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What’s Up with Ash Wednesday?

    The season of Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, is filled with symbolism.  Yet Ash Wednesday and Lent, and the observances surrounding both, did not originate in the New Testament but are celebrations which developed over the course of Church history.  We will focus on Ash Wednesday today and on Lent next week.

    From the beginning.  The Lenten season lasts for forty days.  It begins on a Wednesday, called Ash Wednesday, and ends on Easter Sunday.  But this is misleading:  if you count the days from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday you will get forty-six days.  So why the discrepancy?  Because the Sundays are not counted.  So, starting with Easter Sunday and counting backwards on the calendar, while not counting the Sundays, will cause the first day of Lent to occur on a Wednesday.  And since the date of Easter changes from year to year, so does the date of Ash Wednesday.

    The “Ash” part of the first Wednesday in Lent derives from the practice of Christians receiving an ash mark, usually on their forehead and in the shape of a cross.  Understanding why the shape of a cross is used is easy, but the ash part is not as obvious.

    The origins of using ashes goes back to biblical practices, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  In Job 2:8, after experiencing the death of his children, the ruin of his fortune, and disease on his body, Job “sat among the ashes.”  In Matthew 11:21, Jesus denounced some cities where he had performed miracles.   They had not repented, and he said that if the miracles had been done in other cities, “they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

    So the Bible uses ashes on the body as a sign of sorrow and repentance.  Therefore, on the first day of Lent, that time of fasting and repentance and focusing or refocusing on God, ashes are placed on the forehead as a sign of sorrow and repentance.  The origin of the ashes also deserves a description.  In many churches the ashes are from the burnt remains of palm branches used the previous year in the celebration of Palm Sunday.

    The earliest reference to a celebration of Ash Wednesday dates from the writing of Aelfric, an abbot of a monastery in Eynsham near Oxford, England.  He died around 1020, so sometime around the year 1000 he wrote “We read in the books both on the Old Law and in the New [Old and New Testaments] that the men who repented of their sins placed on themselves ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we put ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” 

    By many accounts (meaning that I have not been able to find the document myself), at the Council or Synod of Benevento held in 1091, Pope Urban II suggested that all churches adopt this practice.  Put together, these two references show that well before the year 1000 that Christians were practicing the application of ashes on the first day of Lent.  I can state that because I have noticed that by the time a belief or practice has bubbled to the top where someone is writing about it or it is proclaimed at a Council, that it has been practiced by the common people for a long time, even hundreds of years.

    With Ash Wednesday signifying the beginning of a time of fasting, a celebration of feasting in preparation for the fasting also developed.  This is most widely known as Mardi Gras.  The term comes from the French and means “Fat Tuesday,” since it is the day before Ash Wednesday.  It is the last chance Lent-practicing Christians have of enjoying what they will give up for forty days.

©2009 Mark Nickens

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