Miscellaneous » Liturgical Seasons & Events » Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. On this special day of reflection, Catholics wear a marking of the cross in ash on their foreheads. The ashes symbolize our mortality – “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But you might be wondering, where do the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from?
Some of the ashes are created by burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent and leads into Holy Week. It is on this day that people laid palms to cover Jesus’s path as he arrived in Jerusalem, just days before he was crucified.
Since the palms have been blessed, instead of throwing them away after the celebration, they are saved to create ashes for Ash Wednesday. 
Do you still have your palms from Palm Sunday last year? Feel free to drop them off at church during Mass or at the rectory by Thursday February 8th. Fr. Carlos will burn last year’s palms for use this year on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday begins the 40 days of lent, a time when we remember that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and resisting temptation. As Jesus grew hungry from fasting in the desert, he was faced with the first of three temptations. Satan appeared before him and told him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus resisted, knowing that he was being tempted to do something God did not want. He knew the word of God was just as important as bread to survival.
He was then brought to the top of a building in Jerusalem and told that, if he truly was the Son of God, he should jump from the building and angels would carry him to safety. Jesus once again resisted, knowing not to challenge God.
On the third temptation, Jesus was brought to the top of a mountain and told that all the kingdoms he saw would be his if he knelt before Satan. But Jesus resisted again, proclaiming that it is only right to give worship to God.
We may not always be able to resist temptation as Jesus did, but Lent provides an opportunity to reflect, pray and repent for our sins. In doing so, many people make sacrifices or commit to life changes throughout the 40 days of lent. It’s a time for spiritual fasting so that we can cleanse our souls and renew our faith as we prepare for the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

Preparing for Ash Wednesday

2/28/22 Fr. Francis burns last year's palms with 7th Graders in preparation for Ash Wednesday. 
2/21/23 Fr. Francis answers questions about Lent with Mr. Eshaghy's 7th Graders.

History of Ash Wednesday

by Mr. Sean Eshaghy, 7th Grade Teacher
Ash Wednesday and the marking of our foreheads at the beginning of the Lenten season has a long and varied history. Let’s break down this practice to understand how it came about.

According to the Church, the ashes themselves hold two specific meanings. First, they represent our mortality and lowliness next to God. This concept is reinforced when the ashes are applied to the head and the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return,” is spoken. These words are drawn directly from Genesis 3:19, which recounts how God created us from the dust of the earth and emphasizes our lives on earth are temporary. Secondly, the ashes recreate the ancient tradition of wearing sackcloth, a rough and scratchy material, and covering yourself in ashes when you are in great distress or demonstrating the admittance of sin and a desire to repent. This specific act of contrition is mentioned several  times in the Bible, including in the books of Job, Ester, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name a few.

So, where did the modern Catholic practice of marking the beginning of Lent with ashes on our foreheads come from?

The first documented mention of the 'Day of Ashes' or Dies Cinerum in Latin comes from the Roman Missal in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604). However, ashes were not distributed to the general public at this time.

Initially, wearing ashes as a sign of penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents or criminals. In this context, ashes sprinkled over a person's head served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for them.

Eventually, ashes were adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. The “Day of Ashes” in Latin ritual is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which dates at least to the 8th century. Still, at this time, the practice was reserved for the clergy and high-ranking officials.

Things began to change in about the year 1000 when an Anglo-Saxon priest named Aelfric began to advocate for broader use of the practice. “In the books both in the Old Law and in the Ne,” he argued,  “men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” Aelfric reinforced his point by telling the story of a man who refused to go to Church on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes; the man was killed a few days later in a boar hunt.
Alelfric must have been convincing. The practice of marking our foreheads with a cross of ashes to mark the start of Lent became universal under Pope Urban II following the Synod of Benevento in 1091. Thus, since the Middle Ages, the Church has used ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins.

In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year.   When we begin the holy season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received. We are called to turn our hearts to the Lord who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation, and we renew the promises made at our baptism.

Fun Fact: Initially, the Greek letter ""chi"" (X for Christ) was marked on the forehead rather than a traditional cross.
After burning the palms, the ashes are collected.
Ashes are ground into a fine powder and sprinkled with holy water.