Ash Wednesday – Where Did That Come From?
By The Rt. Rev. James Stanton | February 24, 2020
Ash Wednesday – Where did that come from?
For early Christians, every Sunday was the Lord’s Day – for that is the day on which he rose from death. But the yearly celebration of that event was even more special. It soon became the day when new disciples would be baptized, to symbolize their incorporation into the resurrection of Jesus.
To prepare for this special event, a period of 40 days was set apart. During this period, the whole body would fast and pray in preparation for the Great Easter celebration.
In addition, this period also became a time when members of the Church who had sinned in some serious way could be restored to full participation in the community. Such persons would dress in sackcloth and make a public confession of their sins. As a sign of their penitence, ashes (made from palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year) would be poured on their heads. It took some courage and a lot of commitment to make such a confession!
In time, this practice was simplified. Since every Christian is both a saint (loved by God) and a sinner (acting selfishly from time to time), it seemed appropriate that every member of the Church be called to pray for their sins and seek to amend their lives by God’s grace. The sign of this special intention was the “imposition of ashes” – the making of the sign of the cross in ashes on the forehead.
This simplified practice caught on throughout the Church in the West. The use of ashes in this new way gave the first day of Lent it’s name! In Spanish, it is Miércoles de ceniza; in French, mercredi des Cendres (Wednesday of cinders!); in German, Aschermittwoch.
Today, the ashes used are still made from palms used on Palm Sunday. Often, these palms are fashioned into crosses which the faithful take home after the Palm Sunday liturgy. They then bring these crosses back to Church before Ash Wednesday, when they are carefully burned and reduced to ashes by the clergy.