Christian Traditions 013: Ash Wednesday

Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria talks a little bit about Ash Wednesday in the greater context of the season of Lent under “Lent” in her book.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent in most liturgical calendars. It acts as a very solemn counterpart to the festivity of Shrove Tuesday.

18 February 2015WHEN IS IT?

Ash Wednesday occurs on the Wednesday prior to the sixth Sunday before Easter. Because Easter is a moveable feast, Ash Wednesday is as well—meaning its date changes from year to year. The earliest Ash Wednesday can fall is 4 February and the latest is 10 March.

For the first 6 or 7 centuries, Lent began on the Sunday after Quinquagesima Sunday, so–excluding Sundays from the accounting–Lent lasted 36 days. The four days prior to Quadragesima Sunday, beginning on a Wednesday, were added in 714 AD to bring the number to 40 days.

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on 18 February.

ash wednesdayWHAT IS IT?

The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the ashes used in this day’s service. On Palm Sunday, palm leaves are used in the celebration. Then all of that year’s palm leaves are collected and burned, and the ashes are reserved for next year’s Ash Wednesday. In the Bible, there are many places where we see ashes used as a symbol of grief or repentance or in pleas for special dispensation from God; for example, Tamar following her rape (II Samuel 13:19), Job’s repentance from his sin (Job 42:3-6), Jeremiah’s call for the people to repent (Jeremiah 6:26), Daniel’s plea to God to preserve the sinful people of Israel (Daniel 9:3), the Ninevites’ repentance from their sin (Jonah 3:6), etc. Christians have similarly used ashes as an external sign of repentance, as mentioned by Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), the historian Eusebius (c. 260/265-339/340 AD), and others. As described in the previous post on Lent, as far back as the 300s AD, grave sinners sought repentance, reconciliation, and absolution (that is, they came to “shrive”) on Shrove Tuesday. Part of the ceremony involved wearing sackcloth and being sprinkled with ashes. Afterward, they would spend all of Lent up to Holy Thursday in solitude, such as in a monastery, making penance for their sins. By at least 781-791 AD in some locations, this practice was at least partly abandoned and in its place, ashes were sprinkled on the heads of all at the beginning of Lent, not just on grave sinners.

On Ash Wednesday, the priest (in some denominations, but not all) blesses the ashes at the beginning of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) and then, while stating either “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) or the more modern “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) (which was introduced in 1969), the priest places the ashes on the heads of the adherents. The original statement, based on words God spoke to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 after they sinned, reminded participants of their own sinfulness and mortality, and therefore implicitly reminded them of their need to repent. However, the newer version, that based on Mark 1:15, explicitly reminds participants of their need to repent. The ashes may most commonly be sprinkled over participants’ heads or smeared on their foreheads in the shape of a cross (in which case, they may be mixed with a little bit of water or olive oil as a fixative and recipients often choose to keep it visible throughout the day); because there is no set rule for how the Imposition of Ashes is to take place, there are also other less common methods in use in various locales. The priest often anoints himself with ashes before anointing any of the other participants. Only the blessing of the ashes must be performed by a priest, so even laypeople may (and do) perform the Imposition of Ashes on participants. In fact, participants often take home some of the blessed ashes to anoint family members who could not attend and church leadership are encouraged to take and administer the ashes anywhere outside of the church—for example, in shopping centers, nursing homes, and factories. In the Catholic Church, the Imposition of Ashes may be received by non-Catholics, people who have not been baptized, and even people who have been excommunicated. On the other hand, the Methodist Church only permits people who profess to be Christians and have been baptized to receive the Imposition of Ashes, treating it similarly to the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper).

Ash Wednesday, as the first day of Lent, also marks the time when Lenten fasting and abstinence and focus on instruction and penance begin. In fasting and abstaining, adherents eat smaller meals and abstain from meat and outside entertainment. For instruction, adherents study the Bible and works by or about great Christians which feed the mind, soul, and heart. For penance, adherents undergo the Imposition of Ashes described above. Furthermore, as the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday is the day on which all crucifixes are veiled with a purple cloth. For more details, see the previous post on Lent.


There are several traditional activities for this day, the most traditional being the Imposition of Ashes, which you can do at home or by going to a church that practices it.

  • (Traditional) Readings. The traditional Scripture readings for today are:
    • Psalm 51 or all Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143)
    • II Corinthians 5:20-6:2
    • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
  • (Traditional) Imposition of Ashes. You may easily attend a Catholic church to receive the Imposition of Ashes (recall as written above that you don’t have to be Catholic to do so), or you may do it at home. Traditionally, the palms used in Palm Sunday are burned and the ashes reserved for the following year’s Ash Wednesday. Obviously, you can’t go back in time to do that. Furthermore, there’s no reason why it has to be ashes from burnt palms; since this is not a commemoration written into Scripture, there are no God-given rules for how to do it.
  • (Traditional) Veiling of Crucifixes. If you have any crosses in your house, cover them with a purple cloth on this day.
  • Responsive Reading. Psalm 51 (called the Miserere—see Footnote 1) is often either read aloud by the priest during the Ash Wednesday service or used as a responsorial psalm. (M = Minister; A = All.)
    • M: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love;”
    • A: “according to Your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”
    • M: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
    • A: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
    • M: “Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight.”
    • A: “Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”
    • M: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
    • A: “Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.”
    • M: “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
    • A: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”
    • M: “For You have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, You would not be pleased.”
    • A: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
  • Responsive Reading. Here’s an alternative option for Psalm 51 as a reading for three people.
    • A: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love;”
    • B: “According to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.”
    • C: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
    • A: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”
    • B: “Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight,”
    • C: “So that You are proved right when You speak and justified when You judge.”
    • A: “Create in me a pure heart, O God,”
    • B: “And renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
    • C: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.”
    • A: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;”
    • B: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;”
    • C: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
  • (Traditional) Prayer. Pray the following prayer or use it to guide your own prayer.
    • “Into Your presence we come, Lord. A few moments of quietness in a busy world that demands our attention. Breathe on us now that we might know Your presence and Your power to see this day through.”


Okay, so this one was pretty hard. What sort of knitting pattern can you do to represent ashes? Ultimately, I thought of the quote priests speak over the adherent on whom he is sprinkling or smearing ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This comes from God’s statement to Adam and Eve when He was banishing them from the Garden of Eden for their sin: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19) Since I couldn’t think of a way to incorporate ashes into the knitting project for this event, I thought maybe something symbolizing Adam and Eve’s sin would be best. In reality, the species of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned, so we don’t know what kind of fruit it was. It may have been a pomegranate tree producing pomegranates. Nevertheless, the traditional fruit usually depicted in scenes of Adam and Eve eating the fruit is the apple. Therefore, we will be creating apples!

  • Knitting Pattern: “Apple Knitting Pattern” by Linda Dawkins (here)
  • Crochet Pattern: “Apple” by Lion Brand Yarn (here)





Footnote 1: The Miserere. As discussed in the previous post on Lent, Shrove Tuesday was traditionally the day on which penitents would come to shrive—that is, to make confession and seek reconciliation and absolution. In the ceremony, together with the priest, they would recite the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms, is called the Miserere or Miserere Mei because in Latin, the first line (“Have mercy on me, O God”) is “Miserere mei, Deus.” It was written by King David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his abhorrently sinful behavior with Bathsheba (in which case, if you recall, he slept with her, found out she was pregnant, and ultimately killed her husband and married her in order to hide his sin, after which Nathan used a fake story to demonstrate to David his sinfulness and described to him the curses that would fall on his family as a result of his sin—see II Samuel 11-12). This psalm is used in many different church services and as penance after Confession. As explained above, it is also often used on Ash Wednesday.


One thought on “Christian Traditions 013: Ash Wednesday

  1. Pingback: Christian Traditions 019: Passiontide | Schaabling Shire Shoppe

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