All About Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday Definition and Summary
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, when ashes are placed on top of the head (or the forehead) of Christians. It's a fast day, and usually falls in February. Find the date for Ash Wednesday this year.
Prayers: Ash Wednesday Prayers
Basic Facts About Ash Wednesday
Liturgical Color(s): Violet (Purple)
Type of Holiday: Fast day
Time of Year: The first day of Lent
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Repentance, Sorrow, Humility
Alternate Names: dies cinerum (Day of Ashes)
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the Church season of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed, mixed with either holy oil or water, and placed upon the head with the sign of the cross or, in many locations, sprinkled on the forehead. The ashes are made from burnt palm branches that were blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday.
When the priest or layperson places the ashes they say either "Remember man you are dust, and to dust you will return" (see Genesis 3:19), or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).
The ashes serve a dual purpose: they remind us of our mortality as we begin the Lenten fast, and the ashes are also a Biblical symbol of repentance, sorrow, and humility.
There are many examples in the Bible of wearing ashes as a sign of penitence, often while wearing sackcloth. In 2 Samuel 13:19, Tamar puts on ashes and tears her clothes as a sign of sadness and repentance. In Esther 4:1-3, after learning of the king's decree to kill all Jews, Mordecai tears his garments and puts on sackcloth and ashes. His fellow Jews do the same, in addition to fasting. The prophet Jeremiah urges his readers to "gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes" (Jeremiah 6:26).
Fasting is a major component of Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday is an official fast day of the Church, along with Good Friday. For official Catholic fast Guidelines, see FAQ Question #3 below. Fasting has a long history in the Church. In Acts 13:1-3, it was while "worshipping the Lord and fasting" that the Holy Spirit led the Apostles to set apart Paul and Barnabas for their work. In Matthew 9:14-15, Jesus assumes that after He leaves the Earth His followers will fast. The history of the Church is filled with stories of fasting and its spiritual value. However, Jesus warns us not to be obvious about our fasting, or to fast only to impress others. Thus, Ash Wednesday is based on the biblical concept of repentance, and the ashes and fasting that are associated with repentance.
Ash Wednesday is not a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and developed only in the West. Orthodox Churches begin Lent on a Monday, known as "Clean Monday." Ash Wednesday as an official fast day dates to at least the eighth century, since it appears in the Gregorian Sacramentary from that period. Originally, Lent began on a Sunday. However, in order to bring the number of days of Lent to 40 (the days Jesus fasted in the wilderness), the beginning of Lent was eventually transferred to a Wednesday.
Originally, Ash Wednesday was the day when public penitents in Rome began their penance. Recall that in the early Church, penance was often public and lasted a long time. It was only later in history that private confession and penance began. When public penance gradually fell into disuse by the eight century, Ash Wednesday became a day of penitence and fasting for all members of the Church. Today, Ash Wednesday is a universal fast day in the Catholic Church. Many Western Protestant churches also observe Ash Wednesday, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Methodists.
Worship And Prayer Resources
Traditions and Symbols
Traditions: Fasting, almsgiving, scripture reading, prayer, imposition of ashes
Symbols: Crucifix and cross, ashes, the color violet
Frequently Asked Questions
2. What are the Western Catholic Lenten fasting and abstinence guidelines? The minimum the Catholic Church expects is fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on the Fridays of Lent. Fasting means eating only one full meatless meal. However, one may still eat two small, meatless meals in addition to a full meal if the two additional small meals do not add up to a second full meal. Snacking is not allowed. Drinking coffee, tea, juices, etc. between meals is permitted on fast days.
Abstinence requires abstaining from meat for the entire day. Meat is defined as the "flesh meat of warm-blooded animals." This is the reason why Catholics often eat fish on Fridays, but anything meatless works. The requirements are slightly different for those of certain ages. Fasting is only required of those from ages 18-59, and abstinence is required of all people 14 and older, although parents are expected to teach their children the reasons behind their fasting, etc. Those with health conditions are excluded. Note that some Western bishop conferences may have different fasting and abstinence requirements, so it is wise to check with your local parish for local fast and abstinence expectations. Also, Eastern Catholic Rites have different fasting guidelines. These are simply the minimum expectations. Additional forms of self-denial, within reason, can also be spiritually beneficial.
4. Didn't Jesus advise against letting others know you are fasting? Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being hypocritical in their fasting. They would look distressed and often wear makeup to make themselves look more pale and sickly, to show that they were fasting. All of this made them seem more "spiritual" to those around them, even though their hearts were impure. They were fasting out of pride. Jesus tells us to fast in a way that is not obvious. The imposed ashes given during the Ash Wednesday are a liturgical symbol of repentance, not an advertisement that one is fasting. Many people wipe off their ashes after receiving them, if they are even very visible to begin with. If you are prideful about your ashes and are using them to show off your "spirituality" to others, wipe them off. Others keep the ashes on, and do so because the ashes are a witness to others of the importance of repentance, not because they are trying to impress anybody. In today's society, wearing ashes is more of a novelty and conversation-starter, not a chance to show off spiritually. In many countries, ashes are sprinkled on the forehead, and not visible anyway. However, we must still remember Jesus' words: [fast] so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:18 NRSVCE). Ultimately, only you can know your intention and mindset around fasting, and only you can judge why you are doing so. Don't worry about others "policing" you – just worry about observing Ash Wednesday, and other penitential days and actions, in ways that help you grow closer to God.
5. Why have I never heard of Ash Wednesday? For some reason many churches, even though they celebrate Christmas and Easter, ignore Lent entirely, which includes Ash Wednesday. Why? Well, some churches believe that Lent places too much emphasis on sin, guilt, and wrongdoing and would prefer to do away with what they consider to be such outdated talk. Churches that have been influenced by the Radical Reformation, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and "Non-Denominational" churches, have never observed Lent, probably because it is a "tradition" of the Church. However, the idea of Lent, emulating our Lord's 40 days in the wilderness, is certainly a Bible-based tradition. Another possible reason (which is tied to the first two reasons) is that Lent is difficult, and requires that we examine material and spiritual excesses in our lives. It is contrary to our culture's idea that everything (including one's faith) must be happy, easy, and have mass popular appeal. Of course, such ideas are secular modern and postmodern ideals, not based on the Bible, Jesus, or Christian history. The reality is that Jesus' life was full of poverty, simplicity, and sacrifice, ideals we strive for our entire lives, but focus on during Lent.
6. What Are The Names of the 3 Days Before Ash Wednesday? These three days, beginning with the Sunday before Ash Wednesday are collectively known as "Shrovetide." The Sunday before Ash Wednesday has been called Hall Sunday, meaning hallowed or holy Sunday, and Carling Sunday from the European custom of eating parched peas fried in butter (carlings) on this day. The Monday before Ash Wednesday has been called Hall Monday, Callop Monday, named for a food eaten that day, and Blue Monday, named because on this Monday the penitence of Lent is approaching, thus causing some to have feelings of depression, symbolized by the color blue. However, others have called the day Merry Monday, because for some, it is a day to party before Lent. Tuesday has been called Hall Night, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, and Mardi Gras.
This page written by David Bennett.
Updated 04-06-2023 by Elizabeth Craig