The Joyce Hill Column

February 2021

The Origins of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls this year on 17 February. What marks it out is the imposition of ashes, which gives the day its name: dies cinerarium, ‘day of ashes’, in the Latin of the pre-Reformation church. These days the priest usually marks a cross on the forehead of each person, using ashes created by burning the palm crosses from the Palm Sunday of the previous year. It feels like an ancient ritual, but when and how did it begin?

The early church quickly established a period of strict fasting as a form of purification in preparation for Easter, but it lasted only from Good Friday to Easter Eve and it was not until the fourth century that there is evidence for a fast extending over six weeks. There was still no such thing as Ash Wednesday, though, because the fast began on the sixth Sunday before Easter. In these early centuries, this penitential period was when new believers were prepared for baptism on Easter Eve and when those who had been excluded from the church for their sins were prepared for readmission, also on Easter Eve. Increasingly, others in the community were encouraged to join in the sessions of teaching and the acts of penitence as a means of giving focus to their own preparation for Easter. The element of penitence and self-denial, as a shared community experience, soon began to look like a kind of spiritual re-living of Christ’s forty day fast in the wilderness, when he resisted the temptations of the devil. This sense of symbolic reliving gave a new dimension to how the six week period was understood. But it made sense because it was in the fourth century, driven by various theological disputes and developments, that there was an increasing interest in the historical life of Christ, which led to its being reflected in the still-evolving shape of the liturgy.

However, having gone this far, it was logical to go a little further, because with Lent now seen primarily as a spiritual reflection of the forty days in the wilderness, it was clear that, with Sundays never being fasting days, there were not forty fasting days in the six weeks of Lent. So four more days were added to the beginning in order to provide forty fasting days up to and including Holy Saturday. This extension of Lent, so that it begins on a Wednesday, probably started in Gaul in the sixth century, where it is thought  that the solemn ceremony of the imposition of the ashes also began, accompanied with the words, ‘Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return’. These words, familiar from the burial service and from the story of Adam’s expulsion from Eden, accompanied by the symbolism of the ashes, powerfully drew attention to our subjection to sin and death. At first the ceremony was used only for those doing public penance for grave sins, who would hope to be readmitted to the body of the church after the prolonged penance of Lent. But as the tradition spread across the western church, it became customary for the whole congregation to take part.

The Book of Common Prayer predictably turned its back on Ash Wednesday as a ‘Roman’ practice and in its place devised a Service of Commination (recital of divine threats against sinners). But the solemnity of the Ash Wednesday ritual has since been regained in many Anglican churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition, of course, it was never lost.

Joyce Hill