Faith & Wisdom

What's Ash Wednesday? It’s Meaning and History Explained

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Date Published:
June 17, 2021

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Summary

Apart from Christmas and Easter, Ash Wednesday is one of the most attended Masses of the year for the Catholic Church. 

Ash Wednesday consists of abstaining from meat, going to Mass, and adorning your forehead with ashes. But why do some sects of Christianity celebrate Ash Wednesday? Furthermore, how did Ash Wednesday come about?

In this article, we're going to take a look at Ash Wednesday, its meaning, and its history.

History of Ash Wednesday

Christian churches celebrate Ash Wednesday, also known as the “Day of Ashes,” on the first day of Lent. Lent falls between the dates of Feb. 4 and March 11, depending on the date of Easter Sunday. 

“Day of Ashes” derives from the Roman Missal, "Dies Cinerum," and appears in copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary from early centuries. It’s commonly believed that the concept originated with the Roman Catholics in the sixth century. 

 outdoor alter with a statue of Jesus


The origin of this day isn't entirely clear, but it’s thought that the practice of marking the head with ashes in the shape of a cross originated during Gregory the Great's papacy.

A solemn reminder of human mortality, the religious day also marks the beginning of Lent and the expression of penance. In placing ashes on the head, traditional words that echo the sentiment of mortality are usually spoken: “Remember that you're dust, and to dust, you shall return.” 

This marks the beginning of Lent, which lasts for a 40-day period of devout fasting. 

Using ashes as a sign of penance was traditionally a private devotion. In time, a Catholic member of the clergy performed it for public penitents as part of a formal rite.

In this context, the ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for and be sympathetic towards the person returning to repent. In later centuries, using ashes evolved into Ash Wednesday's present rite of starting the season of Lent.

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What Ash Wednesday means to us today

Although Ash Wednesday is closely associated with Catholicism, many Christian sects recognize it. This includes Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, some Baptists, and certain Protestants like Lutherans and Anglicans. 

There are also Christian sects that refrain from Ash Wednesday celebrations, such as Mormons, Evangelicals, and Pentecostal Christians. 

Even in today’s celebrations of Ash Wednesday, the ashes are meant to represent dust. 

This is a reference to what God said to Adam when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. 

The Christian Bible says that Adam was formed from dust, hence we shall return to dust when we die. The saying is meant to remind us to be humble on Ash Wednesday as we face mortality, and the ashes symbolize what God said to Adam. 

A man by an alter of candles


There are no rules concerning the imposition of ashes since it isn't a sacrament like giving out holy water during holy communion in the Catholic Church.

Although Ash Wednesday is a fasting day, many Christians don't abstain from food entirely. As an alternative, observers eat one full meal plus two smaller meals that, when combined, don't equate to a normal meal. Like Good Friday during Lent, Christians refrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday. 

Additionally, you don't need to be a leader of a church to administer the distribution of ashes to people. It’s common for churches to provide parishioners with ash packets that they can apply to the foreheads of loved ones who were unable to attend Ash Wednesday mass. 

This is especially helpful during a pandemic when it's harder for people to attend Sunday mass during the holy week. 

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Ash Wednesday prayers

Many denominations include Ash Wednesday on their holy calendars for the year, but not all churches celebrate it during a worship service. 

While some churches will not have an Ash Wednesday service, you can still celebrate on your own. Whether this is something completely new to you or a familiar experience, here are some prayers you can use to celebrate Ash Wednesday during the Lenten season.

Psalm 51 prayer

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love, according to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You only, have I sinned and done what's evil in Your sight, so You're right in your verdict and justified when You judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. You wanted faithfulness even in the womb. You taught me wisdom in that secret place. 

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I'll be clean, wash me, and I'll be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones You've crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

Ash Wednesday observation prayer

“Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing You've made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. 

“Heavenly Father, You've created us out of the dust of the Earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by Your gracious gift that we're given everlasting life through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.”

Ash Wednesday prayer

“Jesus, You place on my forehead the sign of my sister Death. ‘Remember you're dust,

and to dust, you shall return.’ How can I not hear her wise advice? One day my life on Earth will end.

“The limits on my years are set, though I know not the day or hour. Shall I be ready to meet You? Let this holy season be a time of grace for me and all this world.

“‘Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain wisdom of the heart.’ O Jesus, You place on my forehead the sign of Your saving Cross: ‘Turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel.’

“How can I turn from sin unless I turn to You?

“You speak, You raise Your hand, You touch my mind and call my name: "Turn to the Lord your God, again." These days of Your favor leave a blessing as You pass on me and all Your people.

Turn to us, Lord, and we will turn to You. Amen.” 

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Peace be with you

Whether you celebrate Ash Wednesday or not, you can recognize that it’s a holy day of remembrance and repentance. It's also a day to remember the resurrection of Jesus.

On this first day of Lent, in addition to learning that mortal beings will someday return to the kingdom of God, we can also learn that none of us are immortal. And so, we must cherish every moment we spend on this Earth. 

For more on Ash Wednesday, download the pray.com app in the iOS App Store or Google Play.

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