History of Ash Wednesday

By Thomas Denson

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.” – Genesis 3:19 (D-R)

I’d be willing to bet that, while it is not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday is probably one of the most attended Masses of the year other than Christmas or Easter.  As Catholics, we abstain from meat and fast, go to Mass, have ashes put on our heads, and spend the rest of the day explaining to people that, yes, we know there is something on our forehead.  But why do we?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the penitential season before Easter.  As such, to better understand Ash Wednesday, we’re going to have to have an understanding of penance.  Much of human history has been spent trying to escape our mortality, yet the fact remains that we could face the four last things (Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell) at any moment.  This is so important that St. Philip Neri stated, “Beginners in religion ought to exercise themselves principally in meditation of the four last things.”  This sentiment is echoed in the traditional words spoken when ashes are placed on the head: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This implies what is explicitly stated more positively in another formula currently accepted: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

The use of ashes in penance is found multiple times in the Bible.  Job vows to “disown what [he has] said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NABRE).  Daniel “turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” while repenting Israel’s sins (Daniel 9:3-20 NABRE).  The king of Nineveh wore sackcloth and sat in ashes when confronted by Jonah’s message (Jonah 3:6).  Christ himself speaks of the practice (Matthew 11:21 & Luke 10:13).  In addition, fasting is also often mentioned in connection with penance.

This tradition of ashes and fasting in penance was carried over to the days of the early Church.  St. Irenaeus wrote in A.D. 190 that “some consider themselves bound to fast one day [during Lent], others two days, others still more, while others [do so during] forty…And this variety among the observers [of the fasts] had not its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors” (Letter to Pope Victor).  Eusebius tells of Natalius, who was chosen to be the “bishop” of a sect in Rome who denied the divinity of Christ.  After being scourged by angels through the night, Natalius “put on sackcloth and covered himself with ashes, and with great haste and tears he fell down before [Pope] Zephyrinus…and he moved with his tears the compassionate Church of the merciful Christ” (Church History, Book V, Chapter 28).

So, that takes care of where the ashes and fasting come from, but what of Ash Wednesday itself?  Ash Wednesday is generally observed neither by the Orthodox Churches nor the Eastern Catholic Churches.  Even within the Latin Church, the Ambrosian Rite in Milan does not observe Ash Wednesday, instead distributing ashes and marking the beginning of Lent on the Sunday following when Ash Wednesday is observed by the Roman Rite.

One of the earliest references to Ash Wednesday comes from Ælfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot and homilist.  In one of his homilies, Ælfric refers to “caput ieiunii” or the “Head of the Lenten Fast”.  Ælfric took Ash Wednesday very seriously, giving cautionary tales about those who didn’t receive their ashes, such as of “a certain foolish man with bishop Ælfstan in Wiltshire, in his household: this man would not go to the ashes on the Wednesday, as other men did, who attended at mass; then his companions begged that he would go to the mass-priest, and receive the sacred mysteries which they had received.  He said, ‘I will not.’  They still prayed him.  He said that he would not, and spake strangely in his talk, and said that he would use his wife at the forbidden time.  Then they left him so.  It befell that the heretic was riding in that week about some errand, when hounds attacked him very fiercely, and he defended himself until…[his] horse carried him forward so that [his] spear went right through him, and he fell dying…because he had refused those few ashes” (Lives of the Saints, In Caput Ieiunii).

As interesting as they may be, the three cautionary tales Ælfric gives are not the reason why his homily on Ash Wednesday is important.  Ælfric gives us a look at how the day was celebrated c. A.D. 1000.  He writes in his Ash Wednesday homily, “On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust” and “We read in the books, both in the old Law and in the new, that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes, and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads, to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during our Lenten fast” (Lives of the Saints, In Caput Ieiunii).  This practice was universalized throughout the Western Church by Pope Bl. Urban II in 1091 at the Council of Benevento.

But we don’t strew ashes willy-nilly on our head, scattering them about randomly.  We have ashes put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.  Well, yes and no.  The tradition of imposing the ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead very well could come from the fact that women were traditionally expected to cover their heads in church.  In many non-English speaking countries around the world, the older custom of sprinkling ashes on top of the head is still observed.

That history is nice and all, but why do we do it?  True, ashes have been used by penitents from the early days of the Church, but I can’t remember the last time a priest gave me ashes as penance in the confessional.  The use of ashes is a sacramental, meaning it is “[something] set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin” (Baltimore Catechism No. 4, Question 292).  While the Sacraments give grace in and of themselves directly, sacramentals do so indirectly by “[exciting] in us pious dispositions, by means of which we may obtain grace” (Baltimore Catechism No. 4, Question 293).

With this in mind, we should remember the why behind getting ashes this Ash Wednesday.  We shouldn’t get them because everyone gets them, because it’s what we’ve always done, or even because Ælfric of Eynsham warned us about getting killed by attacking dogs.  Instead, we should receive them with the state of mind intended for this sacramental, remembering our mortality and our sins, so that we may better dispose ourselves toward our Lenten fasts and are more able to appreciate the joy of the coming Easter.

Thomas Denson is a second year PSCI grad student finishing up his thesis.  He is usually found researching a small country most people can’t find on a map, eating Moe’s, or making references to movies that are at least twice as old as he is.