Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. In the Christian calendar, it finds place as a holy occassion on which priests make ash marks on the foreheads of devout Christians to symbolize their repentance for wrongdoings, their mortality and their commitment to Jesus and the Almighty.
Origins and History of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday marks the onset of the Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It is also known as the 'Day of Ashes'. So called because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.
The name 'Day of Ashes' comes from "Dies Cinerum" in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).
In the Old Testament ashes were found to have used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom.
Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.
Originally the use of ashes to betoken penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men
Putting a 'cross' mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil, and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
This can also be held as an adoption of the way 'righteousness' are described in the book of Revelation, where we come to know about the servants of God.The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:
"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally, "a tav"] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)
Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above (the Revised Standard Version, which we have been quoting thus far), is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a tav on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. Tav is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in ancient script it looked like the Greek letter chi, which happens to be two crossed lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek Christos). The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between tav and chi and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.
The early Church Fathers seized on this tav-chi-cross-christos connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross, like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
Customs & Traditions of Ash Wednesday
At this time of year, many of us are quite familiar with the scene where the young and old, the rich and the poor stand waiting in long queue at the Church. And they may wait for hours, and some may even spare their lunch. No, the zeal is not for clinching a big deal. The reason is rather simple. All of them just want to 'get ashed'. For this is Ash Wednesday.
Getting ashed apart, the tradition is to pray, and go for fasting as a preparation for Lent. Both the Old Law and the New says that those who had repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Thus wearing sack cloth and sprinkling the head with ashes was an ancient sign of repentance. The Biblical custom for repentance was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. But the Bible does not specify the Ash Wednesday rites as such. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.
In fact, the traditions of Ash Wednesday came up as a part of the Lenten customs during the late 5th century. Penitence and fasting are two of the key distinctives of Lent. And thus also of the Ash Wednesday. It does not associate commemoration of any event. For, nothing special is known to have happened forty days before the crucifixion. So, the Day could only be said to indirectly commemorate a Christ since it is the beginning of preparation for the greater celebrations of Christ's saving work. Obviously the Bible makes no reference to this day.
Unlike the old days, we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day.
It is just an observance among the western churches. Ash Wednesday is a day of penance. The Church has never chosen to make it or any other specific day the definitive commemoration of the concept of repentance. Still it is a deacon. Some churches observe it with distribution of ashes, reading prayers of repentance, and with other services offered from the pulpit.
Even in ancient days, people marked times of fasting, prayer, repentance, and remorse by placing ashes on their foreheads. The custom was prevalent in early days of Judaism: as found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26.
This custom entered the church from Judaism. And is observed on Ash Wednesday, that marks the onset of a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.
At first only public penitence received the ashes. They were made to appear barefooted at the church and perform penances for their sins. Friends and relatives began to accompany them, perhaps in sympathy and in the knowledge that no man is free from sin, and gradually the ashes were given to the whole congregation.
On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into palm ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."In case of clerics it is upon the place of the tonsure.
The saying and the act are meant for reminding us that man is mortal. This means we are dust and it is dust to which we shall return.
The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present.
In the United States, besides the Roman Catholics some Episcopal Churches also observe Ash Wednesday with the distribution of ashes. In addition, prayers of repentance are read and exhortation denouncing sin, taken from chapter 28 or the Book of Deuteronomy, are delivered from the pulpit. The Psalm 51 is prayed and the litany of penitence in solidarity with those preparing for baptism or restoration to the church's fellowship. Other Protestant denominations also mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Churches do not, since the Great Lent begins on Monday. For all Christian Churches, however, Lent is a period of preparation. The culmination is Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and building to the joyous celebration of Easter.
Originally it was only the Roman Catholics who had the foreheads marked with the cross of palm ash. But now the imposition of ashes has made its way into the wider church and even the popular culture.
As the deacon sings "Earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God" the gateway to the pilgrimage floats open to the Lenten session of penitence. The session that tells us to take a relook at our past deeds and weed out the wrong ones by certain observances.
The Significance of Ash Wednesday
Traditionally, the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service come from burning the palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration. They are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the Easter. They are then blessed by a priest.
Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head.Blessed ashes having been used in God's rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).
They also symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,"
Of course, it is easier to purchase them from a religious supply house. However, if you burn the palm fronds yourself, don't add any other ingredient-just burn the ashes plain. Add a little oil to the ashes so that they will stick to people's foreheads.
Don't overestimate how much you need! It is amazing how far a small amount of ashes will go!
Today the word 'fasting' means a total abstention from all food. In the historic Church, it means a disciplined diet so that your animal appetites become a sort of spiritual snooze alarm. Although no such period of fasting was ascribed in the Bible, fasting and penitence came to be associated with Lent following the way Jesus did. The Lenten tradition of fasting commemorates the forty-day fast of Jesus in the desert after his baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry.
Today in the United States, Roman Catholics in the age groups of 21 to 59 are required to fast and abstain only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence from meat is recommended for the other Fridays of Lent. Voluntary fasts and abstinences are encouraged for the entire season.
Earlier, in Catholic Europe, fasting was decreed first by church laws. England enforced it also by its statute law. Meat, eggs and milk were forbidden and any lapse into gluttony could be severely punished.James II issued a proclamation in the London Gazette a year before the Bloodless Revolution of 1688 urging that the people abstain from meat. However, by giving alms to the poor, a license permitting the eating of meat could be acquired in St. Paul's Churchyard. In the days of stricter abstinence the money saved through fasting was to be donated to the poor.
The practice, however, fell into abeyance later. Being out of the purview of the Bible the devotion to Lenten food laws waned, especially by the time of the Puritans. Finally, in 1863 England repealed the food laws. And gradually the practice came to be reduced to only two days. The first day and the final day.
While the Lenten tradition of fasting has its religious connotation, the practice could also be regarded to be backed by some hygienic prudence. A light eating practice between two session of heavy feast is always helpful to tone up the digestive system. So instead of continuing with the usual practice of gluttony or overindulgence in the food habit, a controlled dieting of low animal protein could always be helpful at least as a preparation for the great feasting session of Easter.