Ash Wednesday is a day filled with prayer. Many Christians take this day to repent for their sins in the Lord’s eyes. The two main driving themes of Ash Wednesday is that people sin before God and human mortality compared to God. Ash Wednesday is part of the whole holiday surrounding Jesus’s resurrection. Since it marks the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday happens 46 days before Easter Sunday. Like many Christian holidays there is a special sermon. The sermon focuses on the triumph over death when Jesus died on the cross for sin and rose three days later.
2. Ash Wednesday is a day to repent for sins.
During this day Christians contemplate their transgressions and sins they have committed. Through penance the person will abstain from eating during Ash Wednesday. They will also participate in Lent to practice self restraint and sacrifice to strengthen their relationship with God.
3. Anyone can observe and receive ashes.
Though Ash Wednesday is mainly observed by Roman Catholics, many other Christian denominations also observe Ash Wednesday. During the sermon everyone is welcome and invited to join in receiving ashes. This isn’t just open to people of the congregation, but non-Christians and excommunicated are able to receive the ashes. When the person goes up to receive ashes the priest or minister will rub the ashes across their forehead in a shape of a cross.
4. The ashes are symbols, not just for show.
The ashes are meant to symbolize the dust that made humans from. It also represents the grief someone should feel for sinning and drifting away from God. During Ash Wednesday, when the priest or minister rubs the ashes on they may say either “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” After receiving the Mass the church may have observers wash the ashes off of their foreheads before they leave the church. This is to symbolize that they have been cleansed of their sins. Other churches will let their observers leave the ashes on their forehead. This is a symbolic way of “carrying the cross out into the world.
The ashes to represent repentance is mentioned in four bible verses.
The first is Jonah 3:6, “When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.”
The second is Job 2:8, “Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.”
Third is Esther 4:1, “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.”
Last is Daniel 9:3-4, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: ‘Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments.”
5. The ashes were blessed before they were ashes.
The ashes that are used for the sermon on Ash Wednesday come from blessed palm branches from the previous year’s mass on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marked Jesus’s return to Jerusalem and people would wave palm branches to celebrate His return. The leftover palms had been burned and saved for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are blessed again on Ash Wednesday and are sprinkled either with holy water or some oil and infused with incense.
6. Ash Wednesday was never mentioned in the bible.
Ash Wednesday is not seen as a holy day of obligation. It’s not even on the Christian calendar. The tradition of Ash Wednesday didn’t begin until 325 AD. Rather than being created by the Christian faith, Ash Wednesday was adopted into the faith by a non-Christian origin that the Catholic Church accepted into being part of their belief system. After that Roman Catholics were encouraged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent. It is thought that Ash Wednesday is derived from the ancient Jewish practice of penance where someone voluntarily punishes themselves for their sins and repents for them.
7. Ash Wednesday used to be only for sinners who needed to repent for their sins.
Ash Wednesday follows the example of the Ninevites, the men of Nineveh, who practice penance wearing sackcloth and rubbing ashes on their forehead.
Originally, bishops would bless sackcloth shirts of people who had sinned greatly. The people wear the shirt for the next 40 days and would not be allowed to re-enter the church. As the bishop would bless the shirts he would sprinkle ashes onto the shirts. After the blessing was complete the penitents were sent out of the church as the rest of the faithful congregation recited the Seven Penitential Psalms. After the 40 days of penance and sacramental absolution the people would return to church on Maundy Tuesday, the Tuesday preceding Easter.
The tradition only lasted until the 8th century and began to fall away until the 10th century. After that Ash Wednesday slowly began to evolve to what it is today where sinners and non-sinners participate in secrecy of their sins.
8. Jesus told his followers why they should fast.
Even though Ash Wednesday Jesus set the example on how and why people should fast in Matthew 6:16-18. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on you head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
In Isaiah 58:5-7 also mentions how Jesus wanted his followers to fast and learn from their own sacrifice. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Jesus wanted his followers to know that them fasting was not to be a big, public affair. Rather He would want them to take the time to help people in need and not turn their backs on them. It is about thinking outwardly towards others and to help them rather than think inwardly and focus only on yourself.
9. Not only do people fast, but there are other rules with food too on Ash Wednesday.
It is traditional not to eat anything on Ash Wednesday, but some people still choose to eat. For those who choose to eat are limited either to one large meal for the day or two small meals that equate to the size of one large meal. None of the meals that are eaten on Ash Wednesday are to contain meat and this holds to every Friday in Lent until Good Friday. Others choose to go the route of almost fully fasting. They only eat bread and water for the day.
10. During Ash Wednesday people do more than just fast.
On Ash Wednesday some people may take off of work to stay home until Mass that evening. People are discouraged from going out to eat, shopping, and going out anywhere on Ash Wednesday. This follows through until the evening and after receiving the ashes. The only people who are exempt from observing Ash Wednesday are young people like children, elderly, and the sick.