Ash Wednesday, also known as “the day of ashes”, marks the start of Lent and occurs 40 days prior to Good Friday. It is called Ash Wednesday because people used ashes as symbol of repentance and humility according to several accounts in the Bible. According to most Christian faiths, the idea behind the ashes is that we start as dust and to the earth, as dust, or ashes, we shall return.
The period of Lent is a time when people are asked to forsake their sinful habits and activities. For many Christians, Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance as well as a time for reflection and humility. It is also a time to fast. Ash Wednesday is a Holy Day of Obligation, one of many during the year, for Catholics. Each faith celebrates different holidays, rituals and ideas.
While Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, church goers are given a palm frond to keep throughout the year, to be returned to the church on Palm Sunday the following year. The palm will be burnt as an offering. Some churches use some of the palm fronds for crosses and then burn the rest. Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians have their foreheads marked with a cross using the ashes of burned palm fronds. The mark, made by a priest or deacon, is worn for the entire day. Catholics over the age of 18 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and attend a mass during which they receive their cross of ashes.
Since most Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday, it is common to attend a party the night before. This is why the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. People indulge in their favorite foods, drinks and revelry before they are ready to fast and sacrifice during Lent as is the tradition. Ash Wednesday starts the Lenten season during which Catholics, and various Christian faiths, make a commitment to give up a vice, such as candy or alcohol, as a sacrifice and sign of penance.
Why is ash used to mark the forehead? The ash represents that we were all born from the dust of the earth and our bodies will return to dust and ash when we die. The ash on the forehead is a reminder of Jesus and represents the body dying but the spirit moving on.
Although Ash Wednesday isn’t referenced in the Bible, many people continue to practice it. Using ash as a symbol of repentance helps Catholics and Christians re-focus on the meaning of Lent and Christ’s sacrifice for them.
Just like Easter, Ash Wednesday is a moving holiday, which means it falls on a different date each year. Once Easter is calculated using a lunar calendar, Ash Wednesday is 46 days prior. To determine which Sunday is Easter Sunday, use the lunar calendar to find the Sunday that is after the first full moon that rises after the spring equinox.
Ash Wednesday is on the following dates:
March 9, 2011
February 22, 2012
February 13, 2013
March 5, 2014
February 18, 2015
February 10, 2016
March 1, 2017
February 14, 2018
March 6, 2019
February 26, 2020