What Is the Meaning of Ash Wednesday?

Many have heard of Ash Wednesday and seen the ashen marks on the foreheads of Christian believers, but outside of the Catholic faith, few know the real meaning. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season, a season of fasting and prayer. It is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar – 46 days before Easter Sunday. To truly understand the meaning of Ash Wednesday, it’s important to look at the history and the season surrounding this day.

The History of Ash Wednesday

The observance of Ash Wednesday, though linked to the Biblical holiday of Easter, does not date back that far. The practice of placing ashes on Christian foreheads dates back to the 11th century, but only became widely accepted in practice a few decades ago. Penance, or the outward expression of showing repentance, is the main theme of Lent. One of the ways observers pay penance on Ash Wednesday is through fasting. In the book of Daniel, ashes are associated with fasting, and this is believed to be the reason that ashes on the forehead became a symbol of those Christians observing Ash Wednesday and participating in the Lenten season.  

Though not necessarily considered a Biblical directive for observing this holiday, Christians continue to receive their ashes as a message to others; an indicator of their faith. 

Where do the Ashes Come From?

The ashes that are placed on the foreheads of Christians come from the blessed, burned palm leaves from the prior year’s Palm Sunday. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and scented with incense.

Why ashes? The answer to this is twofold. First, they are symbolic of the dust from which God created man. Second, in the tradition of cremation man is returned to his original form as ash, reminding Christians that life on earth is temporary. This is why, when they are applied to the forehead by a priest, he traditionally speaks the words, “Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.” Another iteration of this is, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

How to Observe Ash Wednesday

For those participating in Ash Wednesday observation, start the day by attending Mass and receiving ashes. Spend the day paying penance through fasting and staying in your home. Work, large festivities, and feasts are discouraged when adhering to the traditions of Ash Wednesday.