weeks habitually meditating on the cross of Jesus, so that when Easter comes, you can really rejoice in what Christ has done.