Ash Wednesday 2021: meaning of the Christian observance before lent - and what the ashes represent at mass

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are from the palms used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday

Lent will begin on Ash Wednesday, which is the first of 40 days of fasting, prayer and charitable acts observed by many Christians. .

Churches generally hold a mass and bless those in attendance by rubbing ashes on their foreheads, a Christian symbol of death, repentance of sins and purification.

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But why is Ash Wednesday celebrated and what is the significance of the ashes? This is what you need to know.

A priest will officiate Ash Wednesday by rubbing ashes in a cross-shape onto the head of church-goers, signifying the beginning of Lent (Picture: Getty Images)
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When is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the day following Pancake ‘Shrove’ Tuesday, and will be celebrated on 17 February in 2021.

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Christians observe Ash Wednesday as the first of 40 days of Lent - when they will participate in fasting, prayer and reflection.

This is to symbolise the 40 day period of fasting and prayer Jesus served in the desert before his execution by Pontius Pilot.

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Lent lasts just over six weeks, but is counted as 40 days as Sundays are not included, and it always spans the 46 days before Easter.

How do Christians observe Ash Wednesday?

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Catholics and protestants attend mass on Ash Wednesday, where they will congregate to listen to a story from the bible and join together in prayer.There will also be a long period of silence during the mass as attendees are asked to reflect on their own sins and ask God for forgiveness.

The ashes are then given as a sign of repentance and purification, representing how the human body turns to dust after death.

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Adults will fast before they receive their ashes, and when the priest rubs the ashes on their foreheads they will respond “Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or the dictum "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Christians are encouraged to make a commitment to prayer, charity and fasting or self-denial. Many Catholics make Lenten promises or resolutions to mark the importance of this holy season.

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From the time of receiving ashes, practising Christians will fast for 40 days from rich foods - such as meat and dairy, while new traditions also include sweet foods which are considered indulgent.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians in places such as India will fast until sunset, while Roman Catholics will observe the day by eating two small snacks and one large evening meal - the two snacks should not amount to the same as the meal.

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Catholics should also abstain from eating meat for the entire day, while some choose to go beyond the minimum recommendations from the Catholic church and eat only bread and water on Ash Wednesday.

The Roman Catholic church also expects adults to abstain from meat on every Friday throughout lent, as well as sacrificing an indulgent food throughout the lenten period until Easter Sunday.

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What is the history of Ash Wednesday?

Though Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday to symbolise the biblical story of Jesus entering the desert prior to his crucifixion, Ash Wednesday is not mentioned in the bible.

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However, ashes are mentioned in the bible as representing the dust which our bodies turn to following death.

Genesis 2:7 reads: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

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On Ash Wednesday Christians acknowledge that they are human and children of God and ask for forgiveness for their sins, from their creator.

The first Ash Wednesday observance was held in the 11th century AD, though the book of Daniel in the bible also makes reference to ashes as symbolic of death and fasting from indulgence before celebrating Easter.

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The ashes used are made from mixing olive oil, holy water and the cinders of palms from the previous years’ palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday, when churches bless and hand out palm branches in reference to the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when onlookers lay palm branches on his path.

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Will mass be held in 2021?

This year, religious holidays cannot be observed with mass and the coming together of parishes to celebrate Lent.

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Even in parts of the world where there are less restrictions on gatherings for worship, the Vatican has asked that ashes would “not be applied to the forehead in the usual manner, but would be sprinkled on the top of people’s heads.”

In the UK, Catholics and other Christians are asked to observe Ash Wednesday at home with their families, making black crosses out of ribbon or card and wearing these instead.

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Catholics are also asked to stick to their fasting, prayer and charity promises, despite the lack of observance at mass.