Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday


A cross of ashes on a worshipper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday
Observed by Many Western Christians
Type Christian[1]

Service of worship or Mass

Marking of an ash cross on the forehead

Date Wednesday in seventh week before Easter
2013 date February 13
2014 date March 5
2015 date February 18
2016 date February 10
Frequency annual
Related to

Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras



Liturgical year

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar, directly following Shrove Tuesday.[2] 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 spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan.[3][4] 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 sabbath, Sundays are not included in the fasting period and are instead “feast” days during Lent.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing 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.[5]

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday has been historically observed by Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran Christians.[6][7][8] It has also become a standard practice in the Methodist Church.[9][10] In addition to these liturgical denominations,[11] some Anabaptist and Reformed churches, which abandoned the practice after the Reformation, now also observe this day,[6][12] which has become popular in much of Christianity in general.[11]


At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the sign of the cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one or both of the following when applying the ashes:

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

Repent, and believe the Gospel.

A priest marks a cross of ashes on a worshipper's forehead.

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday

A priest sprinkles ashes on the heads of worhsippers.

Ashes may also be sprinkled on the top of the head, as shown in this 1881 Polish painting.

One tradition is to keep palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to be burned to produce the ashes.[13]

The liturgical imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sacramental, not a sacrament, and in the Catholic understanding of the term the ashes themselves are also a sacramental. The ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water. In some churches, they are mixed with a small amount of water[14] or olive oil,[15] which serve as a fixative. In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 (LXX Psalm 50) is especially associated with this day.[16] The service also often includes a corporate confession rite.

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.[17]

In the Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to anyone who wishes to receive them,[18][19] as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity.[20][21] Similarly, in other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.[22]

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.[23] Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent,[citation needed] as was the Church’s traditional requirement,[24] concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

Upon exiting the church, Lutheran pastor Richard P. Bucher and Catholic bishop Kieran Conry state Christians leave the ashed sign of the cross on their foreheads for the remainder of the day in order to point others to faith in Jesus.[25][26] The Reverend Morgan Guyton, speaking on behalf of the Red-Letter Christian movement within Christianity, encourages Christians to receive and wear ashes on their foreheads throughout the day in order to exercise their religious freedom.[27]

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.

Biblical significance[edit]

“Ash Wednesday” by Carl Spitzweg: the end of Carnival.

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. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. 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.[28] 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, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainments.[29]


Ash Wednesday is a moveable fast, occurring 46 days before Easter. In future years Ash Wednesday will occur on these dates:

  • 2014 – March 5
  • 2015 – February 18
  • 2016 – February 10
  • 2017 – March 1
  • 2018 – February 14
  • 2019 – March 6
  • 2020 – February 26
  • 2021 – February 17
  • 2022 – March 2
  • 2023 – February 22
  • 2024 – February 14

The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is February 4 (in a common year with Easter on March 22), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date is March 10 (when Easter Day falls on April 25) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (February 29), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on February 29 are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on February 29 only if Easter is on April 15 in a leap year.)

Observing denominations[edit]

These Christian denominations are among those that mark Ash Wednesday with a particular liturgy or church service.

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[edit]

In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day.[30][31] The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent.[32][33] In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984,[34] but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ “Prayers and Reflections- buying ash from the Holy Land”. Ash Wednesday. Retrieved 2012-03-15. 
  2. ^ Shrove Tuesday inspires unique church traditions KATIE WALKER March 07, 2011
  3. ^ “What is Lent and why does it last forty days?”. The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2007. 
  4. ^ “The Liturgical Year”. The Anglican Catholic Church. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2007. 
  5. ^ Ellsworth Kalas. Preaching the Calendar: Celebrating Holidays and Holy Days. Westminster John Knox Press. Retrieved 8 March 2011. “We are wise, therefore to explain, whether in the course of the homily or in the church bulletin or newsletter, something of the meaning of the day: of ashes as an ancient symbol of loss and repentance; of the historic words spoken during the imposition of the ashes, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”; of the practice in many religious communions of using ashes made from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday; and, of course, that the imposition of ashes is a sign of mourning and repentance.” 
  6. ^ a b Season of Ash and Fire: Prayers and Liturgies for Lent and Easter BLAIR MEEKS December 01, 2013 | In recent years Christians from the Reformed branch of the Protestant tradition have begun to recover a practice that dates in the Western church at least to the tenth century. That is to begin Lent on the Wednesday before the First Sunday in Lent with a service of repentance and commitment, including the imposition of ashes. The Lutheran and Anglican traditions, of course, never lapsed in this observance, and the liturgical reforms of Vatican II have made Roman Catholic prayers and rubrics more accesible to other traditions through ecumenical dialogues.
  7. ^ Lent JACK KINGSBURY December 01, 1980 | The imposition of ashes symbolizes the penitential nature of the season of Lent. While this custom is still observed in the Roman Catholic church, and in some Lutheran and Anglican parishes, it has not been retained in Reformed churches.
  8. ^ Lectionary Preaching Workbook RUSSELL ANDERSON January 01, 1995 | Ashes are a traditional symbol of penitence and remose. The practice of imposing ashes on the first day of Lent continues to this day in the church of Rome as well as in many Lutheran and Episcopalian quarters.
  9. ^ William P. Lazarus, Mark Sullivan. Comparative Religion For Dummies. For Dummies. Retrieved 8 March 2011. “This is the day Lent begins. Christians go to church to pray and have a cross drawn in ashes on their foreheads. The ashes drawn on ancient tradition represent repentance before God. The holiday is part of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian liturgies, among others.” 
  10. ^ The United Methodist Church website: “When did United Methodists start the “imposition of ashes” on Ash Wednesday?” retrieved March 1, 2014 | “While many think of actions such as the imposition of ashes, signing with the cross, footwashing, and the use of incense as something that only Roman Catholics or high church Episcopalians do, there has been a move among Protestant churches, including United Methodists to recover these more multisensory ways of worship.
  11. ^ a b Baptists mark Ash Wednesday JEFF BRUMLEY February 13, 2013 | While long associated with Catholic and various liturgical Protestant denominations, its observance has spread in recent years to traditions known more for avoiding liturgical seasons than embracing them.
  12. ^ Ash Wednesday service: We pour out our brokenness – Mennonite Church MARLENE KROPF February 09, 2005 | Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent, a time of repentance and preparation for the great celebration of Easter. Observing Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season can be a way of restoring the important practices of confession and renewal in the church.
  13. ^ Dear Abby (4 April 2013). “Wife Sees Trouble in Eyes of Husband and Store Clerk”. Universal Uclick. Retrieved 4 May 2013. 
  14. ^ Ford, Penny. “Lent 101”. Upper Room Ministries. 
  15. ^ “Lent and Easter”. The Diocese of London. 17 March 2004. 
  16. ^ Psalm 51 is the Ash Wednesday reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and The Catholic Lectionary.
  17. ^ “What is the significance of ashes being placed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday?”. The United Methodist Church. 
  18. ^ “Responses to frequently asked questions regarding Lenten practices”. Catholics United for the Faith. 
  19. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1170
  20. ^ Donovan, Colin B. “Communion of Non-Catholics or Intercommunion”. Eternal Word Television Network. 
  21. ^ 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844
  22. ^ “Pastor’s Message: Ash Wednesday, An Invitation To Lent”. First United Methodist Church. 28 February 2001. 
  23. ^ 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 1251
  24. ^ 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1252 §§2–3
  25. ^ The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday DR RICHARD P. BUCHER March 01, 2014
  26. ^ Don’t rub off your ashes, urges bishop ANNA ARCO March 013, 2011
  27. ^ Like Religious Freedom? Wear Ashes on Wednesday! MORGAN GUYTON February 21, 2012 | I strongly believe that wearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is the best way to 1) assert our religious freedom as citizens and 2) remember that our call as Christians is to be witnesses first and foremost. God doesn’t build His kingdom through petitions or angry signs or blogosphere comment wars; He has always built it through the patient witness that can only occur face to face in personal relationships.
  28. ^ “Lent with Jesus in the desert to fight the spirit of evil”. Asia 3 May 2006. “Turning to the gospel of the day, which is about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, “where he overcame the temptations of Satan” (cfr Mk 1:12–13), Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Christians to follow “their Teacher and Lord… to face together with Him ‘the struggle against the spirit of evil’.” He said: “The desert is rather an eloquent metaphor of the human condition.”” 
  29. ^ Foulkes, Richard. Church and Stage in Victorian Britain. Cambridge Univ Press. p. 34. 
  30. ^ Written Answers. – Cigarette Smoking. Dáil Éireann – Volume 475 – 18 February 1997
  31. ^ Chronic long-term costs of COPD, Dr Jarlath Healy, Irish Medical Times, 2008
  32. ^ Ban on smoking in cars gets Minister’s support Alison Healy, The Irish Times, 2009
  33. ^ 20% of smokers light up around their children every day Claire O’Sullivan, Irish Examiner, 2006
  34. ^ The History of No Smoking Day, No Smoking Day website
  35. ^ FAQ: When is No Smoking Day 2010?, No Smoking Day website

External links[edit]

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Ash Wednesday, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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