Saint Brigid Religious Education
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West Hartford, CT 06110

Holy Days

Ash Wednesday ~ Between February 4 and March 10

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God. Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian.

It is a moveable feast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned.

At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful. The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return, or Repent, and believe the Gospel.

In the early church, ashes were not offered to everyone but were only used to mark the forehead of worshippers who had made public confession of sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the Easter celebration. However, over the years others began to show their humility and identification with the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are now observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday. Ashes became symbolic of that attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).

Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. It marks the start of a forty day period of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13.[13]

In the Roman Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to any Christian, as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity. Similarly, in most other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.

Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance, a day of contemplating one's transgressions. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (for those Catholics age 14 and over), as are all Fridays in Lent. Some Roman Catholics continue fasting during the whole of Lent, as was the Church's traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

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