Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day of prayer and fasting. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and falls on the first day of Lent, the six weeks of penitence before Easter. Ash Wednesday is traditionally observed by Western Christians. It is observed by Catholics in the Roman Rite, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Independent Catholics, as well as by many from the Reformed faith (inclusive of the Congregationalist, Continental Reformed, Presbyterian traditions).
As it is the first day of Lent, many Christians begin Ash Wednesday by marking a Lenten calendar, praying a Lenten daily devotional, and making a Lenten sacrifice that they will not partake of until the arrival of Eastertide.
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 are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.
Fasting and abstinence
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat(which begins at age 14 according to canon law 1252), and repentance. 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 one full meal, along with two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations put forth 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.
A number of 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. One Lutheran congregation’s A Handbook for the Discipline of Lent recommends that the faithful “Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with only one simple meal during the day, usually without meat”.
In the Church of England, and throughout much of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, the entire forty days of Lent are designated days of fasting, while the Fridays are also designated as days of abstinence in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, a resource for Anglo-Catholics, defines “Fasting” as “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.
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 keeping the ashes on the forehead for the rest of the day as a public profession of the Christian 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
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 untraditionally 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. Where the traditional Gregorian Chants are still used, the psalm continues to enjoy a prominent place in the ceremony. In some areas Anglicanism resumed the rite of ashes around 1970.
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).
In Iceland, children “pin small bags of ashes on the back of some unsuspecting person”, dress up in costumes, and sing songs for candy.
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
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.
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 Rite 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.
Main article: Lent
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.
Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February) but it will do so for the first time in 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.)
Ash Wednesday is observed by Western Christianity. Roman Rite Roman Catholics observe it, along with certain Protestants like Lutherans, Anglicans, some Reformed churches, Baptists, Nazarenes, Methodists, Evangelicals, and Mennonites.The Moravian Church Wesleyan Church and Metropolitan Community Churches observe Ash Wednesday. Some Independent Catholics, and the Community of Christ also observe it.
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 a luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday in 1984 but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia