Explaining Ash Wednesday

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity.  It is a day of fasting.  It occurs 46 days before Easter.  These 46 days include the 40 days of fasting, and the 6 Sundays, which are not days of fast.  It can fall as early as the 04th February or as late as the 10th March.

According to three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic Gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus (a.s.) spent 40 days fasting in the desert, enduring the temptation by Satan.  Lent is meant to be a commemoration of this.  The 40 days do not include Sunday because Sunday is seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s (a.s.) alleged resurrection and so, as a feast day, fasting is inappropriate.  Christian who fast, fast from Wednesday to Saturday in the first week, and from Monday to Saturday for six weeks.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  The ashes are ceremonially placed on the heads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, either by being sprinkled over their heads or by being marked on their foreheads as a visible cross.  The words used traditionally to accompany this gesture are:

Genesis 3:19
19 …dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula was introduced:

Mark 1:15
15 The appointed time has come, he said, “And the kingdom of God is near at hand; repent, and believe the gospel.”

According to the Missal, the old prayer, which is based on the words spoken to Adam (a.s.) and Eve after their sin of approaching the Tree of Life, reminds the faithful of their sinfulness and mortality and, therefore, of their need to repent in time.  The newer exhortation is more explicit.  Unlike the sacraments, the Catholic Church does not exclude anyone from receiving the ashes.  Non-Catholics, those yet to be baptised and even those who have been excommunicated may receive them.  After describing the blessing, the rite of Blessing and Distribution of Ashes within Mass states, “Then the priest places ashes on the heads of all those present who come to him.”  Also, the Catholic Church does not limit distribution of blessed ashes to within church buildings and has suggested the holding of celebrations in places where the faithful gather in their social lives and their professional lives.  Such celebrations require the preparation of an appropriate area.  The rite includes readings from Scripture and prayers, and are condensed if the ashes are already blessed.

For the Catholic Church and the Methodist Church, the ashes should be those of palm branches blessed at the previous Palm Sunday service. The Anglican Church says they ‘may be made’ from the burnt palm crosses of the previous year.  For the Catholic liturgy, a sprinkling with holy water is added when blessing the ashes.  The Anglicans generally mix the ashes with a small amount of holy water or olive oil.  The ashes are placed on the head by smudging the forehead with a sign of the cross.  Many Christians choose to keep the mark visible throughout the day.  The churches have not imposed this as an obligatory rule, and the ashes may even be wiped off immediately after receiving them.

Ashes have been used since ancient times to express grief, mourning and loss.  When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, Amnon, she sprinkled ashes on herself:

2 Samuel 13:19
19 Dust, she sprinkled on her hair, tore the long robe, put her head between her hands, and went on her way in tears.

The gesture was also used to express sorrow for transgressions and as a sign of repentance:

Job 42:3-6
3 “Here indeed is one that clouds over the truth with his ignorance!  I have spoken as fools speak, of things far beyond my ken.  4 Henceforth, it is my turn to speak, thine to listen; my turn to ask questions, thine to impart knowledge!  5 I have heard Thy Voice now; nay, more, I have had sight of Thee; 6 now I am all remorse, I do penance in dust and ashes.”

It is interesting to note that there is some doubt as to the authenticity of these verses according to Biblical scholars since they are an anomaly to the context of the entire subsequent passage.  The prophet Jeremiah (a.s.) also called for repentance by it:

Jeremiah 6:26
26 Judah, poor widowed queen, put sackcloth about thee and strew thyself with ashes; as for an only son make loud lament; without warning the spoiler will be upon us.

The prophet Daniel (a.s.) pleaded to God by it:

Daniel 9:3
3 And with that, I turned to the Lord my God; pray to Him I would, and sue for Mercy, fasting ever, sackcloth and ashes my only wear.

It is also a symbol of purification:

1 Maccabees 3:47
47 All that day they fasted, and wore sackcloth, and covered their heads with ashes, and tore their garments about them.

And in the Maccabean revolt, they showed their grief at the profaned Temple:

1 Maccabees 4:39
39 Upon this, there was rending of garments, and loud lament; dust they cast on their heads…

There are many other examples of the practice amongst the Jews in other books of the Bible in rituals of atonement and spiritual purification, and as a means to show grief and loss:

Numbers 19:9
9 The ashes of the heifer must be collected by a man who is still free from defilement, and poured out in some place that is free from defilement; and there the people of Israel will keep them to provide lustral water, the ashes of this heifer that is burned to atone for men’s faults.

Numbers 19:17
17 It was to atone for such faults the victim was burned; a handful of its ashes must be thrown into a vessel that contains fresh water…

Jonah 3:6
6 …nay, the king of Nineveh himself, when word of it reached him, came down from his throne, cast his robe aside, put on sackcloth, and sat down humbly in the dust.

Esther 4:1
1 When the news reached Mardochaeus, he tore his garments about him; put on sackcloth, and sprinkled ashes on his head; and as he went through the open square in the heart of the city, loud lament betrayed the bitterness of his grief.

Paul of Tarsus also referenced it in his letters to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 9:13
13 The blood of bulls and goats, the ashes of a heifer sprinkled over men defiled, have power to hallow them for every purpose of outward purification…

The practise is also mentioned by Jesus (a.s.) in the gospels:

Matthew 11:21
21 “Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago, if the miracles done in you had been done there instead.”

Luke 10:13
13 “Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida! Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago, humbling themselves with sackcloth and ashes, if the miracles done in you had been done there instead.”

Christianity continues the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance.  Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers wrote On Repentance, “With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands [the penitent] to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed…”

Eusebius wrote in Church History V of the repentant apostate, Natalius, covering himself with ashes when begging Pope Zephyrinus to readmit him to communion: “Thereupon having risen in the morning, he put on sackcloth and covered himself with ashes, and with great haste and tears he fell down before Zephyrinus.”

We know from Church history that by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe, except Rome itself for Christians to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast.  It was only in 1091 CE that this was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the Council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome.  The name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as Feria Quarta Cinerum, Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten fast, which commemorates the 40-day seclusion of Jesus (a.s.) in the desert.   It was during this time, that he was tempted by Satan.

Matthew 4:1–11
1 And now Jesus was led by the Spirit away into the wilderness, to be tempted there by the devil.  2 Forty days and forty nights he spent fasting, and at the end of them, was hungry.  3 Then the Tempter approached, and said to him, “If thou art the Son of God, bid these stones turn into loaves of bread.”  4 He answered, “It is Written, ‘Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words which proceed from the mouth of God.’”  5 Next, the Devil took him into the Holy City, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the Temple, 6 saying to him, “If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down to earth; for it is Written, ‘He has Given charge to his angels concerning thee, and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.’”  7 Jesus said to him, “But it is further Written, ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof.’”  8 Once more, the Devil took him to the top of an exceedingly high mountain, from which he shewed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, 9 and said, “I will give thee all these if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with thee, Satan; it is Written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve none but him.’”  11 Then the Devil left him alone; and thereupon angels came and ministered to him.

Mark 1:12–13
12 Thereupon, the Spirit sent him out into the desert: 13 and in the desert he spent forty days and forty nights, tempted by the Devil; there he lodged with the beasts, and there the angels ministered to him.

Luke 4:1–13
1 Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit, and by the Spirit he was led on into the wilderness, 2 where he remained forty days, tempted by the Devil.  During those days, he ate nothing, and when they were over, he was hungry.  3 Then the Devil said to him, “If thou art the Son of God, bid this stone turn into a loaf of bread.”  4 Jesus answered him, “It is Written, ‘Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words that come from God.’”  5 And the Devil led him up on to a high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; 6 “I will give thee command,” the Devil said to him, “over all these, and the glory that belongs to them; they have been made over to me, and I may give them to whomsoever I please; 7 come then, all shall be thine, if thou wilt fall down before me and worship.”  8 Jesus answered him, “It is Written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God; to him only shalt thou do service.’”  9 And he led him to Jerusalem, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the Temple; “If thou art the Son of God,” he said to him, “cast thyself down from this to the earth; 10 for it is Written, ‘He shall Give His angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee safe, 11 and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.’”  12 And Jesus answered him, “We are told, ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof.’”  13 So the Devil, when he had finished tempting him every way, left him in peace until the time should come.

The 40-day period of repentance and fast is the sunnah of Moses (a.s.), before he went to receive the Commandments and the Torah.  All the prophets had such a fast and seclusion.

Ash Wednesday is a moveable fast, always occurring 46 days before Easter, including the sic Sundays where there is no fasting.  The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is the 04th February.  The latest date is the 10th March.  Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day, and it will not occur as such until 2096 CE.

In addition to the Catholic denomination, the Anglican Church also marks Ash Wednesday with a particular liturgy or service.  Others include the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, the Mennonites, the Moravian Church and individual evangelical and Baptist churches of the Protestant denomination.  The third major Christian denomination, the Orthodox Church generally does not observe Ash Wednesday.  However, in recent times, the creation of the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate has led to the observance of Ash Wednesday amongst Western Orthodox parishes.  Historically, the Orthodoxy, observe the beginning of Great Lent with Clean Monday. A relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite do observe Ash Wednesday.  This is often on a different day from the Catholics, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.


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