6 questions to help you understand Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. We often notice that many religious events people do not understand. Amy and I both grew up not participating in Ash Wednesday services. Through our travels and time in different churches, we have learned that great beauty is found within this celebration and we wanted to shed some light into the beauty of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. 

Question: Why do people receive the ashes?

Answer: Following the example of the Nine vites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told: ”Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.

The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins -- just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days' penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.

Question: When is Ash Wednesday?

Answer: Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar, directly following Shrove (Fat) Tuesday. Occurring 46 days before Easter, it is a moveable feast that can fall as early as February 4 and as late as March 10. 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. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting or abstinence. Of the 46 days until Easter, six are Sundays. As the Christian designation of Sabbath, Sundays are not included in the fasting period and are instead "feast" days during Lent.

Question: Where does Ash Wednesday get it’s name? 

Answer: Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes (formally called The Imposition of Ashes) on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.

Question: What is the History of Ash Wednesday?

Answer: During the time of early Church Father Tertullian, ashes and sackcloths were used as severe penance due to grave sin. Ashes, mixed with sackcloths represented a gruesome image of penance and humiliation; a form of penitence associated with those who violated Canon Law in the early church. Since this time, the public imposition of ashes sometime 40 days prior to Easter has been observed in the Roman Catholic Church later revised by the widespread granting of plenary indulgences. Accordingly, the Anglican Church also maintained the same pious Lenten custom since its inception. In addition, the Anglican faithful subscribe to their own Lenten daily devotional while Lutheran Christians after the Reformation temporarily refrained from the practice, and later reinstated the imposition of ashes in the mid-20th century. After the ecumenical dialogues ushered by the Second Vatican Council, the practice has also become a standard practice in the Methodist Church. In addition to these liturgical denominations, some Anabaptist and Reformed churches, which abandoned the practice after the Reformation, now also observe this day, which has become widespread in much of Christendom. 

The Pope, as the Bishop of Rome traditionally makes a trip via the processional route between the Church of Saint Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina on this religious day. The Pontiff customarily does not receive marked ashes on his brow, rather have them sprinkled on his forehead as is a pious custom among Roman clerics and bishops.

Question: What do we do on Ash Wednesday?

Answer: Every church does things a little different. In the 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 the medieval period, Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of penitential confession occurring after fasting and the remittance of the tithe. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, 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. As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season. Dutch tradition holds the custom to eat salted herring on Ash Wednesday to conclude the carnival in the Netherlands.

Question: Is Ash Wednesday Biblical?

Answer: Ashes were used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found 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." (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: "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). Other examples are found in several other books of the Bible including, Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13, and Hebrews 9:13. Ezekiel 9 also speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people. All those without the mark are destroyed. It marks the start of a 43-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.[31] 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 Victorian England, theaters refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainments.