Ash Wednesday is an important day in the Christian calendar, and marks the start of Lent – but why the name?
Ash Wednesday follows Shrove Tuesday – more popularly known as Pancake Day.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, and is 40 days long. It ends in Holy Week, which is the week immediately leading up to Easter. So, Ash Wednesday falls six and a half weeks before Easter – 40 days of Lent plus the Sundays.
Lent is a period of reflection and repentance of sin. Those who observe it are expected to seek reconciliation with God, and a closer walk with God in the future. Many choose to give up an indulgence in Lent – chocolate or alcohol are common things people give up. Others eat more simply throughout lent, or even fast on certain days. This is a representation of the Christ being tempted as he fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judaean Desert.
Ash Wednesday gets its name from early traditions in the Christian Church in Rome. Penitents would partake in a period of public penance. During this, they were sprinkled with ashes and dressed in a sackcloth until they were reconciled with other churchgoers on Maundy Thursday. This practice had faded by the 10th century. However, today Lent is marked in many places by ashes being used to mark the shape of a cross on observers’ foreheads. This gesture is accompanied with the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” and/or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. These phrases are designed to remind worshippers of their mortality and the need to repent.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning palms used on previous Palm Sunday. Ash has biblical significance as a means of expressing grief, both in the sense of mourning and in expressing sorrow for sins and faults.
Shrove Tuesday – Pancake Day – happens the day before because it was originally a means of using up rich food that wouldn’t be needed during Lent. In French, the date became known as “Mardi Gras”, or “Fat Tuesday”, for this reason.