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Ash Wednesday & Lent 2018: History & Origins

Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday during a mass at Holy Name Cathedral on March 1, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Ash Wednesday, which occurs 46 days before Easter, marks the first day of Lent and the beginning of a fast for many Christian religions. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday will fall on Valentine’s Day. This means if you celebrate Lent, you’ll have to skip out on the wine and chocolate. Technically speaking. As you prepare to give up sweets for 40 days, you may be thinking, what is the history behind Ash Wednesday and Lent?

Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and reflection before Easter. It lasts for 40 days, not including Sundays, to represent the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent and always falls 46 days before Easter. It is one of only two days out of the year – the other being Good Friday -- where fasting and abstinence are required, explains Bishop Richard Malone to The New York Times. He offers a solution to this year’s Valentine’s Day dilemma: “Those who are accustomed to celebrating Valentine’s Day might to do, perhaps, the day before. Join it up with Mardi Gras!”


According to TIME, the practices of Ash Wednesday only date back to the 11th Century, whereas the Easter story takes places in Biblical times. TIME cites Lauren F. Winner, an Episcopal priest and associate professor at Duke Divinity School, who notes there is an association with ashes and fasting in The Book of Daniel.

Nicholas V. Russo, the Assistant Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at the University of Notre Dame, writes that yes, the traditions of fasting before Easter is ancient, but “the length of that fast varied significantly from place to place across generations.” In his article, The Early History of Lent, Russo claims that the length of Lent became fixed at 40 days following the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

The Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC) agrees with Russo’s timeline. According to their research, once the Church agreed to fix Lent at 40 days, they then needed to agree on fasting, which varied among countries. The CERC writes, “Eventually, the practice prevailed of fasting for six days a week over the course of six weeks, and Ash Wednesday was instituted to bring the number of fast days before Easter to 40.”

The BBC published this nifty breakdown of what you need to know about Ash Wednesday and Lent.