Ash Wednesday: February 29
Orthodox Ash Wednesday is a religious observance for Western Rite Orthodox Christians.
In general, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, i.e. Greek Orthodox, do not celebrate Ash Wednesday. The exception is the Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite. The day is celebrated the same as Western Ash Wednesday but on a different date that is 46 days before Orthodox Pascha. The same significance is given to this date; the ashes signify the fragile and humble human condition in front of God.
History of Western Rite Orthodox Ash Wednesday
Eastern Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Ash Wednesday, and the Orthodox Great Lent period begins with Clean Monday. Most Orthodox Christians follow the Byzantine Rite of liturgies that has dominated the Orthodox celebrations since the thirteenth century. From the end of the nineteenth century there were many Western Christians that converted to Orthodoxy but yet wanted to keep their ways of worship through the Roman Western Rite, and so was born the Western Rite Orthodox Churches.
Even though Orthodox, the Western Rite Churches celebrate Ash Wednesday following the customs and traditions of the Western Christians. And like these, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Great Lent period before Easter. Ash Wednesday comes from Roman times and is known to be celebrated as early as the fifth century. It was called dies cinerum (day of ashes). Well before the celebrations of Ash Wednesday were institutionalized by the Catholic Church, there were many penitents that in sign of repentance and penance would cover themselves with ashes and seek forgiveness from God for their sins.
Since Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the season privileged for repentance, it was decided to be marked by a proper ritual during Mass. It starts before the Mass, when the priest blesses the Ashes which are kept from the Palms used from the previous year on Palm Sunday. The ashes are blessed with holy water and incense. This creates a kind of paste that then is used to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of all those attending Mass and who approach the altar to be ashed. The priest will repeat these words as he places the ashes: “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Western Rite Orthodox Ash Wednesday Traditions, Customs and Activities
Like the Western ritual of Ash Wednesday, the most significant tradition is the marking of a cross on the forehead of all the faithful attending the religious services on that day. These ashes are obtained from the burning of the palm leaves used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations and are blessed with holy water and fumigated with incense. The moment when one receives the ashes is filled with penitential meaning, as today in a symbolic way Christians follow ancient rituals when penitents would prepare themselves for Easter by bathing themselves with ashes as a sign of repentance, seeking forgiveness for their sins. Ash Wednesday is also the first day of Lent fasting. Along with prayer and alms giving, fasting is the privileged way through which Christians try to make a way of self-learning and discipline to arrive on Easter Sunday with a clean spirit to receive and celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.