Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day of prayer, fasting and repentance. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and falls on the first day of Lent, the six weeks of penitence before Easter. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Old Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and some Baptists.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants to either the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or the dictum "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes may be prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations.
Because it is the first day of Lent, many Christians, on Ash Wednesday, often begin marking a Lenten calendar, praying a Lenten daily devotional, and abstaining from a luxury that they will not partake in until Easter Sunday arrives.
Video Ash Wednesday
Fasting and abstinence
Many Christian denominations emphasize fasting, as well as abstinence during the season of Lent and in particular, on its first day, Ash Wednesday. The First Council of Nicæa spoke of Lent as a period of fasting for forty days, in preparation for Eastertide. In many places, Christians historically abstained from food for a whole day until the evening, and at sunset, Western Christians traditionally broke the Lenten fast, which is often known as the Black Fast. In India and Pakistan, many Christians continue this practice of fasting until sunset on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with some fasting in this manner throughout the whole season of Lent.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance - a day of contemplating one's transgressions. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman 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 until sunset. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Roman 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.
Many Lutheran parishes teach communicants to fast on Ash Wednesday, with some people choosing to continue doing so throughout the entire season of Lent, especially on Good Friday. A Handbook for the Discipline of Lent recommends the Lutheran guideline to "Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with only one simple meal during the day, usually without meat".
In the Anglican Communion, the entire forty days of Lent are designated days of fasting and abstinence in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with the Traditional Saint Augustine's Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Anglican Communion defining "Fasting, usually meaning not more than a light breakfast, one full meal, and one half meal, on the forty days of Lent." The same text defines abstinence as refraining from flesh meat on all Fridays of the Church Year, except for those during Christmastide.
The historic Methodist homilies regarding the Sermon on the Mount stress the importance of the Lenten fast, which begins on Ash Wednesday. The United Methodist Church therefore states that:
There is a strong biblical base for fasting, particularly during the 40 days of Lent leading to the celebration of Easter. Jesus, as part of his spiritual preparation, went into the wilderness and fasted 40 days and 40 nights, according to the Gospels.
Rev. Jacqui King, the minister of Nu Faith Community United Methodist Church in Houston explained the philosophy of fasting during Lent as "I'm not skipping a meal because in place of that meal I'm actually dining with God".
The Reformed Church in America describes Ash Wednesday as a day "focused on prayer, fasting, and repentance." The liturgy for Ash Wednesday thus contains the following "Invitation to Observe a Lenten Discipline" read by the presider:
We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and our need for the love and forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ. I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God's Holy Word.
Many of the Churches in the Reformed tradition retained the Lenten fast in its entirety, although it was made voluntary, rather than obligatory.
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, "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris." ("Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.") This custom is credited to Pope Gregory I the Great (c. 540-604). 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" and the older formula was translated as "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." 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 year's 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. 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.
Ashes to Go
Since 2007, some members of major Christian Churches, including Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists, have participated in the Ashes to Go program, in which clergy go outside of their churches to public places, such as downtowns, sidewalks and train stations, to distribute ashes to passersby, even to people waiting in their cars for a stoplight to change. The Anglican priest Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard took up the idea and turned it into a movement, stated that the practice was also an act of evangelism. Anglicans and Catholics in parts of the United Kingdom such as Sunderland, are offering Ashes to Go together: Marc Lyden-Smith, the priest of Saint Mary's Church, stated that the ecumenical effort is a "tremendous witness in our city, with Catholics and Anglicans working together to start the season of Lent, perhaps reminding those who have fallen away from the Church, or have never been before, that the Christian faith is alive and active in Sunderland." The Catholic Student Association of Kent State University, based at the University Parish Newman Center, offered ashes to university students who were going through the Student Center of that institution in 2012, and Douglas Clark of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro, among others, have participated in Ashes to Go. On Ash Wednesday 2017, Father Paddy Mooney, the priest of St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in the Irish town of Glenamaddy, set up an Ashes to Go station through which commuters could drive and receive ashes from their car; the parish church also had "drive-through prayers during Lent with people submitting requests into a box left in the church grounds without having to leave their car". Reverend Trey Hall, pastor of Urban Village United Methodist Church, stated that when his local church offered ashes in Chicago "nearly 300 people received ashes - including two people who were waiting in their car for a stoplight to change." In 2013, churches not only in the United States, but also at least one church each in the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa, participated in Ashes to Go. Outside of their church building, Saint Stephen Martyr Lutheran Church in Canton offered Ashes to Go for "believers whose schedules make it difficult to attend a traditional service" in 2016. In the United States itself 34 states and the District of Columbia had at least one church taking part. Most of these churches (parishes) were Episcopal, but there were also several Methodist churches, as well as Presbyterian and Catholic churches.
Robin Knowles Wallace states that the traditional Ash Wednesday church service includes Psalm 51 (the Miserere), prayers of confession and the sign of ashes. No single one of the traditional services contains all of these elements. The Anglican church's traditional Ash Wednesday service, titled A Commination, contains the first two elements, but not the third. On the other hand, the Catholic Church's traditional service has the blessing and distribution of ashes but, while prayers of confession and recitation of Psalm 51 (the first psalm at Lauds on all penitential days, including Ash Wednesday) are a part of its general traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy, they are not associated specifically with the rite of blessing the ashes. The rite of blessing has acquired an untraditional weak association with that particular psalm only since 1970, when it was inserted into the celebration of Mass, at which a few verses of Psalm 51 are used as a responsorial psalm. Coincidentally, it was only about the same time that in some areas Anglicanism resumed the rite of ashes.
In the mid-16th century, the first Book of Common Prayer removed the ceremony of the ashes from the liturgy of the Church of England and replaced it with what would later be called the Commination Office. In that 1549 edition, the rite was headed: "The First Day of Lent: Commonly Called Ash-Wednesday". The ashes ceremony was not forbidden, but was not included in the church's official liturgy. Its place was taken by reading biblical curses of God against sinners, to each of which the people were directed to respond with Amen. The text of the "Commination or Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgments against Sinners" begins: "In the primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend. Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners". In line with this, Joseph Hooper Maude wrote that the establishment of The Commination was due to a desire of the reformers "to restore the primitive practice of public penance in church". He further stated that "the sentences of the greater excommunication" within The Commination corresponded to those used in the ancient Church. The Anglican Church's Ash Wednesday liturgy, he wrote, also traditionally included the Miserere, which, along with "what follows" in the rest of the service (lesser Litany, Lord's Prayer, three prayers for pardon and final blessing), "was taken from the Sarum services for Ash Wednesday". From the Sarum Rite practice in England the service took Psalm 51 and some prayers that in the Sarum Missal accompanied the blessing and distribution of ashes. In the Sarum Rite, the Miserere psalm was one of the seven penitential psalms that were recited at the beginning of the ceremony. In the 20th century, the Episcopal Church introduced three prayers from the Sarum Rite and omitted the Commination Office from its liturgy.
Low church ceremonies
In some of the low church traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.
In Victorian era, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainment, as mandated by the Church of England (Anglican Church). Also, "in Iceland, on Ash Wednesday children pin small bags of ashes on the back of some unsuspecting person".
Maps Ash Wednesday
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."
Christian use of ashes
Christians continued the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance. Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 225) said that confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes. The historian Eusebius (c. 260/265 - 339/340) recounts how a repentant apostate covered himself with ashes when begging Pope Zephyrinus to readmit him to communion.
John W. Fenton writes that "by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast. In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as "Feria Quarta Cinerum" (i.e., Ash Wednesday)."
The public penance that grave sinners underwent before being admitted to Holy Communion just before Easter lasted throughout Lent, on the first day of which they were sprinkled with ashes and dressed in sackcloth. When, towards the end of the first millennium, the discipline of public penance was dropped, the beginning of Lent, seen as a general penitential season, was marked by sprinkling ashes on the heads of all. This practice is found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the late 8th century. About two centuries later, Ælfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot, wrote of the rite of strewing ashes on heads at the start of Lent.
The article on Ash Wednesday in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says that, after the Protestant Reformation, the ashes ceremony was not forbidden in the Church of England, a statement that may explain the research by Blair Meeks that the Anglican tradition "never lapsed in this observance". It was even prescribed under King Henry VIII in 1538 and under King Edward VI in 1550, but it fell out of use in many areas after 1600. In 1536, the Ten Articles issued by authority of Henry VIII commended "the observance of various rites and ceremonies as good and laudable, such as clerical vestments, sprinkling of holy water, bearing of candles on Candlemas-day, giving of ashes on Ash-Wednesday". After Henry's death in January 1547, Thomas Cranmer, within the same year, "procured an order from the Council to forbid the carrying of candles on Candlemas-day, and the use of ashes on Ash-Wednesday, and of palms on Palm-Sunday, as superstitious ceremonies", an order that was issued only for the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury, of which Cranmer was archbishop. The Church Cyclopædia states that the "English office had adapted the very old Salisbury service for Ash-Wednesday, prefacing it with an address and a recital of the curses of Mount Ebal, and then with an exhortation uses the older service very nearly as it stood." The new Commination Office had no blessing of ashes and therefore, in England as a whole, "soon after the Reformation, the use of ashes was discontinued as a 'vain show' and Ash Wednesday then became only a day of marked solemnity, with a memorial of its original character in a reading of the curses denounced against impenitent sinners". The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in the 19th century, observed Ash Wednesday: "as a day of fasting and humiliation, wherein we are publicly to confess our sins, meekly to implore God's mercy and forgiveness, and humbly to intercede for the continuance of his favour". In the 20th century, the Book of Common Prayer provided prayers for the imposition of ashes.
Monte Canfield and Blair Meeks state that after the Protestant Reformation, Anglicans and Lutherans kept the rite of blessing and distributing ashes to the faithful on Ash Wednesday, and that the Protestant denominations that did not keep it encouraged its use "during and after the ecumenical era that resulted in the Vatican II proclamations". Jack Kingsbury and Russell F. Anderson likewise state that the practice was continued among some Anglicans and Lutherans. On the other hand, Edward Traill Horn wrote: "The ceremony of the distribution of the ashes was not retained by the reformers, whether Lutheran, Anglican or Reformed", although these denominations honored Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. Frank Senn, a liturgical scholar, has been quoted as saying: "How and why the use of ashes fell out of Lutheran use is difficult to discern from the sources... [C]hurch orders don't specifically say not to use ashes; they simply stopped giving direction for blessing and distributing them and eventually the pastors just stopped doing it."
As part of the liturgical revival ushered in by the ecumenical movement, the practice was encouraged in Protestant churches, including the Methodist Church. It has also been adopted by Anabaptist and Reformed churches and some less liturgical denominations.
The Eastern Orthodox churches generally do not observe Ash Wednesday, although in recent times, the creation of the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate has led to the observance of Ash Wednesday among Western Orthodox parishes. In this tradition, ashes "may be distributed outside of the mass or any liturgical service" although "commonly the faithful receive their ashes immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass". In Orthodoxy, historically, "serious public sinners in the East also donned sackcloth, including those who made the Great Fast a major theme of their entire lives such as hermits and desert-dwellers." Byzantine Catholics, although in the United States use "the same Gregorian calendar as the Roman Catholic rite", do not practice the distribution of ashes as it is "not part of their ancient tradition".
In the Ambrosian Rite, ashes are blessed and placed on the heads of the faithful not on the day that elsewhere is called Ash Wednesday, but at the end of Mass on the following Sunday, which in that rite inaugurates Lent, with the fast traditionally beginning on Monday, the first weekday of the Ambrosian Lent.
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.)
Ash Wednesday is exactly 46 days before Easter Sunday, a moveable feast based on the cycles of the moon. The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1666, 1734, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year starting on a Sunday.)
These Christian Churches are among those that mark Ash Wednesday with a particular liturgy or service.
- African Methodist Episcopal Church
- African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
- Anglican Communion
- Church of England
- Church of North India
- Church of South India
- Episcopal Church (United States)
- Anglican Continuum
- Traditional Anglican Communion
- Anglican Catholic Church
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
- Some congregations of the Church of the Nazarene
- Community of Christ
- Ecclesia Gnostica
- Evangelical Covenant Church
- Independent Catholic denominations
- Liberal Catholic Church
- Old Catholic Church
- Lutheran Churches
- Church of Sweden
- Some Mennonite congregations
- Methodist Church in Great Britain
- Metropolitan Community Churches
- Moravian Church
- Reformed churches (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, etc.)
- Roman Catholic Church
- United Church of Christ Congregations
- United Methodist Church
- Wesleyan Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not, in general, observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously mentioned denominations, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.
National No Smoking Day
In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdom No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984 but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.
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