When is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent in the Western church and takes place 46 days before Easter. As the date of Easter is calculated on the cycles of the moon, the date of Ash Wednesday will vary from year to year. The earliest possible date for Ash Wednesday is 4 February and the latest day is March 10.
Ash Wednesday is observed mainly by the Roman Catholic Church and also by some Protestant denominations such as Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans.
It takes places immediately after the excesses of the two days of Carnival that take place in Northern Europe and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
What is Ash Wednesday?
The name of the day comes from the custom that churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ash to symbolise death and regret for past sins. The priest will accompany the marking with a recital of Genesis 3:19 - "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". The tradition of marking with ashes began in the early church as a way for persistent sinners to outwardly show their desire for repentance. By the end of the 10th century, the custom had spread to all the faithful.
Traditionally the ashes are created from burning the palms used in the church on Palm Sunday the previous year. Palm Sunday marked the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem after his 40 days and nights in the desert.
During the 40 days before Easter, Roman Catholics are supposed to abstain from all bodily pleasures, including the consumption of meat. This is intended to remember the fasting of Jesus, who spent 40 days in the desert before beginning his ministry. In the Catholic Church, Lent gets off to an appropriate start with Ash Wednesday as it is a day of fasting, abstinence from meat and repentance.
Did you know?
In Ireland, National No Smoking Day takes place on Ash Wednesday as the start of Lent is seen as opportune to encourage people to give up a luxury such as smoking.
Lent is longer than the 40 days as Sunday was seen as a special feast day to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, so it is excluded from the calculation of Lent. Lent is the Monday to Saturday in the six weeks before Easter Sunday (6 days x 6 weeks = 36 days) and adding the Wednesday to Saturday in the week before brings us to the 40 days.
The Orthodox Christian church has no tradition of ashes and Holy Week (the week before Easter) is excluded from the calculation of Lent, though Sundays are included. This all means that Lent begins instead on Orthodox Shrove Monday. Also known as Clean Monday, this holiday takes place two days before Ash Wednesday.