Ash Wednesday

My series on the “Journey to Easter…Symbols and Traditions” continues.

Ash Wednesday, in the Western Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter. This year it occurs on March 9th. Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are typically gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. In the practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with oil. This paste is used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his or her own forehead and then on those of congregants. Thus the symbol for Ash Wednesday is a cross made of ashes.

The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a 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 of the following when applying the ashes:

Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
—Genesis 3:19
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
—Mark 1:15
Repent, and hear the good news.
—Mark 1:15

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 the Roman 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.

These Christian denominations are among those that mark Ash Wednesday by holding a service of worship or Mass:

African Methodist Episcopal Church
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Anglican/Episcopal churches (excepting most Sydney Diocese churches)
Anglican Church of India
Individual Baptist churches may hold a service
Catholic Church (in the Latin Rite); known as Ash Monday in the other Eastern Catholic Churches
Church of God (Anderson)
Church of South India
Church of North India
Church of the Nazarene
Some congregations of Community of Christ
Some Free Churches
The Liberal Catholic Church
Lutheran Church
Moravian Church
Old Catholic Church
Reformed churches (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), etc.)
United Methodist Church
Wesleyan Church
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