A cross of ashes on a worshipper's forehead on Ash Wednesday
|Observed by||Many Western Christians|
|Date||Wednesday in seventh week before Easter|
|2012 date||February 22|
|2013 date||February 13|
|2014 date||March 5|
|Observances||Service of worship or Mass
Marking of an ash cross on the forehead
|Related to||Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting or abstinence. Of the 46 days until Easter, six are Sundays. As the Christian sabbath, Sundays are not included in the fasting period and are instead "feast" days during Lent.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.
Although generally seen as a Catholic practice, as it was mostly abandoned by Protestants except for Anglicans after the Protestant Reformation, it has become increasingly common in much of Christianity, now being observed by many Lutherans and Methodists in addition to Catholics and Anglicans.
At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the sign of the cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one or both of the following when applying the ashes:
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
Repent, and believe the Gospel.
The liturgical imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sacramental, not a sacrament, and in the Catholic understanding of the term the ashes themselves are also a sacramental. The ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water. In some churches, they are mixed with a small amount of water or olive oil, which serve as a fixative. In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 (LXX Psalm 50) is especially associated with this day. The service also often includes a corporate confession rite.
In some of the low church traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.
In the Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to anyone who wishes to receive them, as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity. Similarly, in other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.
In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one's transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In the medieval period, Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of penitential confession occurring after fasting and the remittance of the tithe. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church's traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.
Biblical significance 
Ashes were used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3–6. Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
Other examples are found in several other books of the Bible including, Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13, and Hebrews 9:13. Ezekiel 9 also speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people. All those without the mark are destroyed.
It marks the start of a 43-day period which is an allusion to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12–13, and Luke 4:1–13. While not specifically instituted in the Bible text, the 40-day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf. (Jews today follow a 40-day period of repenting in preparation for and during the High Holy Days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur.)
Ash Wednesday is a moveable fast, occurring 46 days before Easter. In future years Ash Wednesday will occur on these dates:
The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is February 4 (in a common year with Easter on March 22), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date is March 10 (when Easter Day falls on April 25) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (February 29), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on February 29 are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on February 29 only if Easter is on April 15 in a leap year.)
Observing denominations 
These Christian denominations are among those that mark Ash Wednesday with a particular liturgy or church service.
- African Methodist Episcopal Church
- African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
- Anglican Catholic Church
- Anglican Communion
- Episcopal Church
- Traditional Anglican Communion
- Individual Baptist churches may hold a service
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
- Some congregations of the Church of the Nazarene
- Church of God (Anderson)
- Church of the Nazarene
- Church of North India
- Church of South India
- Some congregations of Community of Christ
- Ecclesia Gnostica
- Some congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church
- Some Free Churches (e.g., Free Methodist Church)
- Liberal Catholic Church
- Lutheran Church
- Some congregations of the Mennonite Brethren Church
- Some congregations of Mennonite Church Canada
- Some congregations of Mennonite Church USA
- Methodist Church in India
- Metropolitan Community Churches
- Moravian Church
- Old Catholic Church
- Reformed churches (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), etc.)
- Roman Catholic Church
- United Church of Christ Congregations
- United Methodist Church
- Wesleyan Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not, in general, observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously mentioned denominations, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.
National No Smoking Day 
In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984, but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.
See also 
- Ash Wednesday, an album by Elvis Perkins
- "Ash Wednesday", a poem by T.S. Eliot
- Ash Wednesday fires, a series of bushfires that affected south-eastern Australia in 1983
- Carnival, festival ending on Ash Wednesday
- Holy Week – the last week in the season of Lent
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Ash Wednesday|
- "Prayers and Reflections- buying ash from the Holy Land". Ash Wednesday. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
- "What is Lent and why does it last forty days?". The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
- "The Liturgical Year". The Anglican Catholic Church. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
- Ellsworth Kalas. Preaching the Calendar: Celebrating Holidays and Holy Days. Westminster John Knox Press. Retrieved 8 March 2011. "We are wise, therefore to explain, whether in the course of the homily or in the church bulletin or newsletter, something of the meaning of the day: of ashes as an ancient symbol of loss and repentance; of the historic words spoken during the imposition of the ashes, "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return"; of the practice in many religious communions of using ashes made from the palms of the previous year's Palm Sunday; and, of course, that the imposition of ashes is a sign of mourning and repentance."
- Houston Chronicle: "More Protestants are turning to Ash Wednesday" RICHARD VARA February 6, 2008 | The rite was generally abandoned by Protestants after the Reformation, although Episcopalians continued to observe it...Protestant churches in recent years have increasingly turned to the rite to increase spirituality and devotional preparation for Easter Sunday among their members
- William P. Lazarus, Mark Sullivan. Comparative Religion For Dummies. For Dummies. Retrieved 8 March 2011. "This is the day Lent begins. Christians go to church to pray and have a cross drawn in ashes on their foreheads. The ashes drawn on ancient tradition represent repentance before God. The holiday is part of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian liturgies, among others."
- Sylvia A. Sweeney. An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent. Peter Lang. Retrieved 8 March 2011. "In the twentieth century, the imposition of ashes became part of the liturgical experience of not only Roman Catholics, but Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans as well."
- Dear Abby (4 April 2013). "Wife Sees Trouble in Eyes of Husband and Store Clerk". Universal Uclick. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
- Ford, Penny. "Lent 101". Upper Room Ministries.
- "Lent and Easter". The Diocese of London. 17 March 2004.
- Psalm 51 is the Ash Wednesday reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and The Catholic Lectionary.
- "What is the significance of ashes being placed on the forehead on Ash Wednesday?". The United Methodist Church.
- "Responses to frequently asked questions regarding Lenten practices". Catholics United for the Faith.
- Code of Canon Law, canon 1170
- Donovan, Colin B. "Communion of Non-Catholics or Intercommunion". Eternal Word Television Network.
- 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844
- "Pastor's Message: Ash Wednesday, An Invitation To Lent". First United Methodist Church. 28 February 2001.
- 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 1251
- 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1252 §§2–3
- "Lent with Jesus in the desert to fight the spirit of evil". Asia News.it. 3 May 2006. "Turning to the gospel of the day, which is about Jesus' 40 days in the desert, "where he overcame the temptations of Satan" (cfr Mk 1:12–13), Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Christians to follow "their Teacher and Lord to face together with Him 'the struggle against the spirit of evil'." He said: "The desert is rather an eloquent metaphor of the human condition.""
- Written Answers. – Cigarette Smoking. Dáil Éireann – Volume 475 – 18 February 1997
- Chronic long-term costs of COPD, Dr Jarlath Healy, Irish Medical Times, 2008
- Ban on smoking in cars gets Minister's support Alison Healy, The Irish Times, 2009
- 20% of smokers light up around their children every day Claire O'Sullivan, Irish Examiner, 2006
- The History of No Smoking Day, No Smoking Day website
- FAQ: When is No Smoking Day 2010?, No Smoking Day website
- A Roman Catholic Ash Wednesday Service
- An Episcopal Ash Wednesday Service
- The Text This Week: Ash Wednesday
- Dates of Ash Wednesday from 1583–9999
- Lent: Ash Wednesday – All Saints' King's Lynn
- Ash Wednesday 2014 Update by Jason Nguyen
- Ash Wednesday 2014 HugoTalk