The Day of Ashes

By Ash Wednesday

First Day of Lent

The forty days preceding Easter Sunday, without counting Sundays, are known as Lent, and are recognised following Jesus spending forty days and nights fasting in the desert. The first day of Lent is the Day of Ashes, now known as Ash Wednesday, and is a day of mourning and repentance where sacrifices are made. It was known as a ‘black fast’ day, which meant a day of fasting where no food or drink other than water could be consumed.

Traditionally, the forehead would be marked with ashes, often in the sign of a cross. These would come from palm leaves kept from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which were burned the day before on Shrove Tuesday. The Catholic custom is for the cross the marked by the parish priest, speaking the words “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,” meaning “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and the ashen cross would be left in place throughout the day to show the bearer as a sinner seeking repentance.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:19, KJV

The first records of the Day of Ashes come from the 8th Century, and it was as much about mourning the loss of the excess of Carnival and Shrovetide as it was the start of the sacrifices of Lent. In the middle ages, Lent meant severe restrictions on food such as meat, dairy, eggs, and sweet items, but also abstinence from sex. This was justified using folklore beliefs of the day. Red meat, for example, was believed to cause a person to overheat, therefore increasing their urges and lowering their inhibitions, leading to an appetite for gluttony and an openness to acting upon lustful thoughts. Throughout Lent, food could not be consumed after lunchtime, as Jesus died at 3pm, until the following sunrise. Breaking Lenten fasting rules would lead to being whipped or having teeth pulled in public, to set an example to others. The Day of Ashes was a fast of everything bar water to cleanse the body and prepare for the hardships ahead.

Ash Wednesday is still celebrated throughout the world, and many customs remain. The strict rules of Lent have long passed, however, and so instead the Day of Ashes is a mark of repentance and acceptance of forgiveness, rather than mourning and fasting.

Carl Spitzweg, Ash Wednesday, Public Domain
Carl Spitzweg, Ash Wednesday, Public Domain