Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Observances sometimes include participants receiving an ash cross marked on their foreheads.
History of Ash Wednesday
Until the 7th century, Lent began on a Sunday, not a Wednesday, six weeks prior to Easter. This day was known as Quadragestima Sunday. The four extra days were eventually added to parallel the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness by Jesus Christ.
Originally, the first day of Lent was the day on which public penitents at Rome began their penance. They were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and required to remain apart from the community until Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). As this practice fell into disuse between the 8th and 10th centuries, it was replaced by the general penance of the entire congregation.
From at least as early as the 8th century, the first day of Lent was known as dies cinerum (day of ashes). This reflects the central ritual of this holiday, the placing of ashes on the forehead to symbolize mourning and penitence. This ritual continues in the Roman Catholic Church today.
Ash Wednesday Rituals and Observances
For all Christians who observe it, Ash Wednesday is a solemn day of repentance and self-reflection. Anglican, Lutheran and some other Protestant churches also hold a special worship service on Ash Wednesday, but do not usually include the ritual of ashes on the forehead. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Lent begins on a Monday known as "Clean Monday."
For Roman Catholics, the central ritual of Ash Wednesday is the placing of ashes on the forehead to symbolize repentance. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are usually derived from burning the blessed palm branches of the last Palm Sunday celebration. The ashes are blessed, sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense.
Members of the clergy receive ashes from fellow clergy, usually from the most senior member of the clergy present. Monks receive their mark of ashes on their tonsure rather than their foreheads. Priests then place ashes on all willing members of the congregation, usually in the shape of a cross.
At some churches, believers wash the ashes off before leaving the church to symbolize that they have been cleansed of their sins; in other churches, participants leave the ashes on when they leave, thereby "carrying the cross out into the world."