Ash Wednesday

General Information

Ash Wednesday, in Christian churches, is the first day of the penitential season of Lent, so called from the ceremony of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence. This custom, probably introduced by Pope Gregory I, has been universal since the Synod of Benevento (1091). In the Roman Catholic church, ashes obtained from burned palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday are blessed before mass on Ash Wednesday. The priest places the blessed ashes on the foreheads of the officiating priests, the clergy, and the congregation, while reciting over each one the following formula: "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."

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Ash Wednesday

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Traditionally the day for the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday gets its name from the custom observed in some churches of dabbing ashes on the head as a sign of penitence. This was originally a part of the discipline of public penitence and came to be used generally from the tenth century for all who attended this service: one explanatory formula read (from Gen. 3:19), "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust shall you return."

When Lent was regarded as the church's opportunity to enter into the Lord's discipline of forty days in the wilderness as preparation for ministry, it was recognized that the six weeks following the six Sundays of Lent allowed only for thirty-six days of fasting (Sunday always being a festival of the resurrection). So four preliminary days of fasting were added, and thus the season began (at Rome in the middle of the fifth century) on the Wednesday preceding the first Sunday in Lent.

By tradition preparations were made for the fasting season by using up scraps of fat, etc., on the previous day, which was known as Shrove Tuesday, and this gave rise to the custom of eating pancakes that day.

D H Wheaton
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

A. A. McArthur, The Evolution of the Christian Year.

Ash Wednesday

Catholic Information

The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, which is the first day of the Lenten fast.

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead -- or in case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure -- of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. "We read", he says,

in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.

And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266). It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolized by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary. But on this and the practice of beginning the fast on Ash Wednesday see LENT.

Publication information Written by Herbert Thurston. Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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