The Origins of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday's origins are tied to its history and the time of year during which it occurs. It follows the season of Epiphany, which culminates with Shrove Tuesday, which is also known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). The solemn proceedings that occur on Ash Wednesday bring the focus back to the sacrifice of Christ and the mission of the Church. The observance most likely comes from the biblical Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 16, the Lord establishes an annual day of repentance for the Israelites as a lasting ordinance for all their generations. Since the blood of Jesus represents atonement, the heart of Ash Wednesday is a humbling of oneself through fasting and prayer.
On this day, Christians come before a priest to receive the sign of the cross, marked in ashes on their foreheads. Over the next month, they are encouraged to fast, pray, and seek repentance for their sins. Reflection upon one's life during the previous year receives extra attention, and a greater commitment to God and the Church is offered.
This ceremony originated around the eighth century and extends back to the custom during biblical times of people humbling themselves with sackcloth and ashes. The prophet Daniel speaks of seeking the Lord for the release of his people from Babylonian exile with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (Daniel 9:3). Jonah 3:6 states: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust."
Ash Wednesday Traditions
When studying Ash Wednesday history, ashes are often considered to be a symbol of man's mortality and represent an attitude of humility, sorrow, and repentance (Genesis 18:27). The ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ritual come from burning the palm branches used to celebrate Palm Sunday of the previous year. After being blessed with holy water, the ashes sit amidst burning incense to take on a pleasing scent. The priest or highest-ranking Church official administers them, first to the clergy and then to the laity.
In an old Ash Wednesday tradition, penitents who had committed grave sins would come wearing shifts made from rough cloth or animal hair. The priest would bless them and sprinkle ashes over them while they recited the Seven Penitential Psalms. The penitents would leave the church and for the next forty days strive for repentance and absolution. They would then return on Maundy Thursday and receive Communion from the priest.
One of the major tenets of the Christian faith is living one's life with humility and repentance. For many Christians, the origins of Ash Wednesday are the annual reminder of where our hearts should be in relation to God, and of the reason Jesus became our atonement.