Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics.
According to the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (six days) during six weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (four days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days. Orthodox do this 40 days in a row.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Ashes are ceremonially placed on the heads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, either by being sprinkled over their heads or, in English-speaking countries, more often by being marked on their foreheads as a visible cross. The words (based on Genesis 3:19) used traditionally to accompany this gesture are:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula (based on Mark 1:15) was introduced and given first place:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
The old formula, based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, reminds worshippers of their sinfulness and mortality and thus, implicitly, of their need to repent in time. The newer formula makes explicit what was only implicit in the old.
Various manners of placing the ashes on worshippers’ heads are in use within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the two most common being to use the ashes to make a cross on the forehead and sprinkling the ashes over the crown of the head. Originally, the ashes were strewn over men’s heads, but, probably because women had their heads covered in church, were placed on the foreheads of women. In the Catholic Church the manner of imposing ashes depends largely on local custom, since no fixed rule has been laid down. Although the account of Ælfric of Eynsham shows that in about the year 1000 the ashes were “strewn” on the head, the marking of the forehead is the method that now prevails in English-speaking countries and is the only one envisaged in the Occasional Offices of the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, a publication described as “noticeably Anglo-Catholic in character”. In its ritual of “Blessing of Ashes”, this states that “the ashes are blessed at the beginning of the Eucharist; and after they have been blessed they are placed on the forehead of the clergy and people.” The Ash Wednesday ritual of the Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, contains “The Imposition of Ashes” in its Ash Wednesday liturgy. On Ash Wednesday, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, traditionally takes part in a penitential procession from the Church of Saint Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina, where, in accordance with the custom in Italy and many other countries, ashes are sprinkled on his head, not smudged on his forehead, and he places ashes on the heads of others in the same way.
The Anglican ritual, used in Papua New Guinea states that, after the blessing of the ashes, “the priest marks his own forehead and then the foreheads of the servers and congregation who come and kneel, or stand, where they normally receive the Blessed Sacrament.” The corresponding Catholic ritual in the Roman Missal for celebration within Mass merely states: “Then the Priest places ashes on the head of those present who come to him, and says to each one …” Pre-1970 editions had much more elaborate instructions about the order in which the participants were to receive the ashes, but again without any indication of the form of placing the ashes on the head. The 1969 revision of the Roman Rite inserted into the Mass the solemn ceremony of blessing ashes and placing them on heads, but also explicitly envisaged a similar solemn ceremony outside of Mass. The Book of Blessings contains a simple rite. While the solemn rite would normally be carried out within a church building, the simple rite could appropriately be used almost anywhere. While only a priest or deacon may bless the ashes, laypeople may do the placing of the ashes on a person’s head. Even in the solemn rite, lay men or women may assist the priest in distributing the ashes. In addition, laypeople take blessed ashes left over after the collective ceremony and place them on the head of the sick or of others who are unable to attend the blessing. (In 2014, Anglican Liverpool Cathedral likewise offered to impose ashes within the church without a solemn ceremony.)
In addition, those who attend such Catholic services, whether in a church or elsewhere, traditionally take blessed ashes home with them to place on the heads of other members of the family, and it is recommended to have envelopes available to facilitate this practice. At home the ashes are then placed with little or no ceremony.
Unlike its discipline regarding sacraments, the Catholic Church does not exclude from receiving sacramentals, such as the placing of ashes on the head, those who are not Catholics and perhaps not even baptized. Even those who have been excommunicated and are therefore forbidden to celebrate sacramentals are not forbidden to receive them. After describing the blessing, the rite of Blessing and Distribution of Ashes (within Mass) states: “Then the Priest places ashes on the heads of all those present who come to him.” The Catholic Church does not limit distribution of blessed ashes to within church buildings and has suggested the holding of celebrations in shopping centres, nursing homes, and factories. Such celebrations presume preparation of an appropriate area and include readings from Scripture (at least one) and prayers, and are somewhat shorter if the ashes are already blessed.
The Catholic Church and the Methodist Church say that the ashes should be those of palm branches blessed at the previous years Palm Sunday service, while a Church of England publication says they “may be made” from the burnt palm crosses of the previous year. These sources do not speak of adding anything to the ashes other than, for the Catholic liturgy, a sprinkling with holy water when blessing them. An Anglican website speaks of mixing the ashes with a small amount of holy water or olive oil as a fixative.
Where ashes are placed on the head by smudging the forehead with a sign of the cross, many Christians choose to keep the mark visible throughout the day. The churches have not imposed this as an obligatory rule, and the ashes may even be wiped off immediately after receiving them; but some Christian leaders, such as Lutheran pastor Richard P. Bucher and Catholic bishop Kieran Conry, recommend it as a public profession of faith. Rev. Morgan Guyton, a Methodist pastor and leader in the Red-Letter Christian movement, encourages Christians to wear their ashed cross throughout the day as an exercise of religious freedom.
Biblical significance of ashes
Ashes were used in ancient times to express grief. When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, “she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying” (2 Samuel 13:19). The gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults. In Job 42:3–6, Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes” (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
Examples of the practice among Jews are found in several other Books of the Bible, including Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Book of Esther 4:1, and Hebrews 9:13. Jesus is quoted as speaking of the practice in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13: “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes.”
Ash Wednesday marks the start of a 40-day period which is an allusion to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12–13, and Luke 4:1–13. While not specifically instituted in the Bible text, the 40-day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf.(Exo. 34:27–28) (Jews today follow a 40-day period of repenting in preparation for and during the High Holy Days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur.)
Fast and abstinence from meat
In the Latin Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance – a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Latin Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil. Where the Ambrosian Rite is observed, the day of fasting and abstinence is postponed to the first Friday in the Ambrosian Lent, nine days later.
Ash Wednesday fasting period beguins right after the End of Carnival
In the medieval period, the day before Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of confessing one’s sins and receiving absolution and instructions on the penances to be performed during Lent, the reason it was called Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was also the last day of the Carnival season, which continues until Saturday in areas where the Ambrosian Rite, with its later Lent, is observed. Dutch tradition holds the custom to eat salted herring on Ash Wednesday to conclude the carnival in the Netherlands.