Ash Wednesday falls on Wednesday 10 February for 2016, the day after Shrove Tuesday and 46 days before Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent and its 40 days of fasting. But why do we celebrate it and how is it celebrated?
What does Ash Wednesday celebrate?
The day after Shrove Tuesday is the first day of Lent – the Christian time of fasting in remembrance of the 40 days that Jesus was said to have spent in the desert resisting the temptations of Satan. Ash Wednesday is the first day of 40 (excluding Sundays), leading up to Easter Sunday – the celebration of Jesus's resurrection from the cross.
How do people celebrate?
Christians may have blessed ash, usually drawn with a finger in the shape of a cross, placed on their head in church on Ash Wednesday. Usually this is accompanied by the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return", or sometimes, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel". The former is from Genesis 3:19: "By the sweat of your face/you shall eat bread,/till you return to the ground,/for out of it you were taken;/for you are dust,/and to dust you shall return." It is a way for Christians to remind themselves that they are mortal and need to repent for their sinfulness.
There is no fixed rule for how to administer the ashes, so some churches may sprinkle them on the heads of their congregation instead. The ashes themselves are blessed before Holy Communion is taken and are traditionally made from palm leaves that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday.
Is it only for Christians?
Some congregations welcome non-Christians into the celebration, too: Rt Rev Seamus Cunningham, bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, said: "This is an important day, but it's not just for Catholics. Anyone can receive blessed ashes on Ash Wednesday, whether Christian or not, to express their desire to grow spiritually and to turn away from their failings, their areas of weakness and brokenness, in favour of seeking the healing and wholeness that only God can give. You are welcome to come along to any Ash Wednesday service and join us in taking this simple, but profound step."