Ash Wednesday is a Catholic day of repentance that marks the first day of Lent, the spiritual buildup to Easter. It is a ritual death in preparation for the rebirth of Easter, the Christian rituals that celebrate the annual rebirth of nature in the northern hemisphere each spring.
In 2020, Ash Wednesday is February 26.
Ash Wednesday Traditions
It is traditional to make a cross on the forehead from ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on last year’s Palm Sunday.
When I first moved to New York City in 2000, I had never seen this. My initial reaction was to warn people on the street that they had some dirt on their heads and help them wipe it off. There is so much to learn.
The accompanying prayer is a call for humility and to live in the present “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
How did the ancients know that we are made from star dust?
Ash Wednesday Date
Ash Wednesday is the day after Mardi Gras and seven weeks before Easter. Because Easter is a moveable feast, Ash Wednesday can occur as early as February 4 and as late as March 10.
The History of Ash Wednesday
Interestingly, this is a pre-Christian ritual. Wearing sackcloth and ashes is an ancient sign of repentance and the desire for forgiveness.
It was also a preparation for death. In the Middle Ages, the dying were laid on a bed of sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes. The prayer “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” was a preparation for death. It was a ritual letting go of our attachments in life and the renewal of our connection to the mystery of wherever we come from.
Ash Wednesday entered Catholic practice through the Council of Nicaea which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325 AD. The council was the first attempt to unify the Christian church. Emperor Constantine I was the political leader who popularized Christianity.
When I was seven or eight years old, I noticed that the trees seemed to die during the winter. I asked my mother why that was. She said that they don’t die, they just go to sleep.
Whatever it is about, we are all trying to understand the essential miracle that binds us all, no matter what religion we follow. That miracle is the miracle of life.