History of Ash Wednesday


Elena Keller

If you see people walking around with black marks on their foreheads today, it could be because they are celebrating Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition with history stretching back thousands of years.


According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, exactly six and a half weeks before Easter. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a reminder of human mortality and the need for reconciliation with God. 


In the early days of the Christian church, the holiday began six weeks before Easter, with 36 days of fasting. By the 7th century, 4 extra days were added to the first Sunday of Lent to establish 40 fasting days, which imitated Jesus’ fasting in the desert.


In Rome, people looking for penitence would begin Ash Wednesday with a sacrament of the Eucharist (otherwise known as communion, the eating of bread and wine to symbolize Christ’s body and blood). After the sacrament, the people were sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sack clothes, and remained isolated until the Thursday before Easter.


These practices fell out of use in the 8th and 10th century, and the beginning of Lent started to be celebrated by putting ash crosses on the foreheads of the congregation. According to Time magazine, this practice didn’t emerge in the United States until the 1970s, when traditional Christian practices were revitalized.


The modern day Roman Catholic Church uses the ashes of the palms burned on Palm Sunday to mark the foreheads of those in the congregation with a cross. For the entire day, worshippers have an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence, where only one meal is eaten and no meat is consumed. 


According to Lauren F. Winner, a priest and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Ash Wednesday is a way for Christians to connect their faith to their body and have an outward expression of their faith. 


“We’ve seen the rise of a whole array of bodily practices and this is a very striking one for those who are not necessarily comfortable talking about faith,”she says. “The practice of this once a year is an organic way of drawing their faith into their lives.”