What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday, in the Western Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is a moveable fast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as February 4 (February 5 on leap years) or as late as March 10.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered after the palms or Palm Crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. This practice is common in much of Christendom, being celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans.

When the priest or minister applies the ashes to one’s forehead, he often conveys an exhortation such as the following:

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt 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

Whether we choose to receive ashes or not, this is a special day in which to focus our thoughts upon the gift of repentance. As Isaiah the Prophet states: “From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. ‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the LORD” (59:19-20).

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