Pancake day is over and Lent has begun. But where did the day we call Ash Wednesday come from, and why do we celebrate it? Karen Murdarasi explores the origins of the Christian festival, and some of the more unusual ways it is marked today
The carnival is over, the pancakes are eaten, or scraped off the ceiling, and Lent has begun: it’s Ash Wednesday.
But what is Ash Wednesday all about, and where does it come from?
To answer that, we have to go back over 1,500 years, to a time when public penance was a huge part of Church discipline.
The problem of sin
In the early Church, sin was not just seen as a personal problem, but a wider community issue. How could Christians who had committed serious sins like murder, adultery or denying their faith be reintegrated into the Church?
Although God had forgiven them, some outward sign of repentance (public confession, fasting, giving to the poor) helped to show that they had really turned from their past ways. So these offenders became penitents, people who showed their remorse for a temporary period before becoming full Church members again.
Some priests offer “ashes to go” outside shopping centres, on train platforms, and even on the Las Vegas Strip
New Christians (catechumens) traditionally registered for their Easter baptism on the first day of Lent, and used the period inbetween to prepare to become Church members, often by fasting.
It made sense for penitents to use this period for fasting as well, in order to publically demonstrate their remorse. So they also enrolled for penance on the first day of Lent. Then, the new Christians and the fallen Christians could be welcomed into Church together in time for Easter.
Over the centuries, this tradition spread beyond just catechumens and penitents. Monks and nuns started to do penance voluntarily, as a spiritual practice rather than discipline.
Others joined in with this new idea, until there were more people keeping Lent voluntarily than there were penitents who had to do it. It became normal practice for Christians, at least in the West, to receive ashes at the start of Lent as a sign of penitence. Eventually, in 1091, Pope Urban II made it official. Ash Wednesday was born.
We still use the biblical phrase “sackcloth and ashes” to describe extreme remorse or guilt. In the Old Testament, wearing sackcloth and dust or ashes was a sign of grief or repentance. Daniel did it when he asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of his people (Daniel 9:3) and so did Job’s friends when they saw his miserable state (Job 2:12). Mordecai and the Jews fasted, wearing sackcloth and ashes, when they heard of the plot against them (Esther 4:1-3).
Getting yourself dirty with dust or ashes is a deliberate act of self-humiliation – and a reminder that “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Receiving ashes at the start of Lent became part of public penance, helping to identify penitents. Later, it was adopted by people doing voluntary Lenten penance, too, and the connection between receiving ashes and starting a Lenten fast became so strong that it made it into the name - Feria Quarta Cinerum, meaning Ash Wednesday.
Lent seems to have begun as a three-week period of preparation for Easter. Sometime in the first few centuries, it got extended to 40 days, but there was a lot of variation about which 40 days. Some churches didn’t count Sundays, or Saturdays, or even Fridays, meaning that Lent started anywhere between six and eight weeks before Easter. By the eighth century, the Western Church had standardised it to the 40 days before Easter Sunday, not including Sundays – which means that it has to start on a Wednesday.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has a different system, counting Sundays among their 40 days, meaning that Lent begins on Clean Monday (27 February 2023), not Ash Wednesday.
To ash, or not to ash
Ash Wednesday hasn’t always been popular. Protestant reformers were in favour of fasting as a choice, but not of official, imposed fasts. During the reign of Henry VIII, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer tried to ban the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday, as well as palms on Palm Sunday and candles at Candlemas, branding them all “superstitious ceremonies”.
In the early Church, sin was not just seen as a personal problem, but a wider community issue
These days, Ash Wednesday is mostly confined to the Roman Catholic Church, although some Protestant churches celebrate it, too. The palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burned to make the ashes. In many parts of the world, they are sprinkled on top of the head but, in the UK, it is more common to have a cross marked on your forehead.
Many people nip out in their lunchbreak to go to church and receive their ashes but, in some cities, priests offer “ashes to go” outside shopping centres, on train platforms, and even on the Las Vegas Strip. Some churches offer drive-through ashes for the time-pressed, something that Pope Urban II probably never envisioned.
However you do (or don’t) mark Ash Wednesday, it’s a good day to exercise humility, to remember that Jesus died for our sins, and to look forward to the celebration of his victory, 40(ish) days from now.