Ash Wednesday (Lent Begins)
For Christians, Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent on the church calendar–a 40-day period of reflection, fasting, and repentance. It prepares the Christian faithful for the Easter Sunday celebration of Christ’s resurrection and underscores the belief that they will also rise one day because He is their Savior and they have been redeemed.
Significance of Ash Wednesday
Christians follow the example of the Ninevites and others in the Old Testament, who did penance for their sins by wearing sackcloth and ashes. On Ash Wednesday, their foreheads are marked with ashes in the form of a cross as a reminder that our life here on earth is transitory, and to help them develop a true spirit of sacrifice and humility in their daily lives. In the Catholic church, as the ashes are imposed, the priest says either, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel,” or “remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” This reminds the congregation of their humanity and mortality as Lent begins, and the ashes are an ancient symbol of humility, sorrow and repentance in man’s relationship with God.
Significance of Ashes
Made by burning palms that were blessed and used to celebrate Palm Sunday in the previous year, the ashes are scented by being exposed to incense and mixed with holy water (and sometimes olive oil) as well to form a paste. While they are a universal symbol of penance and contrition, the ashes also remind the faithful that God is always merciful and gracious to anyone who calls on Him with a sincere heart. Even in the 21st century, they still respond with reflection, penance, and prayer.
History of Ash Wednesday
In ages past, any Christian who had committed a serious sin was expected to perform public penance. On Ash Wednesday in Rome, the hair shirts they would wear during Lent as an act of repentance would be blessed by the bishop, and ashes made from palms were sprinkled on them. Then, as the congregation recited appropriate psalms, those wearing the penitential garb were expelled from the church, just as the first man, Adam, was driven from the Garden of Eden because he disobeyed God’s command.
On Maundy Thursday, also known as Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper and precedes Good Friday, the penitents returned to church, after winning reconciliation through forty days of penance and confessing their sins. (At the time, penance was often both protracted and public, and private confession was introduced later on for pastoral reasons.) After that, the congregation received ashes out of devotion and joined in a penitential procession.
Ash Wednesday and Penance
As a prescribed fast day in the Catholic church, Ash Wednesday dates back to about the 8th century. Lent originally began on a Sunday, but with the objective of having the days that comprise Lent total 40 (the number of days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness), Ash Wednesday became a new marker for the beginning of the Lenten season. It is also observed by many Protestant churches, including Anglicans (Episcopalians), Presbyterians, United Methodists, and Lutherans.
Other Ash Wednesday Traditions
In the liturgy of certain Christian churches, various practices are often substituted for (or added to) the tradition of imposing ashes as Lent begins that symbolize the day’s theme and place the emphasis on our need for penitence and sorrow for sin. In this case, the congregation will be given small cards, and they are invited to write a sin they have committed on them as a sign of their sorrow. Then, the cards are collected and place on the altar to be burned.