Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday six weeks before Easter Sunday – February 17, 2021, – is a Christian holy day of fasting, sacrifice, and prayer. Followers of Jesus, of several sects and denominations, often forgo a regular meal schedule, instead eating only one normal-sized meal and two very small ones over the course of a given 24-hour period, especially on Good Friday. The most devout Christians are known to eat even less than that, limiting themselves to bread and water to signify their recognition of Christ’s 40-day, 40-night fast as recounted in the Gospels. Abstinence from alcohol is also stressed on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten period.
History of Ash Wednesday
We know that the idea that believers must repent for their lacks or misdeeds goes back over two thousand years. But the custom of ashes on the head is a little more recent, being attributed to Pope Gregory I the Great (circa 540-604 A.D.) who accompanied the ceremonious symbolism with a verse that loosely translates to, “Remember that you come from dust and that to dust you will return.” In the 20th century it became more common for a priest to intone, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
In modern times, some clergy have seen Ash Wednesday as a chance to do some guerilla evangelism, going out into their cities and offering ashes to passers-by on sidewalks, even to drivers stopped at traffic lights.
The main thrust overall is that when the faithful set aside certain bodily comforts, they may settle into an attitude of penitence, recognizing their past sins and the sacrifice that Jesus made to cleanse them of those sins. The physical expression of the day, administered by priests and pastors, is palm ashes on the head, either sprinkled onto the scalp or smudged in crucifix form onto the forehead.
We think this is good information even for atheists, agnostics, and worshippers from other faiths, because Christians who bear the forehead cross leave it on throughout Ash Wednesday, including to work and school. So when you see it, understand where it comes from and its meaning, in case you would have made an uninformed remark. And plus, just think, you’ve learned something new about a friend or co-worker!
Ash Wednesday timeline
No ifs, ands, or “butts”
The Republic of Ireland designates Ash Wednesday as “National No Smoking Day,” interpreting putting down cigarettes to be in the spirit of giving up a luxury for Lent.
When in Rome…
The Roman Rite delineates the period of Lent to end on Holy Thursday evening, forty-four days after Ash Wednesday, but the Lenten fasting period excludes Sundays and extends through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, for a total of 40 days of fasting.
Martin Luther and fasting
Though the widely held but inaccurate notion that he spoke against Lenten fasting in general would gain popularity, Martin Luther specifies that although it is a good thing to do in the days before Easter and before Christmas to repress the body’s urges, one should never fast to curry favor with God or the church.
- 1st Century A.D.
The “letter” of the law
Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-202) writes a letter to Pope St. Victor in which he mentions a dispute between factions about the length of Lent, one that has been contested “since the time of [his] forefathers.”
Ash Wednesday FAQs
What is the significance of Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten period leading up to Easter. This day is when devout Christians begin their 46 day fasting period.
What is the history of Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday has been a significant part of Christianity for less than 1000 years, with the first Ash Wednesday ceremonies taking place around the 11th century.
What does the Bible say about Ash Wednesday?
There is no real mention of Ash Wednesday in the bible, but the tradition of donning ashes has been practiced for years.
HOW TO OBSERVE ASH WEDNESDAY
Fast for the day
Many Christians survive on bread and water through the twenty-four hours of Ash Wednesday, in the belief that the sense of emptiness in the body will grant a perspective of needing God for sustenance, the way Jesus was supposed to have sought his father’s presence by fasting in the desert. If you yourself are not bound by religious strictures, try it without the obligation, just to see if fasting brings you an epiphany!
Receive ashes on your forehead
If you are a Christian, make time to go and have your spiritual leader place the crucifix of ashes upon you, and let your friends and acquaintances see that you take your penance seriously. If not, ask a few questions of a friend who bears the cross today about their faith. They’ll probably have some interesting things to say.
Reflect in your own way
Just as religion is a personal experience, so too is any deep reflection or contemplation. Take a few long, slow breaths and see what comes to mind when you grasp the larger picture of your life and your place in the universe. Take your time and see how you really feel.
FIVE AMAZING FACTS ABOUT MARTIN LUTHER
A different kind of “indulgence”
Consider the Catholic confession, in which a priest instructs a congregant to say a number of specific prayers in exchange for forgiveness for a sin, a surviving Christian “indulgence” from the past, and you’ll see that indulgences can be transactional in nature, a fact that Martin Luther objected to vocally enough to lead to his excommunication.
“I can read it myself!”
Luther opposed sacerdotalism, the belief that clerics are meant to be mediators between God and humankind through the Bible, stating that all baptized Christians are part of a larger holy “priesthood.”
That’s a lot of translation…
Luther’s translation of the Bible into the German vernacular had a number of effects on the society of his time, including the standardization of the German language, the initiation of an English translation, and the overhauling of the practice of translation in general.
Time to partner up
Martin Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun of the time, established the right of Protestant clergy to marry (a practice distinct from married individuals becoming clergy).
Not all doves and roses
In his later writings, Luther expressed a violent hatred not only toward Jews, but also toward Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, and nontrinitarian Christians.
WHY ASH WEDNESDAY IS IMPORTANT
It is a time to pause and think things over
As we’ve seen, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a period during which many people give up certain luxuries. Living without these luxuries gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is really important in our lives.
It’s a good time to be with family
Churchgoers often attend services with their families, making a natural transition into deciding as a unit how they’ll fast and pray from Ash Wednesday on through Easter. If you weren’t raised Christian but are considering conversion, or you know someone in that position, today is a great day for a discussion with family about one’s faith.
Knowledge about Christianity comes in handy
Like it or not, Christian faith and practice have had a lot to do with Western history, up to and including the founding of the U.S. and other countries. To learn about the connections between Christianity and society, from the Crusades up to the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is to put yourself at an advantage in myriad situations.