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On Ash Wednesday, you may encounter Christians, especially Catholics, wearing a mark of ashes on their foreheads. The first time you see someone celebrating Ash Wednesday, it can be confusing. Knowing the history of this holiday, the reason for these traditions, and its place in the Christian calendar can help you more fully celebrate Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. Lent is a 40-day season (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. The 40-day period represents Christ’s time in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, fasted from food, and prepared for His upcoming time of ministry. During Lent, we also set aside a time each year for similar fasting, marking a season of intentional focus on Christ’s life, sacrifice, and resurrection.
Ash Wednesday falls on a different day each year, because it is always 46 days before Easter. It has occurred as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.
Last year, Ash Wednesday fell on February 26. This year, it’s on February 17.
Ash Wednesday always occurs six and a half weeks before Easter. Easter will be celebrated this year on Sunday, April 4.
Ash Wednesday is traditionally observed by Western Christians. It is observed by Roman Catholics as well as many Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and more.
During Catholic Mass or Protestant worship services, the priest or pastor will usually share a sermon that reflects the solemn mood of the Lent season we are entering — repentance, confession, and sin are all major themes of Ash Wednesday. There are typically long periods of quiet prayer and congregants will leave the service in silence.
There is also a passage of Scripture read aloud by the worship leader and those at the service with the entire congregation confessing their sins together and asking God for forgiveness. There is then an opportunity for everyone to silently confess their sins and pray.
The centerpiece of the Ash Wednesday service is when the congregation is invited to receive ashes on their foreheads. The leader will dip their finger into the ashes, spread them in a cross pattern on the forehead, and say, “From dust you came and from dust you will return.”
On Ash Wednesday, people generally wear ashes — which symbolize grieving, sin, or mourning — throughout the day to publicly express their faith and penance.
Throughout the Old Testament, ashes were used in the mourning process. The people of Israel would cover themselves in ashes to grieve abuse (2 Samuel 13:19), physical pain (Job 2:8) or repentance from sin (Jonah 3:5-7). Ashes were never associated with joy, happiness or life. Christians have taken the practice of putting ashes on their forehead from this Old Testament biblical custom.
Receiving ashes as a way to remember our mortality (and that from dust we came and to dust we will return) and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church as early as the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.
You don’t have to be a part of any specific denomination to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent — if you’re a Christian, you’re part of an international priesthood of believers, and this holiday is open to all!