Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: Lent begins February 14

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is marked by the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful. Photo: Penwin/Shutterstock
Published February 8, 2018

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

These are the words that Christians around the world will hear on February 14, as a priest daubs ash, in the shape of the cross, on their foreheads.

This tradition takes place on Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter. The ashes are made by burning palm branches blessed in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, and are meant to symbolize mourning and penance for one’s sinfulness and mortality.

This year, because it falls on February 14, it could make Valentine’s Day a more sombre affair and cause trouble for anyone giving up chocolate for Lent.

The practice of wearing ashes is both a way to connect the physical body to spiritual life and to visibly proclaim one’s faith, suggests Episcopal priest and Duke Divinity School Associate Professor Lauren F. Winner in a 2016 Time Magazine article. It is, she says, “a very striking [practice] for those who are not necessarily comfortable talking about faith…The practice of this once a year is an organic way of drawing their faith into their lives.”

In large cities across Canada and the U.S., you can often find “ashes to go,” with priests taking to the streets, subways and train stations with ashes for busy commuters.

In the 7th century, Lent began with Quadragesima Sunday, the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (It still does in the Ambrosian Rite.) The four extra days were added between the 8th and 10th centuries to make the fast encompass exactly 40 weekdays.

Christians around the world observe Lent through prayer, fasting and reflection. It is meant as a time to meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus preceding the celebration of Easter. Several resources for the season of Lent are available online for study, prayer and action.

The diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island has several links on its website for resources from Building Faith, a ministry of Virginia Theological Seminary. These include instructions for making “Lent in a bag,” filled with symbols of Lent and reflections on the season, which helps families practice Lent at home. There is also a study of Luke and Acts, and a small group study of the Gospel of John.

The Anglican Church of Canada website also has a collection of resources.

For 2018, the leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have collaborated to create a set of ecumenical Lenten devotions called Set Free By Truth. Prayers, readings and reflections selected and written by these church leaders follow the six Sundays of Lent.

The website also includes devotionals from the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), which are delivered daily by email.

Many Christians choose to fast or give up a bad habit or distraction during the 40 days of Lent, as a symbol of sacrifice. The Citizens for Public Justice campaign “Give it up for the Earth!” encourages giving up practices that hurt the environment. The campaign urges participants to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions and to call on the federal government to end subsidies to the fossil fuel sector.

The Church of England has created a booklet called #LiveLent – Let Your Light Shine, which offers a daily reading, reflection and prayer, and an idea for “a simple action that will enable the light of Jesus to shine through our everyday lives,” according to the Church of England website. On one day, for example, it instructs to “Make time today to live the unconditional gift of God’s love. In a relationship, seek simply to give, to love and not seek anything in return.” There is also a #LiveLent app available for iOS and Android.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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