What is Ash Wednesday?
In the Christian religion, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day period (not including Sundays) of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter, the Christian holiday that commemorates and celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sometimes observances include participants receiving an ash cross marked on their foreheads.
Up until the 7th century, Lent began on the Sunday (Quadragestima Sunday) six weeks prior to Easter, but the four extra days were eventually added to parallel the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness by Jesus Christ.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Originally, the first day of Lent was the day on which public penitents at Rome began their penance. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and required to remain apart from the community until Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). As this practice fell into disuse between the 8th and 10th centuries, it was replaced by the general penance of the entire congregation.
From at least as early as the 8th century, this day was known as dies cinerum (day of ashes). This reflects the central ritual of this holiday, the placing of ashes on the forehead to symbolize mourning and penitence.
This ritual continues in the Roman Catholic Church today. Anglican, Lutheran and some other Protestant churches also hold a special worship service on Ash Wednesday, but do not usually include the ritual of ashes on the forehead. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Lent begins on a Monday known as "Clean Monday."
Ash Wednesday Rituals and Observances
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are usually derived from burning the blessed palm branches left from the last Palm Sunday celebration. The ashes are blessed, sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense.
Members of the clergy receive ashes from fellow clergy, usually from the most senior member of the clergy present. Monks receive their mark of ashes on their tonsure rather than their foreheads. Priests then place ashes on all willing members of the congregation, usually in the shape of a cross.
At some churches, believers wash the ashes off before leaving the church to symbolize that they have been cleansed of their sins; in other churches, participants leave the ashes on when they leave, thereby "carrying the cross out into the world." In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only days on which fasting is still universally required.
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- "Ash Wednesday." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford UP, 1997), p. 114.
- "Ash Wednesday." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. I (1907). 10 Jan. 2005 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01775b.htm>
- "Ash Wednesday." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
10 Jan. 2005 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9009803>.
- Belief & Practice: Fasting - PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, February 12, 1999.