Ash Wednesday: The first day of the fast

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Ash Wednesday has been referred to since the 6th century as that Wednesday before the 6th Sunday before Easter (»Invocabit«). The special thing about this day is the beginning of the great 40-day Christian fast, which lasts until Easter. With the inclusion of Holy Friday and Holy Saturday and with the exception of Sundays, exactly 40 fasting days occur before the highest Christian feast, the memory of the resurrection of Christ. Ash Wednesday is usually in February or March and is the beginning of fasting for many Christians.

The word Ash Wednesday derives from an ancient tradition: on this day, the penitents in the church were sprayed with ash, hence the name Ash Wednesday. Since the 10th century, the allocation of an Ash Cross on this day has been historically proven. The ashes are a symbol of transitory as well as of repentance and penance. In addition, the ashes are also used as a cleansing agent and are, therefore, a symbol for the purification of the soul.

In the early church, public repentance began on Ash Wednesday. So, the penitents put on a penance garment and were then sprayed with ashes. In the 10th century, public repentance came out of fashion, and the ashes ritual was now extended to all believers.

At the end of the 11th century, Pope Urban II officially introduced the custom that believers should be sprayed with ash on the forehead or neck by the priest as a sign of the beginning of the time of repentance and fasting.

Traditionally, the priest speaks about the distribution of the Ash Cross: “Remember, man, that you are dust and will return to dust again” (vgl. Gen 3,19).

Since the 12th century, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday have been extracted from the previous year’s palm branches and oil branches that remained on Palm Sunday. Ash Wednesday is not a fixed date but a variable date, calculated from Easter.

  • hp/picture: canva.com
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