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Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday
A cross of ashes on a worshipper's forehead on Ash Wednesday
Observed by Followers of many Christian denominations, primarily Western Christian (see below).
Date Wednesday in seventh week before Easter
2010 date 17 February
2011 date 9 March
Observances Service of worship or Mass
Marking of an ash cross on the forehead
Related to Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras
Liturgical year

Ash Wednesday, in the Western Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is a moveable fast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are typically gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. In the liturgical practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens[1] (one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized), though some churches use ordinary oil. This paste is used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his own forehead and then on those of congregants.



At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes:

Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Repent, and hear the good news.
A priest marks a cross of ashes on a worshipper's forehead.
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday

The ashes used in the service of worship or Mass are sacramentals, not a sacrament. The ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water. In some churches they are mixed with light amounts of water[2] or olive oil[3][4], which serve as a fixative. In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 (LXX Psalm 50) is especially associated with this day.[5] The service also often includes a corporate confession rite.

In some of the free church liturgical traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.[6]

In the Roman Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to anyone who wishes to receive them,[7][8] as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity.[9][10] Similarly, in most other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.[11]

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one's transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In the medieval period, Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of penitential confession occurring after fasting and the remittance of the tithe. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Roman Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (for those Catholics age 14 and over), as are all Fridays in Lent. Some Roman Catholics continue fasting during the whole of Lent,[citation needed] as was the Church's traditional requirement,[citation needed] concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.[12]

Biblical significance

"Ash Wednesday" by Carl Spitzweg: the end of Carnival.

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God: "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 abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5-6, KJV) Other examples are found in several other books of the Bible including, Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13, and Hebrews 9:13. Ezekiel 9 also speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people. All those without the mark are destroyed.

It marks the start of a forty day period which is an allusion to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13.[13] While not specifically instituted in the Bible text, the 40 day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf. (Jews today follow a 40 day period of repenting during the High Holy Days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur.)

In Victorian England, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainments, such as those shown on the program at right, from 14 February 1872 at the Gaiety Theatre, London.


Ash Wednesday is a moveable fast, occurring 46 days before Easter. It fell on 25 February in 2009, and 17 February in 2010. In future years Ash Wednesday will occur on these dates:

  • 2011 – March 9
  • 2012 – February 22
  • 2013 – February 13
  • 2014 – March 5
  • 2015 – February 18
  • 2016 – February 10
  • 2017 – March 1
  • 2018 – February 14
  • 2019 – March 6

Historical notes: The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (in a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818. The latest date is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2688, 2840, and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year.)

Denominations observing Ash Wednesday

These Christian denominations are among those that mark Ash Wednesday by holding a service of worship or Mass:

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not in general observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously-mentioned denominations, 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.

National No Smoking Day

In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day.[14][15] The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent.[16][17] In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984,[18] but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.[19]

See also


  1. ^ This ties the beginning of Lent with its original purpose: the final preparation of Catechumens for baptism.
  2. ^ Ford, Penny. "Lent 101". Upper Room Ministries. 
  3. ^ Real Live Preacher: Ash Wednesday
  4. ^ "Lent and Easter". The Diocese of London. 17 March 2004. 
  5. ^ Psalm 51 is the Ash Wednesday reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and The Roman Catholic Lectionary.
  6. ^ "What is the significance of ashes being placed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday?". The United Methodist Church. 
  7. ^ "Responses to frequently asked questions regarding Lenten practices". Catholics United for the Faith. 
  8. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1170
  9. ^ Donovan, Colin B.. "Communion of Non-Catholics or Intercommunion". Eternal Word Television Network. 
  10. ^ 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844
  11. ^ "Pastor's Message: Ash Wednesday, An Invitation To Lent". First United Methodist Church. 28 February 2001. 
  12. ^ The origin of the name "carnival" is disputed. One theory states that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means "farewell to meat", signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. Other sources, however, suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar expression, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is prohibited during Lent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "Carnival" is derived from Latin carnem levare (removal of the meat) or carnem laxare (leaving the meat).
  13. ^ "Lent with Jesus in the desert to fight the spirit of evil". Asia 3 May 2006. "Turning to the gospel of the day, which is about Jesus' 40 days in the desert, "where he overcame the temptations of Satan" (cfr Mk 1:12-13), Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Christians to follow "their Teacher and Lord… to face together with Him 'the struggle against the spirit of evil'." He said: "The desert is rather an eloquent metaphor of the human condition."" 
  14. ^ Written Answers. - Cigarette Smoking. Dáil Éireann - Volume 475 - 18 February 1997
  15. ^ Chronic long-term costs of COPD, Dr Jarlath Healy, Irish Medical Times, 2008
  16. ^ Ban on smoking in cars gets Minister's support Alison Healy, The Irish Times, 2009
  17. ^ 20% of smokers light up around their children every day Claire O’Sullivan, Irish Examiner, 2006
  18. ^ The History of No Smoking Day, No Smoking Day website
  19. ^ FAQ: When is No Smoking Day 2010?, No Smoking Day website

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ASH WEDNESDAY, in the Western Church, the first day of Lent, so called from the ceremonial use of ashes, as a symbol of penitence, in the service prescribed for the day. The custom, which is ultimately based on the penance of "sackcloth and ashes" spoken of by the prophets of the Old Testament, has been dropped in those of the reformed Churches which still observe the fast; but it is retained in the Roman Catholic Church, the day being known as dies cinerum (day of ashes) or dies cineris et cilicii (day of ash and sackcloth). The ashes, obtained by burning the palms or their substitutes used in the ceremonial of the previous Palm Sunday, are placed in a vessel on the altar before High Mass. The priest, vested in a violet cope, prays that God may send His angel to hallow the ash, that it become a remedium salubre for all penitents. After another prayer the ashes are thrice sprinkled with holy water and thrice censed. Then the priest invites those present to approach and, dipping his thumb in the ashes, marks them as they kneel with the sign of the cross on the forehead (or in the case of clerics on the place of tonsure), with the words: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return). The celebrant himself either sprinkles the ash on his own head in silence, or receives it from the priest of highest dignity present.

This ceremony is derived from the custom of public penance in the early Church, when the sinner to be reconciled had to appear in the congregation clad in sackcloth and covered with ashes (cf. Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 13). At what date this use was extended to the whole congregation is not known. The phrase dies cinerum appears in the earliest extant copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and it is probable that the custom was already established by the 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon homilist 1Elfric, in his Lives of the Saints (996 or 997), refers to it as in common use; but the earliest evidence of its authoritative prescription is a decree of the synod of Beneventum in 1091.

Of the reformed Churches the Anglican Church alone marks the day by any special service. This is known as the Commination service, its distinctive element being the solemn reading of "the general sentences of God's cursing against sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture." The lections for the day are the same as in the Roman Church (Joel ii. 12, &c., and Matt. vi. 16, &c.). In the American Prayer Book the office of Commination is omitted, with the exception of the three concluding prayers, which are derived from the prayers and anthems said or sung during the blessing and distribution of the ashes according to the Sarum Missal. The ceremonial of the ashes was not proscribed in England at the Reformation; it was indeed enjoined by a proclamation of Henry VIII. (February 26, 1538) and again in 1550 under Edward VI.; but it had fallen into complete disuse by the beginning of the r 7th century.

See Wetzer and Welte, Kirchenlexikon, and Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopddie (3rd ed.), s. "Aschermittwoch"; L. Duchesne, Christian Worship, trans. by M. L. McClure (London, 1904).

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:


Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesdays

Ash Wednesday (plural Ash Wednesdays)

  1. A Christian day of penitence, the first day of Lent. It is a movable feast which takes place 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays).


Simple English

In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It ends Carnival. It generally is 40 days before Easter. The date is different each year (because the date of Easter varies). Generally, it is between February 4 and March 10. In truth, there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but Sundays are not counted in this period.

Those able to and willing to should fast voluntarily between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There are exceptions, though. Pregnant women, sick people, children, and the old are generally excepted.

Ash Wednesday is a very important part of Lent.

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