Quick Facts and Stats
- Summary: Christian Festival marking the beginning of Lent, a period of penitence leading to Easter.
- 2020 Date: February 26th
- Celebrated by: Christians, especially Western Christians.
- Linked Holidays: Easter, Lent, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Palm Sunday, Ramadan
Background and Theological Significance
One of the most enduring symbolic practices of Ash Wednesday is the sign of the cross marked in dust on the forehead. Exploring the meaning behind this symbol gives a good impression of the theological significance of this day to the people who mark it.
The Ashes are made from the palm crosses used during the previous year’s palm sunday. Palm Sunday is a day of celebration, it commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he was welcomed by an adoring crowd that threw palm leaves ahead of him and the donkey he was riding. By burning these palm crosses to make the ash, Ash Wednesday makes explicit an undertone of despair that is present in the Palm Sunday celebrations, Jesus was being welcomed to his death; five days after arriving in Jerusalem, the same crowd that was cheering him were calling for his execution.
Such a reworking of symbols is a powerful and humbling reminder to Christians of how fickle we can truly be. With the ashes often come the words from Genesis 3:19: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a day to honestly face our flaws and sins with humility and acceptance in preparation for a period of self-denial, sharing in the grief, suffering, and death of Jesus.
It was accepted as a day of obligation by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Since then it has been marked by a Mass, and appropriate liturgy. The tradition of marking people’s foreheads with ashes is thought to date back to Pope Gregory around the year 600. Pope Gregory also gave the Church what are the currently used dates for Ash Wednesday and Lent.
When the Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church, it developed different liturgies over time. By the thirteenth century, the Byzantine Rite was celebrating Clean Monday instead. In the Western Church, including Western Rite Orthodox Christians, the celebration of Ash Wednesday survived the Reformation and continues in all mainline churches.
The main focus of the day is the service held in church where communion bread and wine would be given. As part of the ceremony church leaders usually give the attendants the sign of the cross in ash on the forehead. A recent trend in the US and UK has seen priests from multiple denominations taking to the streets to offer pedestrians the sign of the cross in ash as well. The movement is known as ‘Ashes to Go’. After receiving the ashes as the sign of the cross on the forehead, many choose to leave it on as a public sign of penitence for the rest of the day.
Ash Wednesday, as the start of Lent, is not a day for celebration or feasting and drinking. It is a day for meditation and prayer, starting a season of fasting, of self denial. Many people who mark the day take the time to focus on their own sins, things they have done wrong, and think of something to give up instead of the traditional fasting. Ash Wednesday is a festival that focuses on exactly this, the humbling recognition of our frailties and faults, so that we can be prepared for something in our lives that can help us to overcome them.