Tomorrow is the day that most of us know as Ash Wednesday. However while many of us know what the day is called, and that it marks the beginning of the Lenten Season. where did this custom come from?
Last night I was doing a little resaerch to get the proper answer to this very question. I wanted to know because my intention was to put up an Ash Wednesday post for the children, however after dong just a little research I thought it be best for me to have a deeper understanding first. So I ask you, do you know why many people have ashes put on their heads? Where the custom came from and if it is or is not Biblical in nature?
Here are two pieces of information that I found.
Piece Number 1: From bibleinfo.com a Seventh Day Adventist site
No. Ash Wednesday is actually of pagan origin and was admitted into the church beliefs of the Catholic Church a few hundred years after Christ. This was the era when Constantine was attempting to weld pagans and Christians into a unit within the Roman kingdom.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and always falls forty-six days before Easter. Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). From Biblical times, sprinkling oneself with ashes has been a mark of sorrow for sin. Besides showing their sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add to this meaning of penance a second point; the need to prepare for a holy death.
Although Ash Wednesday is not a day of holy obligation, Roman Catholics attend Mass on this day in order to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
The churches of the Anglican Communion, as well as some other Protestant churches observe Ash Wednesday. Eastern Rite churches do not. Their Lent begins on the preceding Monday.
Piece Number 2: Although Ash Wednesday is not a Catholic holy day of obligation, it is an important part of the season of Lent. The first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday is around 960, and in the 12th century people began using palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday for ashes.
Ashes in the Bible
The origin of the custom of using ashes in religious ritual is lost in the mists of pre-history, but we find references to the practice in our own religious tradition in the Old Testament. 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 Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Is 58:5).
The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel’s repentance: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3).
Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God’s command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, his preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried to the king of Nineveh. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jon 3:6).
In the book of Judith, we find acts of repentance that specify that the ashes were put on people’s heads: “And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord” (Jdt 4:11; see also 4:15 and 9:1).
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 Mc 3:47; see also 4:39).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).
Ashes in the History of the Church
Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.
At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.
In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass
Our Shifting Understanding of Lent
Those who work with liturgy in parishes know that some of the largest crowds in the year will show up to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Though this is not a holy day of obligation in our tradition, many people would not think of letting Ash Wednesday go by without a trip to church to be marked with an ashen cross on their foreheads. Even people who seldom come to Church for the rest of the year may make a concerted effort to come for ashes.
How did this practice become such an important part of the lives of so many believers? Who came up with the idea for this rather odd ritual? How do we explain the popularity of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces? Those who do not share our customs often make a point of telling us that we have something on our foreheads, assuming we would want to wash it off, but many Catholics wear that smudge faithfully all day.
From Ashes to the Font
The call to continuing conversion reflected in these readings is also the message of the ashes. We move through Lent from ashes to the baptismal font. We dirty our faces on Ash Wednesday and are cleansed in the waters of the font. More profoundly, we embrace the need to die to sin and selfishness at the beginning of Lent so that we can come to fuller life in the Risen One at Easter.
When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth (“Remember that you are dust”). We remember that we are mortal beings (“and to dust you will return”). We remember that we are baptized. We remember that we are people on a journey of conversion (“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”). We remember that we are members of the body of Christ (and that smudge on our foreheads will proclaim that identity to others, too).
Renewing our sense of who we really are before God is the core of the Lenten experience. It is so easy to forget, and thus we fall into habits of sin, ways of thinking and living that are contrary to God’s will. In this we are like the Ninevites in the story of Jonah. It was “their wickedness” that caused God to send Jonah to preach to them. Jonah resisted that mission and found himself in deep water. Rescued by a large fish, Jonah finally did God’s bidding and began to preach in Nineveh. His preaching obviously fell on open ears and hearts, for in one day he prompted the conversion of the whole city.
From the very beginning of Lent, God’s word calls us to conversion. If we open our ears and hearts to that word, we will be like the Ninevites not only in their sinfulness but also in their conversion to the Lord. That, simply put, is the point of Ash Wednesday! From American Catholic
So there is a little more information for those who like me, had heard of Ash Wednesday but were unsure of its origins and what it stood for. So what does the above information do for you? Does it change your views, does it make you question if we should or should not participate? Do you have a different understanding, meaning or origin of Ash Wednesday?
Can’t wait to read your thoughts!