Many people who grew up in Christian homes know what Ash Wednesday is all about, whether they elect to celebrate it or not. For many who are new to Christianity or who grew up in Christian faiths that do not typically celebrate this, the first day of the Lenten season, we have a quick guide to share. Here, we’ll talk a little bit about the History of Ash Wednesday, plus we’ll talk about some ways today’s Christians celebrate the first day of Lent.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season known as Lent – the forty-three days before Easter. It has long been known as a day of repentance, and as many biblical verses discuss using ashes to show repentance or to express mourning, people have been expressing sorrow for their sins or faults for millennia in this way. Some bible verses that discuss the use of ashes to express penitence include:
- Job 42:3-6 – I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I aabhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
- Jeremiah 6:26 – Oh daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.
- Daniel 9:3 – I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.
- Maccabees 3:47 – That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes
These are just some examples from ancient history. Christians first started celebrating Ash Wednesday around the year 960; before that, ashes were placed on the foreheads of people who were entering a religious group known as the Order of Penitents. It was during the twelfth century that people began to use palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to generate the ashes used during the Ash Wednesday ritual.
By the middle ages, a new emphasis was placed on the passion and death of Christ, and Lent came to be viewed as a time to acknowledge the sins that led to Christ’s passion and his death on the cross. As faithful Christians lined up to receive ashes, they heard a version of the same statement clergy make as they mark today’s faithful: “Remember man, that thou art dust; to dust you shall return.”
Celebrating Ash Wednesday
Today, as Christians receive ashes on their foreheads, they may hear a slightly different version of the traditional call to repentence. “Turn away from sin, and return to the gospel.” Some denominations use both statements as the ashes are applied.
Many Christian denominations celebrate Ash Wednesday. These include:
Anglican Communion, Anglican Catholic, and Traditional Anglican Communion
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Church of God
Free Churches (practices vary from one to the next)
Reformed Churches, including Christian Churches, Presbyterian Churches, United Church of Christ
This is by no means a complete list, and despite variations in tradition and liturgy, it’s amazing to consider how so many different Christians come together on this day each year to profess sorrow for wrongdoing and to show their commitment to Christian life.
If you wish to celebrate Ash Wednesday and your particular church does not hold a celebration, look for a church within your community that does, or look for an ecumenical service at which many different faith groups come together to share Ash Wednesday at one central location. Once marked with the ashes, you may leave them on your forehead until they wear off, as tradition dictates. When people ask what’s on your forehead, you get the opportunity to share your faith with them.
We hope you enjoyed this quick tutorial on the history and traditions surrounding Ash Wednesday. Whether you celebrate or not, remember this day marks the beginning of Jesus’ 40 day stint in the desert, when he went to fast and pray. Consider making some small sacrifice of your own during the Lenten season – you’ll be amazed at what a little extra focus on faith can do for your spiritual life.