For Christians, the death and revival of Jesus is a critical happening recognized annually in a period of planning called Lent and a period of festivity named Easter.
The moment that begins the Lent season is named Ash Wednesday. In this article are just four facts to understand about it.
On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have ashes put on their brow — a practice that’s been going on for about a 1000 decades.
There are many other long Catholic mass rituals, but none like the Ash Wednesday.
The Meaning of Ash Wednesday
In the first Christian centuries — by A.D. 200 to 500 — people responsible of serious sins like murder, coitus or apostasy, a public renunciation of one’s faith, were excluded for a period by the Eucharist, a sacred ritual remembering communion with Jesus and with one another.
During that time many people did acts of penance, such as additional praying and going on a fast, and resting in sackcloth and ashes, as an outward action expressing interior sorrow and repentance.
The habitual period to accept them back into the Eucharist was at the conclusion of Lent, inside the time of Holy Week.
But Christians accept that all people are bad, each in her or his own way. So as hundreds of years went on, the church’s open public prayer at the beginning of Lent added a phrase, Let us change our clothes into sackcloth and ashes, as a way to call the whole community, not just the most serious sinners, to repentance.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Throughout the 10th century, the practice came about of acting out those words and phrases about ashes by really marking the foreheads of those taking part in the ritual. The process stuck on and propagate, and in 1091 Pope Urban II decreed that on Ash Wednesday everyone, clergy and laity, women and men, will receive ashes. It’s been going on ever since.
A 12th-century missal, a ceremonial book with instructions on how to commemorate the Eucharist, suggests the words used when placing ashes on the temple were: Keep in mind, man, that you’re dust and to dust you will return. The term echoes the Lord’s words of punishment after Adam, according to the story in the Bible, did not obey God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.
This phrase was the only one used on Ash Wednesday until the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the time another phrase came into usage, also biblical but from the New Testament:”Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” All these were Jesus’ words at the start of his public ministry, that is, when he started teaching and healing among the people.
Each word in its own way serves the objective of contacting the devoted to live their Christian lives more profoundly. The words from Genesis remind Christians that life is short and death impending, advocating focus on what’s essential. The words and phrases of Jesus are a direct call to accompany him by turning away from sin and doing exactly what he says.
You can read a very interesting book about historical Ash Wednesday here:
Morrison, Theodore. “Ash Wednesday: A Religious History.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 2, 1938, pp. 266–286., www.jstor.org/stable/360709.
Two very different traditions developed for the afternoon leading up to Ash Wednesday.
An individual may be called a convention of indulgence. Christians would consume more than usual, either as a last binge prior to a period of fasting or to empty the home of meals typically given up throughout Lent. These foods were chiefly meat, but depending on culture and custom, also eggs and milk and even sweets and other sorts of dessert food. This tradition gave rise to the name”Mardi Gras,” or Fat Tuesday.
The other convention was more sober: specifically, the practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest and getting a penance suitable for all those sins, a penance that would be carried out during Lent. This custom gave rise to the name”Shrove Tuesday,” in the verb”to shrive,” significance to hear a confession and impose a penance.
In either case, on the following day, Ash Wednesday, Christians dive right into Lenten practice by both eating less food overall and preventing some foods entirely.