Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the 6 Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christians, including Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.
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 (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
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 was introduced and given first place:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel. (Mark 1:15).
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.
An 1881 Polish painting of a priest sprinkling ashes on the heads of worshippers, the form prevailing in, for instance, Italy, Spain, and parts of Latin America.
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 speaks generically of “The Imposition of Ashes”, without specifying the manner of applying them, and says nothing of blessing them. 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.
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. (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.)
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.
Wikipedia contributors, “Ash Wednesday,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 17, 2015).
“Fałat Julian, Popielec” by Julian Fałat – http://www.agraart.pl/cgi-bin/obiekt.cgi?act=1&qt=1208148193&nr=578. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration” by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 080206-N-7869M-057 (next). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.