For Catholics, Ash Wednesday marks the first of the 40 days of penitence commemorating Christ’s passion and death leading up to Holy Week and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

It is widely known for the tradition of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the Catholic faithful as a remembrance of the biblical passage “Dust you are, and dust you shall return.”

Palawan News traces the history and significance of this tradition.

Biblical basis
Ashes as a sign of penance can be traced to early biblical times. It started with the Hebrew tradition of dressing in rough sackcloth and covering one’s head with ashes.

According to the Catholic website, Aleteia, in the book of Judith, she “fell prostrate, put ashes upon her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing” at the temple before executing her task of freeing Bethulia. (Jud 9:1)

Jesus himself acknowledged the use of ashes as a sign of repentance. Seeing the sins committed by the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida, he said: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes.” (Mt 11, 21).

Institutionalization of the Catholic belief
Contrary to some claims, Ash Wednesday is not a pagan belief. Early Christians started the tradition during the 5th and 6th centuries AD when the church started to use sacks and ashes as penance for those who had committed serious sins.

During the 9th century, this was formally included as a Catholic ritual after Pope Urban decreed the imposition of ashes to mark the beginning of the 40 days of Lent.

40 days
Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter Sunday, excluding the 6 Sundays of Lent, as every Sunday is a special remembrance of the resurrection of Christ, and these Sundays of Lent are not considered part of the official “Lenten fast.”

40 days has a deep biblical significance as Moses spent 40 days and nights in the presence of God before he received the 10 commandments.

Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness and was tempted by the devil. It also took 40 days before Jesus ascended into heaven after the resurrection.

Why Wednesday?
The Catholic church observes Ash Wednesday as a movable feast. Counting the 46 days leading up to Easter Sunday determines it.

Aleteia, a catholic website explains:

“According to the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and later adopted for Western Christianity at the Synod of Whitby, Easter Sunday falls each year on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This year, the vernal equinox falls on March 20, 2023, and the first full moon after that occurs on April 6, 2023. Therefore, Easter Sunday is celebrated this year on April 9. If you want Ash Wednesday, just count backward 46 days, and you get February 22, 2023.”

Where do the ashes come from?
The ashes used in this ritual actually came from the ashes of the palm branches used during Palm Sunday of the previous year.

Churches collect these palm branches from the faithful, days before Ash Wednesday. It is burned in a rite administered by a priest on the preceding Tuesday.

What to do on Ash Wednesday?
Catholics are expected to receive ashes on their foreheads after the mass on Ash Wednesday. Some, especially the sick, may receive it outside the mass, but only after the reading of the gospel and the prayers of the faithful.

The faithful, especially those who received the ashes especially those aged 18-59 are expected to fast or only eat 1 full meal and 2 smaller meals during the Lenten season.

They are also expected to think about Christ’s death and turn away from their sins.

Everyone is expected to do good deeds or acts of charity during these days.

More importantly, those who bear the ashes on their foreheads are expected to share the gospel and the significance of this tradition, which dates back centuries after Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross.