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What Is Ash Wednesday and Why Do People Celebrate It?

Roman Catholics and Christians around the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday today, February 25. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a service that prepares members of the church to value Christ’s death and resurrection. They go through traditional practices such as self-examination, prayer, self-denial, fasting, and repentance. Priests mark churchgoers’ foreheads with a cross using the blessed burned palm leaves used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The priests remind churchgoers that they came from dust and they will return to dust.

What is the origin of Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular holy days that Christians around the world celebrate. But did you know that its origin is non-Christian? It was only in 325 AD that it was added into the Catholic Church’s beliefs through the Council of Nicaea. It was also the council which decided the 40-day fasting length of the Lenten celebration. The leader at that time was Roman Emperor Constantine I. He wanted the Christians and pagans to peacefully co-exist in Rome.

The exact origin of Ash Wednesday is not certain. But the term Ash Wednesday or Day of Ashes is from Dies Cinerum. Roman Catholics have been observing the practice since the 6th century and the marking of people’s foreheads with ashes is believed to have started during Gregory the Great’s papacy. Receiving the ashes serves two purposes: a sign of repentance and sorrow for their sins, and a sign of humility.

From being practiced for private devotion, receiving the ashes was included as part of the church’s official rite for public penitents’ reconciliation. From then on, it became the initial rite for the start of Lent. It imitates the placement of a spiritual seal on the forehead of a child during baptism.

What is the significance of Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday, being the day that starts the Lenten season, is a day of abstinence. Christians usually avoid easting particular food items such as dairy and meat. Many people typically eat dishes made with vegetables, while others choose to eat fish. Some people participate in the observance of the day to abstain from daily habits that they consider excessive, such as watching too much TV, or using an electronic gadget non-stop.

Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a distinct, solemn ritual. The ashes come from the palms leaves used on Palm Sunday of the previous year. The church burns the palms, collects the ashes, and crushes them until they turn into fine powder.

The priest blesses the ashes during the mass on Ash Wednesday. After the homily, churchgoers line up so the priest can apply cross-shaped mark on their foreheads while reminding them that they came from dust and they will return to dust someday.

In the Old Testament, the ashes represent two things:

  1. Because a human body turns to dust after they die. The ash used on Ash Wednesday reminds people that death may happen now or later. Death is unavoidable, and people should be prepared for it. For Catholics and Christians, the surest way to prepare for death is to live following God’s ways.
  2. The Prophet Daniel wore ashes and sackcloth when people committed massive treachery, wickedness and rebellion as a sign of contrition of his people. The Ninevites did not listen to Jonah when he said that God would destroy their city if they did not stop their depravity and corruption. They signified their intention to leave their evil ways by wearing ashes and sackcloth.

Receiving ashes is a symbol of asking God for compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and pardon. It also represents a person’s admission of their guilt. You can consider it as a show of sorrow for the sins they have committed, as well as a promise to change, and avoid temptation from then on.

Although many people, such as in the Philippines, wear the ashes the entire day, they are allowed to wash off the ashes after mass.

How do people around the world celebrate Ash Wednesday?

While the common practice is for Christians to attend mass and receive ash on Ash Wednesday, many countries around the world also have other activities to during the day.

United Kingdom. From Shrove Tuesday to Ash Wednesday, residents of Ashbourne in Derbyshire play a Royal Shrovetide football game they call “Up’ards’ and ‘Down’ards.” It is a no-rules game that started in the 17th century. Rival teams try to bring the ball to any of the two goals that are three miles apart.

Honduras. It is a tradition for the faithful to receive ash at Tegucigalpa’s San Miguel Arcangel Cathedral.

Germany. In Wolfach, which is in southern Germany, members of the money launderers’ guild called ‘Geldwaeschergilde’ wash their wallets in the city’s fountain. In many villages in southwestern Germany, male carnival goers wash their empty wallets.

Iceland. Children have fun on Ash Wednesday, as they celebrate the day wearing costumes and going around their neighborhood singing songs to receive candies. They call the day Öskudagur.

Wherever you may be, the most important thing is to focus on your sinfulness and mortality on Ash Wednesday. Pray, repent, and look forward to the Easter message with joy.

For translation of Lenten and Easter messages, contact us!

We at eTranslation Services join our brothers and sisters around the world in celebrating Ash Wednesday. If you need translation of Lenten and Easter messages, please get in touch with us. Our professional, native-speaking translators are located around the world, ready to take on your translation project any time. Get in touch with us by calling (800) 882-6058 or sending us an email at [email protected].

Image Copyright: Lolcatss / CC BY-SA

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