Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, and this year, it falls on February 18. Throughout the Lenten season, believers fast, abstain and do good works in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Heavy talked to John Wachowicz, a Seminarian at the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York, to gain insight into the meaning of the day and its origins. He said, “The ashes and fasting of Ash Wednesday assist us in entering into the penitential season of Lent with the proper disposition.”
Using his knowledge and other information we read from Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan, we compiled a list of things you should know about what the day entails.
1. It Marks the Start of Lent
The season of Lent is the 40 days before Easter, and Ash Wednesday begins the observance of that time in the Church’s calendar.
In his Ash Wednesday message from last year, shown above, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, talks about what Lent means to him: “Lent is the time that the Lord invites us to come back home, come back to the Church.”
He continues by saying that followers should start the Lenten season with a simple prayer and a good confession in order to begin their spiritual journeys.
According to Wachowicz, Ash Wednesday, or dies cinerum, the day of ashes, was first described by medieval writers around the seventh or eighth century A.D.
As far as the name of the day, he said, “It became known as such only because of the antiphon ‘Let us change our garments to sackcloth and ashes’ used during a procession that occurred on that day.”
2. Followers Receive Ashes on Their Foreheads
Masses are held on Ash Wednesday, with the addition of the distribution of ashes, which takes place after the homily.
The ashes that are used are obtained from burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter that commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The palms are blessed with holy water, and then sit in burning incense to give them a scent. Priests, deacons and Eucharist ministers are able to administer ashes during the Ash Wednesday service.
They are drawn on the forehead in the shape of a cross and serve as a sign of humans’ sinfulness and need for penance. While they are being placed on the worshiper’s heads, the priest says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is taken from Genesis 3:19 in the Bible. Another Bible quote that the priest may choose to recite, taken from from Mark 1:15, is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Although most receive ashes in church, there are other places that distribute them. In fact, there is a site, Ashestogo, that has a list.
The holiday has been transformed by the creation of #ashtag last year, where people post pictures on social media wearing ashes with that hashtag. It can be looked upon as marring the sacredness of the day. Patheos.com said, “Last year, we saw the rise of Ash Wednesday as a trending social media event instead of a solemn service. Clergy mugged for cameras in sacristies with ash on their foreheads. Parishioners shared selfies with the world.”
3. Believers Abstain & Fast
According to AmericanCatholic.org, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 must fast on Ash Wednesday. Fasting entails eating one regular-sized meal and two small meals daily.
All Catholics 14 years old and up should abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent. Last year, on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis talked about the true meaning of fasting. “Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him,” he said.
Although some people fast and give up something during Lent, these actions are supposed to be done introspectively. In the Bible, Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:16-18).
4. The Bible Doesn’t Mention the Day but Talks About Ashes
The Bible does not refer to Ash Wednesday. In fact, the day isn’t even a Holy Day of Obligation on the church’s calendar.
However, the mention of ashes is found in the Bible. “The penitential significance of ashes goes back to the earliest books of the Old Testament; in Jonah 3:6, the King of Ninevah sits in ashes as a sign of repentance, and in Job 2:8, Job sits among them as a sign of his sorrow,” Wachowicz said.
Jesus also connects ashes with repentance in the Bible verses Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13.
5. Catholics Are Not the Sole Observers
Roman Catholics are not the only people who observe Ash Wednesday. Wachowicz said certain Western Orthodox Churches and some Protestant denominations, including Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and other various churches celebrate.
The Ash Wednesday tradition started in Western Europe, which is why it is not generally observed in the Eastern churches.