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St. Clements St. Michaels Church




The Origins of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the onset of the Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It is also known as the 'Day of Ashes'. So called because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. 

The name 'Day of Ashes' comes from "Dies Cinerum"  in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century.  Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604). 

In the Old Testament ashes were found to have used for two purposes: as a sign of humility
and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom./
Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.

Originally the use of ashes to betoken penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. 

Putting a 'cross' mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil, and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).

This can also be held as an adoption of the way 'righteousness' are described in the book of Revelation, where we come to know about the servants of God. The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:

"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally, "a tav"] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)

Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above (the Revised Standard Version, which we have been quoting thus far), is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a tav on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. Tav is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in ancient script it looked like the Greek letter chi, which happens to be two crossed lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek Christos). The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between tav and chi and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.

The early Church Fathers seized on this tav-chi-cross-christos connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross, like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
A Note on LENT
Lent was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning spring. In France the season is called Careme, and in Italy it is Quarestima, both derived from the Latin Quadragesima

Lent in the Western Churches was originally a period of forty days of fasting and penitence, readying the Christian soul for the great feast on the ensuing Easter Sunday. This is held as a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.

The Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and goes for forty days excluding the Sundays. Because Sundays are always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection.   It ends on the Good Friday. However, Lent is a  forty two day period in Eastern Churches and begins on the Monday preceding the Easter by forty two days . This makes it clear that they don't have Ash Wednesday. With the Easter being a movable feast, Lent begins in different years on different days in either February or March.

But why this Forty Day period?
Certainly the number forty has long had a symbolic importance in religion. Moses and Elias spent forty days in the wilderness; the Jews wandered forty years searching for the Promised Land; Jonah gave the city of Nineveh forty days' grace in which to repent.
And  Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days to prepare for his ministry. It was for Him a time of contemplation, reflection, and preparation. So by observing Lent, most Christians join Jesus on His retreat. 

The Lenten period of forty days owes its origin to the Latin word Quadragesima, originally signifying forty hours. This referred to forty hours of complete fasting which preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church. The main ceremony was the baptizing of the initiates on Easter Eve, and the fast was a preparation to receive this sacrament. Later, the period from Good Friday until Easter Day was extended to six days, to correspond with the six weeks of training, necessary to instruct the converts who were to be baptized.

A strict schedule was adhered to in the teaching of the converts. In Jerusalem near the end of the fourth century, classes were held throughout seven weeks of Lent for three hours each day.
With the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Rome in the 4th century, its character was endangered by the great influx of new members. To combat the hazard, the Lenten fast and practices of self renunciation were required of all Christians. The less zealous of the converts were thus brought more securely into the Christian fold.

Sometimes before the year 330 the duration of Lent had been fixed at forty days in Egypt, to correspond to Christ's forty days in the desert. It was evident quite early that a six-week Lent contained only thirty-six days - since Sunday is never a fast day. Gradually four more days were added to the beginning of Lent became Known as Ash Wednesday. The first evidence of this increase is in the Gelasian Sacramentary of the early eighth century. 

In time the emphasis of the season turned from preparation for baptism to more penitential aspects of penance. The sorrows and sufferings of Christ were shared by the self-denying Christian. Persons guilty of notorious sins spent the time performing public penances. Only at the end of Lent were they publicly reconciled with the Church. During the Middle Ages the sinners were accepted back in an elaborate ceremony.

Then penance came to be associated during this period for common people as well. And Lent became the way of penance. It is good for us to undertake acts of penance in sorrow for our sins, our failure to acknowledge and to love God in Himself, in others, in ourselves. The traditional forms of penance, fast and abstinence, are to be observed according to Church law. The habit of more personal forms of penance is certainly to be encouraged. Not only is penance appropriate as an expression of sorrow for sin, but it also helps us to be less attached to the things of this world. Penance helps us to put things in proper perspective. 

The way of Lent is also the way of good works, the way of loving service of others. In his Lenten message for this year, the Holy Father invites us to be particularly attentive to the needs of the homeless.


Some Ash Wednesday Poems
The prayer

As the cold gives way
to the warmer days
Warming up in the morning sunrays
I keep waiting with others
For the church door to open there
with spring breeze brushing the hair
Teasing my face with its refreshing fingers
The merry season passes over
paving way for the penance 'n prayer
Comes Lent thru the Ash
ending the days of happy bash
"Dust to Dust" he would mutter
'Wash me through...O Lord', I utter.

The penitence

A whole day's feast
that I had 
with the musical treats,
Out I drag myself up
weary of revels,
And the night long drumbeats
to rev up and rap.
As the sun slowly removes its hood
wiping up the nightly mood,
The Men at church dongs the bell, 
The big door beneath the spires
floats open to unveil.
The odor so divine,
The smoke so purifying,
Hovering over the hallway tires
Hallowed with the candles so enlightening.
As I bend on my knees
to atone for my erring glees,
A gentle touch on my forehead
lets me know of the ash cross,
And the day for which it's made.
Customs Of Ash Wednesday and Traditions of LENT
At this time of year, many of us are quite familiar with the scene where the young and old, the rich and the poor stand waiting in long queue at the Church. And they may wait for hours, and  some may even spare their lunch. No, the zeal is not for clinching a big deal. The reason is rather simple.  All of them  just want to 'get ashed'. For this is Ash Wednesday.  

Getting ashed apart, the tradition is to pray, and go for fasting as a preparation for Lent. Both the Old Law and the New says that those who had repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Thus wearing sack cloth and sprinkling the head with ashes was an ancient sign of repentance.  The Biblical custom  for repentance was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. But the Bible does not specify the Ash Wednesday rites as such. In earlier ages a penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not now prescribed.

In fact, the traditions of Ash Wednesday came up as a part of the Lenten customs during the late 5th century. Penitence and fasting
are two of the key distinctives of Lent. And thus also of the Ash Wednesday. It does not associate commemoration of any event. For, nothing special is known to have happened forty days before the crucifixion. So, the Day could only be said to indirectly commemorate a Christ since it is the beginning of preparation for the greater celebrations of Christ's saving work. Obviously the Bible makes no reference to this day.

Unlike the old days, we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day.

It is just an observance among the western churches. Ash Wednesday is a day of penance. The Church has never chosen to make it or any other specific day the definitive commemoration of the concept of repentance. Still it is a deacon. Some churches observe it with distribution of ashes, reading prayers of repentance, and with other services offered from the pulpit.

Even in ancient days, people marked times of fasting, prayer, repentance, and remorse by placing ashes on their foreheads. The custom was prevalent in early days of Judaism: as found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26. 

This custom entered the church from Judaism. And is observed on Ash Wednesday, that marks the onset of a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection.
At first only public penitence received the ashes. They were made to appear barefooted at the church and perform penances for their sins. Friends and relatives began to accompany them, perhaps in sympathy and in the knowledge that no man is free from sin, and gradually the ashes were given to the whole congregation.

On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into palm ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead of each the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." In case of clerics it is upon the place of the tonsure. 
The saying and the act are meant for  reminding us that man is mortal. This means we are dust and it is dust to which we shall return.

The ashes used in this ceremony are made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In the blessing of the ashes four prayers are used, all of them ancient. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. The celebrant himself, be he bishop or cardinal, receives, either standing or seated, the ashes from some other priest, usually the highest in dignity of those present.

In the United States, besides the Roman Catholics some Episcopal Churches also observe Ash Wednesday with the distribution of ashes. In addition, prayers of repentance are read and exhortation denouncing sin, taken from chapter 28 or the Book of Deuteronomy, are delivered from the pulpit. The Psalm 51 is prayed and the litany of penitence in solidarity with those preparing for baptism or restoration to the church's fellowship. Other Protestant denominations also mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Churches do not, since the Great Lent begins on Monday. For all Christian Churches, however, Lent is a period of preparation. The culmination is Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and building to the joyous celebration of Easter.

Originally it was only the Roman Catholics who had the foreheads marked with the cross of palm ash. But now the imposition of ashes has made its way into the wider church and even the popular culture. 

As the deacon sings "Earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God" the gateway to the pilgrimage floats open to the Lenten session of penitence. The session that tells us to take a relook at our past deeds and weed out the wrong ones by certain observances.
The Significance of The Ash
Traditionally, the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service come from burning the palm fronds from the previous years Palm Sunday celebration.   They are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the Easter. They are then blessed by a priest. 

Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. Blessed ashes having been used in God's rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).

They also symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,"


Place:  Reformed Church On Brighton Heights in St. George
Dates:  All Wednesdays of LENT March 12
                                              April  2
Time:  Song Service 7:30pm;  Worship service 8:00pm
*Monsignor Nick is the song leader on March 19th, we'd love for you to attend.
There will be stations of the cross every Thursday after the 9:00am mass in St. Clements church.  There is also the Novena and Benediction there every Tuesday.  In St. Michaels church, the stations are in spanish on Fridays at 7:30pm.  We also have the holy hour services after the 8:00am on Saturday mornings.  Please nourish your souls this LENT with good spiritual reading and study of the scriptures.