Ash Wednesday begins the period of Lent. In 2010, Ash Wednesday began on February 17th. Lent is a period before Easter including forty-six days and forty days, not including Sundays. Ash Wednesday is meant to begin a time of reflection, spiritual redirection and self-examination. Just as Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting and in prayer, we remember his actions by attempting to do something similar.
Ash Wednesday is always on a Wednesday, rather than a Sunday, because Sundays are the day we remember Christ as having risen from the dead. This also accounts for why there are forty-six days in Lent with the six Sundays not being counted.
Because my experience is with the Roman Catholic Church’s celebration of Ash Wednesday, my focus will be on this denomination. I knew little about the day known as Ash Wednesday until I took classes to join the Roman Catholic Church in 2000. Prior to joining the church, I saw people around town who I knew to be Catholic with dark smudges on their foreheads once a year. I did not realize the significance of the smudges until learning about Ash Wednesday while taking the RCIA classes.
Ashes are made from the burning of palm fronds used during the Palm Sunday from the previous liturgical year. These ashes are mixed with either holy water or olive oil and are blessed. A priest makes the mark of the cross on the person’s forehead with this ash and the person wears the mark until it comes off on its own-the reason I saw people with dark smudges on their foreheads.
Roman Catholic Christians wear markings of ash crosses on their foreheads as a sign of repentance and in remembrance of Christ dying on the cross. During ancient times, people dressed in sackcloth and poured ashes on themselves when they went through a period of mourning. Ash Wednesday is in reference to Christ’s separation in the desert to fast and pray. Therefore the ashes are a mark of our own beginning of fasting and praying. The ashes also symbolize the period of mourning we will go through as a result of Christ’s death on the cross as Lent comes to a close.
Roman Catholics fast and abstain from meat during Ash Wednesday. They spend the day in repentance as well. During medieval times, Ash Wednesday was the required day for confession and it occurred after fasting and tithing. Catholics between the ages of 18-59 are required to consume only one full meal or two smaller meals on Ash Wednesday. Exceptions are of course made if a woman is pregnant or someone has a medical condition that could make the practice dangerous. Every Friday during the holiday of Lent is one in which Roman Catholics abstain from meat.
To summarize, Ash Wednesday begins the holiday of Lent. Lent is the forty-six day period during which Roman Catholic and certain other Christians place extra importance on repentance, fasting, and tithing. Lent ends with the celebration of the Easter holiday.