Ash Wednesday

The first day of Lent.* It is so called from the custom in the ancient church and continued in the Roman Catholic Church of marking the foreheads of worshipers with ashes which have been previously blessed. The appointment of Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent occurred sometime in the seventh century and the custom of imposing the ashes upon the congregation probably from sometime in the eighth century. The significance of this rite is based on the OT where we often find imposition of ashes as a sign of penitence and mourning. In the early church, Christians who had fallen into grave sin were admitted to the “order of penitents” to do their penances so that they could be reconciled to the church in Holy Week ready for their Easter Communion. The widespread use of this form of public penance decreased in the early Middle Ages, but the ceremonies associated with it-notably the ashes-were extended to the whole congregation. In the Roman Church the ashes are obtained by burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. They are then placed on the heads of the worshipers with the words “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return.” The ceremony was abolished by the Reformers, and in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer there is provided a service of Scripture readings and prayers for Ash Wednesday known as the Commination Service. The theme of the service is indicated in its subtitle, a “denouncing of God's anger and judgements against sinners.”

See H. Thurston, Lent and Holy Week (1904).