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Lent, Ash Wednesday, their origin and dos and don’ts

By Japheth Ogila | March 6th 2019

Nyeri Archbishop Anthony Muheria applies ash to Standard Group's employee Timothy Bundi at the St Consolata Cathedral in Nyeri, on Ash Wednesday. Photo taken on February 14, 2016. Catholics and other churches are beginning Lent period on Wednesday. [File, Standard]

Today is like any other day to those who are deeply immersed into non-spiritual engagements like jobs and businesses. But there is a group of Christian believers that find this day special and worthy of reverence.

These groups are the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran and Methodist who are marking the beginning of 42-day Lent period of preparation for their Easter celebration.

It is a period which begins with Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated on March 6, 2019, spanning all the way to April 18, 2019.

There is a likelihood most of the believers who will honour the Lent period will begin their fete today and they do so by having a mark of the cross on their forehead out of palm tree ash.

According to Catholic Online, Ash Wednesday has immense importance in the faith of Catholic believers.  

It reads: "Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular and important holy days in the liturgical calendar. Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of fasting and prayer...The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead."

The source further explains that apart from symbolizing the mortality of human race, the ash in its self-shows acknowledgement of human sinful nature, and that believers have caused their division from God as a consequence of their transgressions.

It, therefore, shows meekness in the period of penance, as they reminisce Jesus Christ's preparation for fasting in the wilderness for 40 days.

The preparation of the ash takes nearly one year, since it is prepared from the palm trees used in previous year's Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is another celebration marking Jesus Christ's majestic entry into Jerusalem when he rode on a donkey, as written in the gospels.


In Catholic tradition, the administration of the ash has its fair share of restrictions. One of such is in the wearing of the ash.

"It is not required that a person wear the ashes for the rest of the day, and they may be washed off after Mass. However, many people keep the ashes as a reminder until the evening," notes Catholic Online.

Apart from the believers mandated to go for the ash during the mass, from priest on the altar; those who are sick in the hospitals or at home can have the ashes delivered to them and marked from their beds.

The origin of Ash Wednesday is linked to some Jewish customs related to repentance of sins. Nonetheless, the Bible does not explicitly reveal circumstances in which the Jews instituted the doctrine.

Catholic Online states: "The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year."


The Ash Wednesday gives way to the Lent period which involves life adjustments to the Church and the believers. It is a prayerful moment in commemoration of Jesus Christ's experience in the wilderness, during which he had prayer and fasting for 40 days.

Derived from the word "Lengthen" inferring to its observance during spring when days begin to be longer; Lent has a number of practices associated with it.

First is the purple which stands out as the theme colour bringing in the sombre mood to commemorate Christ's suffering.

It also involves the Do's and Don'ts to preserve the solemnity of the day as required by the Catholic Church.

Dos: One is expected to fast and pray, emphasize on repentance and engage on charities to affirm one's faith.

Don'ts: Avoid alcohol, smoking or using any drug, eating meat and one can voluntarily refrain from sexual intercourse among others.


Most Catholic sources reveal that the practice of Lent observation dates back to several years before A.D 313 when Christianity was adopted in Rome, leading to the institution of Roman Catholic Church.

An extract from the Catholic Resource Education Centre states a decree that led to the formalization of the practice in the Church.

"The Council of Nicea (325), in its disciplinary canons, noted that two provincial synods should be held each year, "one before the 40 days of Lent." St. Athanasius (d. 373) in this "Festal Letters" implored his congregation to make a 40-day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week," CREC notes.

The Lent practice was built on general principles, which have changed over time as CREC indicates. For instance, a person was to have only one meal a day, something that is not religiously adhered to.

CREC further states: "On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one's strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat."

The changes are tied to the push to make celebration comfortable and accommodating to believers who hail from diverse cultures.

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