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Significance of Ash Wednesday to the Catholic Church.

Updated on September 2, 2017
Odewoye Francis profile image

Odewoye,Graduate Electrical Engineering,Registered member, Engineering Council U.K,Registered member(COREN) Nigeria. Professional Engineer.


We would like to focus on this important celebration “Ash Wednesday”. We have chosen it so because its celebration strikes an importance in the life of the church.
We would realize that the liturgical calendar started with advent season after which Christmas followed then comes a brief ordinary time of the season.

Therefore, we could ask what this Ash Wednesday is and what is its significance to the church?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar. Occurring 46 days before Easter.

According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40- day liturgical period of prayer, fasting or abstinence and alms giving.Of the 46 days until Easter, six are Sundays.

Sundays are not included in the fasting period as the Christian Sabbath and are instead “feast” days during Lent.

1. How Ash Wednesday derives its name?

The name Ash Wednesday was derived from the celebration and reminder of human mortality by the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads and as a sign of repentance to God and mourning.

The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

This was abandoned by Protestants except for Anglicans, it was generally seen as a Catholic practice. After the Protestant Reformation, it has become increasingly common in much of Christianity, now being observed by Methodist and many Lutherans, in addition to Catholics and Anglicans.

During the 40 days or 6 weeks that preceding Palm Sunday, Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent, with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Eastern Orthodox churches.

2. Lenten time.

Many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, spiritual discipline, repentance and moderation, that period is what we referred to Lenten period. During some Ash Wednesday services, the minister will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the fore heads of worshipers and says “remember dust you are and to dust shall you return” or “repent and believe the Gospel”.The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of lending, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Easter 4:1, Job 2:8, Daniel 9:3, and Matthew 11:21.

It might also interest everyone to note that the Catholic Church is leading in every sphere of life and when it income dates, she is wonderful. Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast, occurring 46 days before Easter. In future years Ash Wednesday will occur on these dates:
2018 ………….February 1
2019 ………… March 6
2020 ………….February 26
2021 ……….. February 17
2022 ……….. March 2
2023 ……….. February 22

3. Why is it called Ash Wednesday?

Ashes are something that is left when something is burned. For Christians, ashes are the symbol of being sorry for things they have done wrong and want to get rid of forever. It also reminds Christians that, we all come from ashes and to ashes we all will return.

4. Why ashes are marked on the forehead?

Marking on the forehead of Christians with ash marks the commitment to God and Jesus Christ. Christians wanted to show that they were sorry for the wrong things they had done in the past year to God.The sign of cross with ash on the forehead is also used in many Middle Eastern cultures.

Ashes are marked on the forehead.
Ashes are marked on the forehead.

5. What happens on Ash Wednesday today?

Many Christians will go to their respective churches to attend a religious service. The church leader will bless the ashes and placed as a sign of the cross on their forehead. This marks the physical and spiritual beginning of a personal Lent season that is the belief of the Christians in which 40 days of repentance will begin leading up to the celebration of Easter Sunday. When the forehead is marked, it initiates the beginning of the Lent for each individual person.

Congregation in the church.
Congregation in the church.

6. What are the ashes made from?

The ashes come from a previous Palm Sunday. In churches the priest first burns the palms, the ashes collected and then crushed into a fine, sooty powder and placed into bowls.

The ashes are blessed by the priest during the Ash Wednesday Mass. After the homily. Then, in a Communion-like procession, those who wish come forward, the priest dips his thumb in the paste and the ashes are applied to each person’s forehead in the shape of a cross as the minister says either, “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), the usual prayer, or “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 1:13), the older, more traditional invocation

The ashes come from the previous Palm Sunday
The ashes come from the previous Palm Sunday

7. Why are last year’s Palm Crosses recycled?

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the last years Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph.

8. What do the ashes symbolize?

On the believer’s forehead using ashes to mark the cross symbolizes that all Christians can be free from sin through Christ’s death and resurrection,

It is our desire that God will grant each and every one of us a repentant heart to be able to gain eternal life when our times come.

9. What is the significance of Ash Wednesday?

The imposition of ashes is a solemn ritual that signals the beginning of the holy season of Lent. The ceremony is distinctive; there is no liturgical action like it throughout the entire church year.

. Ashes symbolize two main things in the Old Testament:

1. Ashes represent death.

Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay (Genesis 2:7), and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.

For example, Abraham told God, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), a reference to his human mortality. Jeremiah described death as a “valley of corpses and ashes” (Jeremiah 31:40).

Ashes are an ominous sign, and we use them on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of our own impending deaths. Death may come sooner, or it may come later, but it will surely come. And if death is coming, we need to be prepared, and the time to prepare for death is now, and the way to prepare is to live according to God’s ways.

2. Ashes stand for repentance:

When the prophet Daniel shamefacedly clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, they were a sign of his people’s contrition for their rebellion, wickedness and treachery (Daniel 9:3).

When Jonah warned the Ninevites that God planned to destroy their city because of their corruption and depravity, the people covered themselves with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their intention to turn from their evil ways (Jonah 3:6,10).

Moreover, they are a public admission of guilt, an expression of sorrow for sins that have been committed, a promise to reform and a pledge to resist temptation in the future.

When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins because we are sinners.and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy.

10. Reflection on Ash Wednesday;

  1. While Ash Wednesday and Lent play an important role in the lives of all practicing Christians who indeed practice the traditions, the Pope’s calling is one that can be adhered to by just about everyone concerned with the welfare of their fellow humans.
  2. As I walked up to get my ashes, I heard those profound words that are spoken as the priest draws a cross on the forehead, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words, heard in the confines of the faith I practice, could easily become ordinary.
  3. After all, I’ve heard them in this specific context for my entire life. But every year, I am struck at the universality of these words. That regardless of all the ways that human beings are different – some of those ways superficial and some, significant – all of us, every single one of us, at one time or another, will indeed, “return to the dust.” We are all going to die.
  4. Across religions and cultures, while death is perceived differently and the practice of mourning and remembrance is diverse, there is often still an uncertainty, an apprehension that accompanies death’s perception. But whatever those differences, death is a fact; it is inescapable. At least in the very ordinary, human sense.
  5. For all of us, regardless of culture and creed, death is a reason to mourn. To mourn the lives of loved ones, and to mourn for ourselves and the loss we experience when the reality of death physically separates us from those we knew.
  6. Too often however, it is only death that might cause us to remember the fragility of life. Ash Wednesday and Lent are a call for Christians to be cognizant of this fragility, and to repent to God and to our fellow human beings for our wrongdoings.

The greatest of these, I think, is our lack of love – our indifference. Perhaps one doesn’t need ashes on the forehead to repent for this sin.



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