Remember Man, Thou Art Dust
In the Western Church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting before Easter. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are blessed, mixed with either holy oil or water, and imposed on the foreheads of Christians with the sign of the cross. The ashes are made from burning palm branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday. When the priest imposes the ashes he says either “remember man you are dust, and to dust you will return” (see Genesis 3:19), or “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The ashes serve a dual purpose. First, as the above words imply, we are reminded of our mortality and humanity as we begin the Lenten Fast. Second, the ashes are a Biblical symbol of repentance, sorrow, and humility. There are many cases in the Scriptures of wearing ashes as a sign of penitence, often while wearing sackcloth. In 2 Samuel 13:19, Tamar puts on ashes and tears her clothes as a sign of sadness and repentance. In Esther 4:1-3, after learning of the king’s decree to kill all Jews, Mordecai tears his garments, and puts on sackcloth and ashes. His fellow Jews do the same thing, as well as beginning to fast. The prophet Jeremiah (6:26) urges his readers to “gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes.”
Fasting is a major component of Ash Wednesday, and Ash Wednesday is an official fast day of the Church, along with Good Friday. For official Catholic fast Guidelines, see FAQ Question #3 below. Fasting has a long history in the Church. In Acts 13:1-3, it was while “worshipping the Lord and fasting” that the Holy Spirit led the Apostles to set apart Paul and Barnabas for their work. In Matthew 9:14, Jesus assumes that after he leaves the earth his followers will fast. The history of the Church is filled with stories of fasting and its spiritual value. However, Jesus warns us not to be obvious about our fasting, or only fasting to impress others. Thus, Ash Wednesday is based on the biblical concept of repentance, and the ashes and fasting that are associated with repentance.
Ash Wednesday is unknown in the Eastern Church, and developed only in the West. Orthodox Churches begin Lent on a Monday, known as “Clean Monday.” Ash Wednesday as an official fast day dates to at least the 8th century, since it appears in the Gregorian Sacramentary from that period. Originally, Lent began on a Sunday. However, in order to bring the number of days of Lent to 40 (the days Jesus fasted in the wilderness), the beginning of Lent was eventually transferred to a Wednesday.
Originally, Ash Wednesday was the day when public penitents in Rome began their penance. Recall that in the early Church, penance was often public and protracted. It was only later that private confession and penance began, for pastoral reasons. When public penance gradually fell into disuse by the 8th century, Ash Wednesday became a day of penitence and fasting for all members of the Church. Today, Ash Wednesday is a universal Fast day in the Catholic Church.