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Lent 2018: 3 important things to know about Ash Wednesday

Its Ash Wednesday today, February 14, 2018.

Here are three important things to know about this very symbolic day.

Origin story

Ash Wednesday is an old tradition practiced by Catholics in order to prepare for Easter, the recognition of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There are two different accounts when it comes to the exact origin of this practice.

What is the origin story of Ash Wednesday? play

What is the origin story of Ash Wednesday?


One of them claims that it is a non-Christian tradition that was eventually adopted by Constantine the Great whose goal at the time was to gradually introduce pagans to Christianity.

According to this account of history, practitioners of the Nordic pagan religion would put ashes on their foreheads in an attempt to ensure the protection of the Norse god, Odin.

Fun Fact: This was done on a day set aside for Odin, Odin’s Day which later became Wednesday.

Constantine the Great is said to have adopted the non-Christian practice of placing ashes on one's head from a Nordic pagan religion play

Constantine the Great is said to have adopted the non-Christian practice of placing ashes on one's head from a Nordic pagan religion


On the other hand, there is the Christian account that says the use of ashes can be traced to the Bible.

Lauren F. Winner, a priest and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, explains: “The practice of Ash Wednesday dates back to the 11th Century.

“You see that in the book Daniel in the nine chapter there’s a line about associating fasting with ashes, so ashes are associated with penance, which is the dominant theme of Lent.”

The Christian origin story of ash Wednesday play

The Christian origin story of ash Wednesday


John W. Fenton adds: “by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast.

“In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as “Feria Quarta Cinerum” (i.e., Ash Wednesday).”

Why ashes?

The ashes are said to represent the dust that humans are made from and will eventually return to. This is based on Genesis 3:19.

This is why the placement of the ashes on the forehead is accompanied by “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,” translated as “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

The ashes, done in the sign of the cross, also symbolize the mourning for our sins (See 2 Samuel 13:19, Job 42:3–6, Jer 6:26, Daniel 9:3, 1 Maccabees 3:47; and  4:39).

Before the ashes are used, the blessed palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burnt and prayed upon.

Any other thing I need to know about Ash Wednesday?

For Catholics, this is a compulsory ritual as it also initiates the beginning of a 40-day period of fasting, penance, and reflection known as Lent.

This could be why this is one of the few sacramentals that the Catholic Church does not exclude anyone from receiving.

Symbolism of Ash Wednesday play

Symbolism of Ash Wednesday


It is also not limited to just church buildings. These blessed ashes can be received anywhere.

On Ash Wednesday,  Catholics are expected to fast a stated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

The statement read: “Catholics throughout the world recognize Ash Wednesday as the solemn beginning of a period of prayerful reflection and penance, as is evident by a large number of churchgoers on this day.

In view of the significance of Ash Wednesday, the obligation of fast and abstinence must naturally be the priority in the Catholic community.”

Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent play

Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent


Abstinence from certain foods, like meat and dairy, is also expected throughout the entire Lent period.