Portland News

Ash Wednesday 2022: A Brief History Into the Traditions

A woman in line practices the Ash Wednesday tradition
A woman in line practices the Ash Wednesday tradition

Ash Wednesday – Holy Week is among the longest holidays on the calendar, and Ash Wednesday often kicks off the 5-day holiday. Over the course of five days, religions from all sectors of Christianity worldwide celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through various traditions. 

The holy day of practice marks the first day of Lent, a period of preparations for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the most recognizable day of the religious practices as catholic churches practice the marking of an ash cross on the foreheads of mass attendants.

When is Ash Wednesday 2022?

Like the rest of the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday has no specific date set. Instead, it falls 40 days before Easter. So in 2022, the holy day of practice fell on Wednesday, March 2.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the precursor to the Holy Week and is typically observed six and a half weeks before Easter or 40 days (not including Sundays). The days leading to Easter represent Jesus’ journey into the desert for 40 days as he meditates and fends off the temptation of the Devil.

Ash Wednesday Background

The history of Ash Wednesday remains unclear as some believe it started all the way in the 11th century, while others speculate Ash Wednesday originated from ancient Rome.

In Roman tradition, it was a practice that required sinners to wear sackcloths and cover themselves in ash. From there, other countries with Christian churches would follow a similar tradition. In the United States, the practice of placing an ash cross only started a couple of decades ago.

What Do People Do on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is not typically seen as a holiday like the rest of the Holy Week. Instead, it is a day of observance wherein followers attend mass and line up to receive a cross of ash across their forehead.

The ashes come from the burnt palms from yesteryear’s Palm Sunday.

While the tradition is typically observed in the Catholic denomination, Christians have their own practices. For example, they often observe it as a day of fasting and repentance.

Although many people quickly associate fasting with food or water, people who observe the holiday have the choice to give up a luxury for Lent.

Fasting on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is often a time of fasting for Christians, and they observe the day by fasting or giving up something they dedicate a lot of their time to, from sugar to social media to television.

The practice mirrors the 40 days Jesus wandered in the desert.

A rule common among various denominations is the prohibition of meat. However, the strictness of the fasting rules has loosened through the years, and restaurants that open during the Lent season include fish specials to accommodate people practicing fasting.

Other Christians take the extra mile by either having only one meal on the day or none at all, breaking their fast the day after.

What Is the Significance of Ash?

The ash cross on people’s heads serves as a reminder of their mortality, sinfulness, and the need to seek forgiveness from God.

For most churches, the ashes come from the burnt palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday, which originate from Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem when people laid palm branches in his path.

Although there is no mention of the tradition in the Bible, the ash of the holiday represents death and repentance. It also refers to the Genesis 2:7 verse that reads:

“Ashes are equivalent to dust or clay, and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.”

Ash Wednesday During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 presented a major obstacle to the practice of Ash Wednesday with its health protocols; and while it has loosened since the release of the vaccines, social distancing, face masks, negative COVID-19 test results, and sanitation are still highly recommended.

Some churches have also pointed out that Ash is not required in services, allowing people to carry out the practice at home with family and friends. Other establishments still make use of ash, but instead of marking the heads with their hands, they use cotton swabs to comply with protocol.

Opinions expressed by Portland News contributors are their own.