Ash Wednesday is today, February 26, 2020, and is one of the most popular and important holy days in the church calendar. Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of fasting and prayer.
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is primarily observed by Catholics, although many other Christians also observe the day.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize death and returning to dust. As the priest applies ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Here is everything we know about Ash Wednesday:
1. Where Can Mass Be Attended?
To find a church distributing ashes today, go to masstimes.org and enter your zip code for a list of churches in your area, and the times they are having Mass.
Writings from the Second-century Church refer to the wearing of ashes as a sign of penance. Priests administer ashes during Mass and all are invited to accept the ashes as a visible symbol of penance and their Christian faith. Even non-Christians are welcome to receive ashes. The ashes are made from blessed palm branches, taken from the previous year’s palm Sunday Mass.
Ash Wednesday is a day of penitential prayer and fasting, and some faithful take the day off and remain home. People do not dine out, shop, or go out in public after receiving ashes. Celebration is highly inappropriate. Small children, the elderly and sick are exempt from this observance.
2. Ashes Do Not Have to Be Worn All Day
It is not required that a person wear the ashes for the rest of the day, and they may be washed off after Mass. However, many people keep the ashes as a reminder until the evening.
Movements have developed that involve pastors distributing ashes to passersby in public places. This practice is distinctly Protestant. Catholics still receive ashes within the context of Mass. In some cases, ashes may be delivered by a priest or a family member to those who are sick or shut-in.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection and fasting as a Christian preparation for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which sins are forgiven.
3. Christians Receive Ashes As Acknowledgement of Death
Foreheads are marked with ashes as a reminder that life passes away on Earth. This is acknowledged when the priest says, “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they are thought to help Christians develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from an ancient ceremony. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed hair shirts which they wore during forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins, just as Adam was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) after receiving reconciliation by the forty days’ penance and confession. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion.
4. Ashes Are Made Out of Palms & Holy Water
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with Holy Water and are scented with incense.
While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder to Christians that God is gracious and merciful to those who ask for forgiveness. His mercy is an important part of the season of Lent, and the Church calls on its faithful to seek mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.
5. Lent Begins on February 26, 2020 ends on April 9, 2020
The meaning of Lent revolves around Christian baptism. Preparation for Baptism and for renewing baptismal commitment of purity is the meaning of the season. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has reemphasized the baptismal character of Lent.
Lent as a 40-day season developed in the fourth century from three merging sources. The first was the ancient paschal fast that began as a two-day observance before Easter but was gradually lengthened to 40 days. The second was the process of preparation for Baptism (the catechumenate), including an intense period of preparation for the Sacraments of Initiation to be celebrated at Easter. The third was the Order of Penitents, which was modeled on the catechumenate and sought a second conversion for those who had fallen back into serious sin after Baptism.
READ NEXT: Read more about Lent.