Ash Wednesday, in the western calendar, is the first day of Lent, and occurs 46 days before Easter (40 days if not counting Sundays – as Sundays are IN Lent, however, not OF Lent – and are to remain celebrations of the living presence of God among us.)
Ash Wednesday is dependent upon the date of Easter thus is a “moveable feast”, falling on a different date each year. It can occur as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.
According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus separated himself for 40 days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our similar 40 day period of reflection prior to the celebration of Easter.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead as a mark of our mortality and imperfect humanity. This act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify humility and repentance before God. Ashes were used in ancient times, to express sorrow, repentance, or mourning. The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes” (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39). Other examples are found in several other Biblical writings. Ezekiel 9 speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people.
Jews, still today, also follow a 40-day period of contemplation, and periodic fasting during the High Holy Days between Rosh Chodesh and Yom Kippur.
The ashes used are typically gathered after the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned.