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Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the 6 Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ's resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return".
Ashes are ceremonially placed on the heads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, either by being sprinkled over their heads or, in English-speaking countries, more often by being marked on their foreheads as a visible cross. The words (based on Genesis 3:19) used traditionally to accompany this gesture are:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula (based on Mark 1:15) was introduced and given first place:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
The old formula, based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, reminds worshippers of their sinfulness and mortality and thus, implicitly, of their need to repent in time. The newer formula makes explicit what was only implicit in the old.
Various manners of placing the ashes on worshippers' heads are in use within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the two most common being to use the ashes to make a cross on the forehead and sprinkling the ashes over the crown of the head. Originally, the ashes were strewn over men's heads, but, probably because women had their heads covered in church, were placed on the foreheads of women. In the Catholic Church the manner of imposing ashes depends largely on local custom, since no fixed rule has been laid down. Although the account of Ã†lfric of Eynsham shows that in about the year 1000 the ashes were "strewn" on the head, the marking of the forehead is the method that now prevails in English-speaking countries and is the only one envisaged in the Occasional Offices of the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, a publication described as "noticeably Anglo-Catholic in character". In its ritual of "Blessing of Ashes", this states that "the ashes are blessed at the beginning of the
Eucharist; and after they have been blessed they are placed on the forehead of the clergy and people." The Ash Wednesday ritual of the Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, contains "The Imposition of Ashes" in its Ash Wednesday liturgy. On Ash Wednesday, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, traditionally takes part in a penitential procession from the Church of Saint Anselm to the Basilica of Santa Sabina, where, in accordance with the custom in Italy and many other countries, ashes are sprinkled on his head, not smudged on his forehead, and he places ashes on the heads of others in the same way.
The Anglican ritual, used in Papua New Guinea states that, after the blessing of the ashes, "the priest marks his own forehead and then the foreheads of the servers and congregation who come and kneel, or stand, where they normally receive the Blessed Sacrament." The corresponding Catholic ritual in the Roman Missal for celebration within Mass merely states: "Then the Priest places ashes on the head of those present who come to him, and says to each one ..." Pre-1970 editions had much more elaborate instructions about the order in which the participants were to receive the ashes, but again without any indication of the form of placing the ashes on the head. The 1969 revision of the Roman Rite inserted into the Mass the solemn ceremony of blessing ashes and placing them on heads, but also explicitly envisaged a similar solemn ceremony outside of Mass. The Book of Blessings contains a simple rite. While the solemn rite would normally be carried out within a church building, the simple
rite could appropriately be used almost anywhere. While only a priest or deacon may bless the ashes, laypeople may do the placing of the ashes on a person's head. Even in the solemn rite, lay men or women may assist the priest in distributing the ashes. In addition, laypeople take blessed ashes left over after the collective ceremony and place them on the head of the sick or of others who are unable to attend the blessing. (In 2014, Anglican Liverpool Cathedral likewise offered to impose ashes within the church without a solemn ceremony.)
In addition, those who attend such Catholic services, whether in a church or elsewhere, traditionally take blessed ashes home with them to place on the heads of other members of the family, and it is recommended to have envelopes available to facilitate this practice. At home the ashes are then placed with little or no ceremony.
Unlike its discipline regarding sacraments, the Catholic Church does not exclude from receiving sacramentals, such as the placing of ashes on the head, those who are not Catholics and perhaps not even baptized. Even those who have been excommunicated and are therefore forbidden to celebrate sacramentals are not forbidden to receive them. After describing the blessing, the rite of Blessing and Distribution of Ashes (within Mass) states: "Then the Priest places ashes on the heads of all those present who come to him." The Catholic Church does not limit distribution of blessed ashes to within church buildings and has suggested the holding of celebrations in shopping centres, nursing homes, and factories. Such celebrations presume preparation of an appropriate area and include readings from Scripture (at least one) and prayers, and are somewhat shorter if the ashes are already blessed.
Since 2007, some members of major Christian Churches, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics and Methodists, have participated in the Ashes to Go program, in which clergy go outside of their churches to public places, such as downtowns, sidewalks and train stations, to impose ashes on passersby, even on people waiting in their cars for a stoplight to change. Anglican priest, Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard took up the idea and turned it into a movement, stated that the practice was also an act of evangelism. Anglicans and Catholics in parts of the United Kingdom such as Sunderland, are offering Ashes to Go together: Fr. Marc Lyden-Smith, the priest of Saint Mary's Church stated that the ecumenical effort is a "tremendous witness in our city, with Catholics and Anglicans working together to start the season of Lent, perhaps reminding those who have fallen away from the Church, or have never been before, that the Christian faith is alive and active in Sunderland.â I
n the US, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said that Catholic priests were unlikely to participate, although the Catholic Student Association of Kent State University offered ashes to university students who were going through the Student Center of that institution, and the Rev. Douglas Clark of St. Matthewâ™s Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro, among others, have participated in Ashes to Go. Reverend Trey Hall, pastor of Urban Village United Methodist Church, stated that when his local church offered ashes in Chicago "nearly 300 people received ashes â" including two people who were waiting in their car for a stoplight to change." In 2013, churches not only in the United States, but also at least one church each in the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa, participated in Ashes to Go. However, in 2014, only one church outside the United States was reported as participating, while in the United States itself 34 states and the District of Colum
bia had at least one church taking part. Most of these churches (parishes) were Episcopal, but there were also several Methodist churches, as well as fewer Presbyterian and Independent Catholic churches.
The Catholic Church and the Methodist Church say that the ashes should be those of palm branches blessed at the previous years Palm Sunday service, while a Church of England publication says they "may be made" from the burnt palm crosses of the previous year. These sources do not speak of adding anything to the ashes other than, for the Catholic liturgy, a sprinkling with holy water when blessing them. An Anglican website speaks of mixing the ashes with a small amount of holy water or olive oil as a fixative.
Where ashes are placed on the head by smudging the forehead with a sign of the cross, many Christians choose to keep the mark visible throughout the day. The churches have not imposed this as an obligatory rule, and the ashes may even be wiped off immediately after receiving them; but some Christian leaders, such as Lutheran pastor Richard P. Bucher and Catholic bishop Kieran Conry, recommend it as a public profession of faith. Rev. Morgan Guyton, a Methodist pastor and leader in the Red-Letter Christian movement, encourages Christians to wear their ashed cross throughout the day as an exercise of religious freedom.
Anglican Commination Office
Robin Knowles Wallace states that the traditional Ash Wednesday church service includes Psalm 51 (the Miserere), prayers of confession and the sign of ashes. No single one of the traditional services contains all of these elements. The Anglican Church's traditional Ash Wednesday service, titled A Commination, contains the first two elements, but not the third. On the other hand, the Catholic Church's traditional service has the blessing and distribution of ashes but, while prayers of confession and recitation of Psalm 51 (the first psalm at Lauds on all penitential days, including Ash Wednesday) are a part of its general traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy, they are not associated specifically with the rite of blessing the ashes. The rite of blessing has acquired an untraditional weak association with that particular psalm only since 1970, when it was inserted into the celebration of Mass, at which a few verses of Psalm 51 are used as a responsorial psalm. Coincidentally, it was only a
bout the same time that in some areas Anglicanism resumed the rite of ashes.
In the mid-16th century, the first Book of Common Prayer removed the ceremony of the ashes from the liturgy of the Church of England and replaced it with what would later be called the Commination Office. In that 1549 edition, the rite was headed: "The First Day of Lent: Commonly Called Ash-Wednesday". The ashes ceremony was not forbidden, but was not included in the church's official liturgy and fell into complete disuse by the early 17th century. Its place was taken by reading biblical curses of God against sinners, to each of which the people were directed to respond with Amen. The text of the "Commination or Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgments against Sinners" begins: "In the primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afr
aid to offend. Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners". In line with this, Joseph Hooper Maude wrote that the establishment of The Commination was due to a desire of the reformers "to restore the primitive practice of public penance in church". He further stated that "the sentences of the greater excommunication" within The Commination corresponded to those used in the ancient Church. The Anglican Church's Ash Wednesday liturgy, he wrote, also traditionally included the Miserere, which, along with "what follows" in the rest of the service (lesser Litany, Lord's Prayer, three prayers for pardon and final blessing), "was taken from the Sarum services for Ash Wednesday". From the Sarum Rite practice in England the service took Psalm 51 and some prayers that in the Sarum Missal accompan
ied the blessing and distribution of ashes. In the Sarum Rite, the Miserere psalm was one of the seven penitential psalms that were recited at the beginning of the ceremony. In the 20th century, the Episcopal Church introduced three prayers from the Sarum Rite and omitted the Commination Office from its liturgy.
Low church ceremonies
In some of the low church traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.
Biblical significance of ashes
Ashes were used in ancient times to express grief. When Tamar was raped by her half-brother, "she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying" (2 Samuel 13:19). The gesture was also used to express sorrow for sins and faults. In Job 42:3â"6, Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
Examples of the practice among Jews are found in several other books of the Bible, including Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Book of Esther 4:1, and Hebrews 9:13. Jesus is quoted as speaking of the practice in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13: "If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes."
Christian use of ashes
Christians continued the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance. Tertullian (c. 160 â" c. 225) said that confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes. The historian Eusebius (c. 260/265 â" 339/340) recounts how a repentant apostate covered himself with ashes when begging Pope Zephyrinus to readmit him to communion.
John W. Fenton writes that "by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast. In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as âœFeria Quarta Cinerumâ (i.e., Ash Wednesday)."
The public penance that grave sinners underwent before being admitted to Holy Communion just before Easter lasted throughout Lent, on the first day of which they were sprinkled with ashes and dressed in sackcloth. When, towards the end of the first millennium, the discipline of public penance was dropped, the beginning of Lent, seen as a general penitential season, was marked by sprinkling ashes on the heads of all. This practice is found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the late 8th century. About two centuries later, Ã†lfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot, wrote of the rite of strewing ashes on heads at the start of Lent.
The article on Ash Wednesday in the 1911 EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica says that, after the Protestant Reformation, the ashes ceremony was not forbidden in the Church of England, a statement that may explain the claim by Blair Meeks that the Anglican tradition "never lapsed in this observance". It was even prescribed under King Henry VIII in 1538 and under King Edward VI in 1550, but it fell completely out of use by soon after 1600. In 1536, the Ten Articles issued by authority of Henry VIII commended "the observance of various rites and ceremonies as good and laudable, such as clerical vestments, sprinkling of holy water, bearing of candles on Candlemas-day, giving of ashes on Ash-Wednesday". After Henry's death in January 1547, Thomas Cranmer, within the same year, "procured an order from the Council to forbid the carrying of candles on Candlemas-day, and the use of ashes on Ash-Wednesday, and of palms on Palm-Sunday, as superstitious ceremonies", an order that was issued only for the e
cclesiastical province of Canterbury, of which Cranmer was archbishop. The Church CyclopÃ¦dia states that the "English office had adapted the very old Salisbury service for Ash-Wednesday, prefacing it with an address and a recital of the curses of Mount Ebal, and then with an exhortation uses the older service very nearly as it stood." The new Commination Office had no blessing of ashes and therefore, in England as a whole, "soon after the Reformation, the use of ashes was discontinued as a 'vain show' and Ash Wednesday then became only a day of marked solemnity, with a memorial of its original character in a reading of the curses denounced against impenitent sinners". The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in the 19th century, observed Ash Wednesday: "as a day of fasting and humiliation, wherein we are publicly to confess our sins, meekly to implore God's mercy and forgiveness, and humbly to intercede for the continuance of his favour". In the 20th century
, the Book of Common Prayer provided prayers for the imposition of ashes.
Monte Canfield and Blair Meeks state that after the Protestant Reformation, some Lutherans kept the rite, and that many Protestant denominations that did not keep it encouraged its use "during and after the ecumenical era that resulted in the Vatican II proclamations". Jack Kingsbury and Russell F. Anderson likewise state that the practice was continued among some Anglicans and Lutherans. On the other hand, Edward Traill Horn wrote: "The ceremony of the distribution of the ashes was not retained by the reformers, whether Lutheran, Anglican or Reformed", although these denominations honored Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. Similarly, a document of the Lutheran Missouri Synod Worship Library states: "Lutherans at the time of the Reformation did not choose to retain the imposition of Ashes. ... although Lutherans began Lent with Ash Wednesday, they did not retain the use of ashes as part of their Ash Wednesday order of service." Frank Senn, a liturgical scholar, has been quoted a
s saying: "How and why the use of ashes fell out of Lutheran use is difficult to discern from the sourcesâ¦ [C]hurch orders don't specifically say not to use ashes; they simply stopped giving direction for blessing and distributing them and eventually the pastors just stopped doing it."
As part of the liturgical revival ushered in by the ecumenical movement, the practice was encouraged in Protestant churches, including the Methodist Church. It has also been adopted by Anabaptist and Reformed churches and some less liturgical denominations.
The Eastern Orthodox churches generally do not observe Ash Wednesday, although in recent times, the creation of the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate has led to the observance of Ash Wednesday among Western Orthodox parishes. In this tradition, ashes "may be distributed outside of the mass or any liturgical service" although "commonly the faithful receive their ashes immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass". In Orthodoxy, historically, "serious public sinners in the East also donned sackcloth, including those who made the Great Fast a major theme of their entire lives such as hermits and desert-dwellers." Byzantine Catholics, although in the United States they use "the same Gregorian calendar as the Roman Catholic rite", do not practice the distribution of ashes as it is "not part of their ancient tradition".
In the Ambrosian Rite, ashes are blessed and placed on the heads of the faithful not on the day that elsewhere is called Ash Wednesday, but at the end of Mass on the following Sunday, which in that rite inaugurates Lent, with the fast traditionally beginning on Monday, the first weekday of the Ambrosian Lent.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of a 40-day period which is an allusion to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. Matthew 4:1â"11, Mark 1:12â"13, and Luke 4:1â"13. While not specifically instituted in the Bible text, the 40-day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the Golden calf. (Jews today follow a 40-day period of repenting in preparation for and during the High Holy Days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur.)
Fast and abstinence from meat
In the Latin Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentanceâ"a day of contemplating one's transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Latin Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church's traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter
Vigil. Where the Ambrosian Rite is observed, the day of fasting and abstinence is postponed to the first Friday in the Ambrosian Lent, nine days later.
In the medieval period, the day before Ash Wednesday was the required annual day of confessing one's sins and receiving absolution and instructions on the penances to be performed during Lent, the reason it was called Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was also the last day of the Carnival season, which continues until Saturday in areas where the Ambrosian Rite, with its later Lent, is observed. Dutch tradition holds the custom to eat salted herring on Ash Wednesday to conclude the carnival in the Netherlands.
Ash Wednesday occurs 46 days before Easter. In the next years it will fall on these dates:
The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year starting on a Thursday with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year starting on a Sunday.)
These Christian Churches are among those that mark Ash Wednesday with a particular liturgy or service.
African Methodist Episcopal Church
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Anglican Catholic Church
Church of England
Church of North India
Church of South India
Individual Baptist churches may hold a service
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Some congregations of the Church of the Nazarene
Church of God (Anderson)
Community of Christ
Some congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church
Some Free Churches (e.g., Free Methodist Church)
Some Independent Catholic denominations
Liberal Catholic Church
Some congregations of the Mennonite Brethren Church
Some congregations of Mennonite Church Canada
Some congregations of Mennonite Church USA
Methodist Church in Great Britain
Methodist Church in India
Metropolitan Community Churches
Mexican National Catholic Churches
Old Catholic Church
Reformed churches (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, etc.)
Roman Catholic Church
Traditional Anglican Communion
United Church of Christ Congregations
United Methodist Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not, in general, observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously mentioned denominations, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.
National No Smoking Day
In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984, but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.
In Victorian England, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainment, as mandated by the Anglican Church.
Carnival, festival ending on Ash Wednesday
Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday
Holy Week â" the last week in the season of Lent.
Ashes To Go: Taking Worship to the Streets
A Roman Catholic Ash Wednesday Service
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