Ash Wednesday

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.

Ash Wednesday,

in the Western Church, the first day of LentLent
[Old Eng. lencten,=spring], Latin Quadragesima (meaning 40; thus the 40 days of Lent). In Christianity, Lent is a time of penance, prayer, preparation for or recollection of baptism, and preparation for the celebration of Easter.
..... Click the link for more information.
, being the seventh Wednesday before Easter. On this day ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of death, of the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and of the necessity of changing their lives. The practice, which dates from the early Middle Ages, is common among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, and many Lutherans; it was also adopted by some Methodists and Presbyterians in the 1990s.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for Western Christians. It falls on the Wednesday following the seventh Sunday before Easter - sometime between February 4 and March 10. Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants, follow a different church calendar than that adhered to by Orthodox and other Eastern Christians (see also Easter, Date of). Orthodox Christians begin Lent on the evening of the seventh Sunday before Easter, which they call Forgiveness Sunday. The first full day of Lent falls on the following day, Clean Monday.

The Date

Until the seventh or eighth century western European Christians began Lent on Quadragesima Sunday, the sixth Sunday before Easter. Begun on this date, Lent lasted forty-two days. The length of this season, approximately forty days, was modeled on the forty days of hardship endured by a number of important biblical figures before experiencing God's deliverance (see also Salvation). Jesus himself fasted in the desert for forty days before beginning his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).

Some Christian thinkers argued, however, that Sundays could not be included in the Lenten fast, since all Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Christ and therefore should not be observed as days of penance (for more on penance, see also Repentance). This argument eventually prevailed. During the seventh or eighth century Christian authorities in western Europe gradually began to add four more days to Lent, making the total number of days forty-six. Subtracting the six Sundays that occur during Lent from the total number of forty-six days left the season with exactly forty days. This adjustment meant that instead of beginning on Quadragesima Sunday, Lent began on the previous Wednesday, a day which came to be known as Ash Wednesday.

Ash Customs and Symbolism

Ash Wednesday takes its name from a religious custom unique to the day. At special Ash Wednesday services clergy members dip their thumbs in ashes and paint a cross on the forehead of each worshiper. As they do so, they say, "Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return." These words recall the warning God gave to Adam and Eve before banishing them from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:19). Alternatively, the officiant may declare, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel," thereby echoing Jesus'proclamation as he began his ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:15). This ritual reminds worshipers of their own mortality and therefore of the need to improve their relationship with God and their relationships with fellow human beings (see also Sin and Redemption). It introduces the theme of repentance, which will characterize the rest of the Lenten season. Repentance may be thought of as a change of heart and mind that inspires a return to God.

Palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday are saved throughout the year and burned to provide the ashes needed for this ceremony. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is practiced in Roman Catholic churches as well as some Protestant ones. For example, some Episcopalian and Lutheran congregations observe this ritual. In addition, observant Roman Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday.

The imposition of ashes was inspired by the symbolic role of ashes in the Bible. In the Bible ashes accompany or represent grief, destruction, mortality, and repentance. When Job repents his questioning of God's judgment, he declares, "I . . . repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). In biblical times rampaging armies often burned the towns they conquered, reducing them to ashes. Thus ashes stand for death and destruction in some biblical imagery. Other potent images connect ashes with mourning, as when the grief-stricken put on a rough kind of cloth known as sackcloth and covered themselves in ashes (2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1, Isaiah 61:3).


By the Middle Ages Christians had adopted ashes into their religious devotions. Many writers believe that the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday grew out of customs surrounding the public confession of sins practiced during early Christian and early medieval times. According to these writers, Christians whose sins, or errors, were deemed especially great were expected to arrive barefoot at church on the first day of Lent. They declared their sins in the presence of the congregation and expressed grief for their transgressions. Afterwards the priest sprinkled ashes on their heads and gave them a sackcloth garment covered in ashes to wear. Thus attired they departed to complete the penance that had been assigned to them by the priest (see also Repentance; Shrovetide).

A penance is an act of religious devotion designed to nurture a change of heart and mind and inspire a return to God. In medieval days these penances might include prayer, charitable works, manual labor and physical hardships, such as sleeping on the ground and going barefoot. In addition, many Lenten penitents were forbidden to bathe, cut their hair, or talk to others during the six-week period. They returned to church again on Maundy Thursday to participate in a rite of reconciliation and to receive the Eucharist again for the first time since the start of Lent. Because a person's spiritual errors were often thought to stain his or her relatives, entire families might undergo this process of atonement together (for more on atonement, see Redemption).

Between the eighth and tenth centuries this kind of public confession declined in popularity. Instead, people began to confess their sins to a priest privately. The practice of ashing sinners at the start of Lent lingered in some places. Nevertheless the nature of the ceremony began to change. By the eleventh century congregations in both England and Rome had adopted the practice of ashing all parishioners at the start of Lent. In 1091 the Council of Benevento made the imposition of ashes universal among Western Christians, ordering that every member of a Christian congregation, including the clergy, should receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. In 1099 Pope Urban II officially adopted the name Ash Wednesday for this, the first day of Lent.

Further Reading

"Ashes." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. "Ash Wednesday." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972. Thurston, Herbert. "Ash Wednesday." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. ---. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Ash Wednesday

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Between February 4 and March 10
Where Celebrated: Britain, Europe, United States, and by Christians throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Ashes, Jack-o-Lent
Colors: Violet or purple is the ecclesiastical color associated with this day.
Related Holidays: Burial of the Sardine, Easter, Lent, Palm Sunday, Shrove Tuesday


Ash Wednesday is a significant holiday for Christians and marks the beginning of LENT . The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

For Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of LENT, a forty-day period devoted to self-examination and penitence in preparation for EASTER. Lent originally began in the Western Church on a Sunday. But since Sundays were feast days, Pope Gregory I moved the beginning of Lent ahead four days in the latter part of the sixth century.

Gregory is also credited with having introduced the ceremony that gives this day its name. When penitents came to the church to ask forgiveness for their sins, the priest would take some ASHES and mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross while repeating what God said when He expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: "Remember, man, dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return."



Ashes were a biblical symbol of repentance, based on the story of Job, who put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes to show how sorry he was that he had questioned the ways of God. According to the early medieval code of punishment, serious sinners who were ready to seek forgiveness had to come to the church barefoot on the first day of LENT. After they had expressed their sorrow, they had ashes sprinkled on their heads or were handed a sackcloth garment covered in ashes. As private confessions became more common, the practice of using sackcloth and ashes on individual sinners declined. Instead, ashes were distributed to the entire congregation.

Ashes are also a symbol of mortality and the shortness of earthly life. When churchgoers have ashes placed on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, they are reminded of the penitential nature of the Lenten season and of their own human bodies, which will return to ashes when they die. The ashes used on this day are made by burning the palms used during the previous year's PALM SUNDAY celebration.


The English used to dress a straw figure in old clothes and carry it through the streets on Ash Wednesday. Afterward, the effigy-known as Jack-o-Lent-was hanged. The figure was supposed to represent Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus by identifying Him to His enemies as He left the garden of Gethsemane. But it may originally have been a symbol of the dying winter, similar to the Shrovetide Bear (see SHROVE TUESDAY).


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. English Custom & Usage. 1941. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Metford, J.C.J. The Christian Year. New York: Crossroad, 1991. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


Catholic Online

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Ash Wednesday

Between February 4 and March 10
The first day of Lent in the West. For 14 centuries the season of Lent has been a time for self-examination and penitence in preparation for Easter. The name comes from the Saxon lengten-tide, referring to the lengthening of the days and the coming of spring. This 40-day period of abstinence recalls the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, all of which—according to scripture—lasted 40 days. It was originally begun in the Western Church on a Sunday. But since Sundays were feast days, in the latter part of the sixth century Pope Gregory I moved the beginning of Lent ahead four days.
Gregory is also credited with having introduced the ceremony that gives this day its name. When public penitents came to the church for forgiveness, the priest would take some ash (made by burning the palms used on Palm Sunday of the previous year) and mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as a reminder that they were but ashes and dust. Eventually the practice was extended to include all who wished to receive ashes.
In the East, ashes are not used, and Lent begins on the Monday before Ash Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday in Iceland, children try to hook small bags of ashes or stones to the back of people's clothing.
See also Shrove Tuesday
CRI/Voice Institute
4801 N.W. 62nd St.
Oklahoma City, OK 73122
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 131
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 240
BkFest-1937, p. 299
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 64
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 82, 535
EncyEaster-2002, p. 19
FestWestEur-1958, p. 194
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 106
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 151
HolSymbols-2009, p. 50
RelHolCal-2004, p. 91
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 115
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Ash Wednesday

the first day of Lent, named from the practice of Christians of placing ashes on their heads as a sign of penitence
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Since Lent usually falls around April, Ash Wednesday reminded me of Benjamin Franklin, who said: 'Nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes.' The deadline for income tax returns is April 15.
Then, just before the beginning of the Lenten season, the community gathers all the dried branches and burn them to use during the ceremony on Ash Wednesday.
The lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the mass of the Lords super and urged faithful to engage in art of penance and reconciliation,'' he said.
Canon 1251 says: "Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the Conference of Bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year, unless they are solemnities abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday."In Kenya, the norm for Catholics is not to eat meat on the Fridays during Lent, as determined by the Conference of Bishops (See Canon 1253).
Let us cast on the Lord our burdens in the spirit of faith and hope through prayer," he said in his Ash Wednesday message.
On the occasion of Ash Wednesday, my wife Mila and I attended the Mass officiated by our parish priest, Monsignor Albert Venus of the Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Las Pinas City.
Thus in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with 6 days of fasting in each week), plus 4 extra days Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday that follow it.
A traditional Shrovetide pig-killing was organised in many localities around the country.On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Fasching, or Carnival season, ends with the ritual "burial" of a double bass, drum, or other musical instrument.
The Basel Fasnacht is Switzerland's biggest carnival that is held exactly at 4.00 AM on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday. Over the next three days Basel's streets are filled with different festivities.
But church leaders around the country said no such exception would be forthcoming when Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day overlap for the first time since 1945.
It is burned in the night before Ash Wednesday. The Nubbel stands for all the sins committed by the fools during carnival season, as well as all other recent misfortunes -- for example, if the local football club lost their last game.