Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Ash Wednesday over the years

How are traditions created, preserved, and changed throughout history and geography.

Mar 5, 2017

Whether it is the long queues at the Westminster Cathedral in London or the mass at St. Therese Church here in Abu Dhabi, Western Christian places of worship from all over the globe welcomed both girls and boys, young and old, rich and poor to get ashed on March 1.
Ash Wednesday, as it is known, is the day when Christians’ foreheads are marked with an ash cross to humble their hearts and remind them that life is fleeting. The ashes symbolize penance and contrition, serving as a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. While the Day traces its origins back millenia, the modern format of Ash Wednesday is the result of centuries of shaping and reformulating, and provides us a window into how traditions more generally are never static.
An important aspect of Ash Wednesday is that it marks the start of the season of Lent. This time period is one in which Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony in which Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. While the faithful recited the Catholic prayer Seven Penitential Psalms, the sinners were turned out of the church because of their sins. On Ash Wednesday, the bishop would sprinkle ashes over them — all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, would come to receive ashes out of devotion.
From the origin of the tradition in the sixth century to this day, the church calls on Christians from all walks of life to seek mercy during the entire Lenten season through reflection, prayer and penance. While the central concept of Ash Wednesday has been preserved throughout history, the tradition has been subject to various alterations over time.
In earlier ages, a procession often followed the ritual of the distribution of the ashes, but this is not common now. In addition, formerly it was merely the Roman Catholics who had the foreheads marked with the cross, but now the imposition of ashes has expanded to other Christian denominations.
Moreover, the passage of time has resulted in the formation of new sub-traditions, some lighthearted, but others of more grave significance. On Pancake Day, as the name suggests, people eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday to use up rich ingredients like eggs and milk before the 40-day fasting season of Lent begins. Another side-tradition has developed that involves pastors distributing ashes to passersby in public areas. This is slightly controversial because although this doesn’t have a taboo attached to it, many people believe that Catholics must receive ashes only within the context of Mass.
As the case of Ash Wednesday demonstrates, traditions can be dynamic and constantly change with time. Whether they have served the purpose of teaching values, providing a source of identity for a society or strengthening a religious community, traditions such as Ash Wednesday have manifested themselves across the globe and across generations and are thus inevitably intertwined in our lives.
Nimrah Khanyari is a contributing writer. Email her at
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