Wednesday, February 17

Ash Wednesday: Significance and History


Ash Wednesday History
‘Remember O’ man you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3.19)

This Biblical quotation adequately captures the essence of Ash Wednesday, also known as dies cinerum, the Day of Ashes. Ash Wednesday falls on the first day of Lent, on a Wednesday, after Quinquagesima Sunday. The season of Lent is a forty day period of abstinence and fasting which culminates in the feast of Easter.

The Ritual of Ash Wednesday
On this Ash Wednesday, a Mass or services of worship are held, wherein the faithful approach the altar to receive the application of the ashes. The officiating priest applies the ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead or on the tonsure of the clergy, while reciting the litany ‘for dust you are and dust you shall return’. The applying of the ashes reminds the believers of their inherent mortality and transgressions and that repentance is essential to become one with God.



The cross symbolizes the Crucification of Christ, and through him salvation is possible. The ashes are obtained by burning the palms, blessed on the Palm Sunday of the preceding year. In the blessing of the ashes, four ancient prayers are invoked. The ashes are then sprinkled with holy water and sometimes smoked with incense. The penitents allow the ashes to remain till evening before washing it off.

On Ash Wednesday the penitent fast from food and meat, as fasting increases the resolve of a person to abstain from sin.

The imposition of the ashes is hypocritical if there is no corresponding change in behavior to renounce sin and repent. The applying of the ashes, fasting and penance must also be accompanied by gestures of peace and solidarity with the poor and suffering and a resolve to refrain from sinning. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of repentance, penance and a spiritual flowering of the spirit with the aid of absolution and confession.

Historical Significance of Ash Wednesday
The ancient texts and spiritual books speak of the rubbing of ashes as a mark of penitence. The earliest mention of Ash Wednesday can be traced to the eighth century and in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. One of the most scholarly mentions of Ash Wednesday is found in the Lives of Saints, the work of the cleric Aelfric (955-1020). He mentions that in the books of the old Law and the New Law the penitents sprinkled ash on their heads and wore sackcloth. He continues that, on the first day of Lent, let us repent by strewing ash on our heads to signify inner repentance. He goes on to mention that a man who refused the ashes was mysteriously killed a few days later in a boar hunt.
In the Old Testament, in the book of Job, who confesses to God that he despises himself and would repent in dust and ashes.

Daniel prayed with fasting and ashes (Daniel 9.3) When Jonah predicted the Judgment of God against Nineveh, the pagan King and his subjects fasted as penance and the King wore sackcloth and sat in ashes. (Jonah 3.5-10)

The Jews and Mordecai tore their clothes and wore sackcloth and smeared ashes when King Ahasnorus ordered all Jews to be put to death. (Esther 4.1-3)
Jeremiah and Ezekiel mourned with ashes (Jer 6.26 & Ez 27.30). Jesus berated Korozain and Bethsaida saying that had these miracles been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented with sackcloth and ashes. (Luke10.13 & Matthews 11.21).

Ash Wednesday – Present

How did this practice become such an important part of the lives of so many believers? Who came up with the idea for this rather odd ritual? How do we explain the popularity of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces? Those who do not share our customs often make a point of telling us that we have something on our foreheads, assuming we would want to wash it off, but many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day.

The 40 day period of Lent signifies the wandering of Christ, and present day Ash Wednesday is celebrated as a day of repentance and penance, humility and a return to the humble life of Christ.
Due to its emphasis on repentance, penance and sins, it is an effective deterrent to some who do not believe that faith can be trying. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not observe Ash Wednesday. The Western Christian Churches like the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Anglican/Episcopal Church, The Church of God, Church of Nazarene, and the Lutheran Church all celebrate Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday Dates

Since Lent culminates in Easter, and the feast of Easter depends on the lunar calendar which is not fixed, Easter is termed as a moveable feast. Ash Wednesday is also hence not a fixed day celebration; it traverses from as early as 4th February to as late as 10th March. This year, 2010 it falls on the 17th of February, and in 2011 it falls on 9th March. Ash Wednesday though never occurs on a leap year day, i.e. 29th February.




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