Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar. Occurring 46 days before Easter, it is a moveable fast that can fall as early as February 4 and as late as March 10. According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting known as Lent. Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. This practice is common in much of Christendom, being celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and some Baptist denominations.
In the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one’s transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In the medieval period, Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of penitential confession occurring after fasting and the remittance of the tithe. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil. As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.
The Biblical Significance of Ash is that it was used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3–6. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes”.
The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is February 4 (in a common year with Easter on March 22), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date is March 10 (when Easter Day falls on April 25) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (February 29), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on February 29 are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on February 29 only if Easter is on April 15 in a leap year.)
In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984, but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March. However The Eastern Orthodox Church does not, in general, observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously mentioned denominations, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.