According to the Christian canonical gospels, Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert, where he encountered the temptations by Satan. So, the solemn religious observance of Lent originated as a mirroring this event. Hence, Christians fast 40 days as preparation for the Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Christ. In Latin, Lent is referred to by the term Quadragesima (meaning “fortieth”), in reference to the fortieth day before Easter.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting. In Western Christianity, it marks the start of the 40-day period of fasting, the first day of the season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing the ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year, and placing them ceremonially on the heads of the participants. The Ash is either sprinkled over their heads or more often a visible cross is marked on their foreheads to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” based on Genesis 3:19
By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In Western Christianity, during Lent, every Sunday is regarded as a feast day to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on a Sunday, and so fasting is considered inappropriate on that day. And so, Christians fast from Monday to Saturday (6 days) for 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
Many Western Christians, including Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians observe Ash Wednesday. However, not all Catholics observe Ash Wednesday. Eastern Catholic Churches, do not count Holy Week as part of Lent, and they begin the penitential season on Monday before Ash Wednesday called the Clean Monday. Catholics following the Ambrosian Rite begin it on the First Sunday in Lent.
Throughout the Latin Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Ashes are blessed and ceremonially distributed at the start of Lent. In the Catholic Ambrosian Rite, this is done at the end of Sunday Mass or on the following day.
Here are readings in the Churches for Ash Wednesday. It is the continuation of the sermon on the mount. Jesus warns against doing good in order to be seen and gives three examples. In each, the conduct of the hypocrites is contrasted with that demanded of the disciples.
Teaching about Alms-giving
[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
– (Mathew 6: 1-4)
Teaching about Prayer
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors;
and do not subject us to the final test,
but deliver us from the evil one.
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
– Matthew 6:5–15
Teaching about Fasting
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to take place in two days’ time. So the chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to arrest him by treachery and put him to death.
They said, “Not during the festival, for fear that there may be a riot among the people.”
The Anointing at Bethany
When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.
There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her.
Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
The Betrayal by Judas
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them. When they heard him they were pleased and promised to pay him money. Then he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.
Preparations for the Passover
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.”
The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.
When it was evening, he came with the Twelve. And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”
They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one, “Surely it is not I?”
He said to them, “One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish. For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
The Lord’s Supper
While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Peter’s Denial Foretold
Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed.’ But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”
Peter said to him, “Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”
But he vehemently replied, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all spoke similarly.
The Agony in the Garden
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.”
He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing.
Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him.
He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough. The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus
Then, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs who had come from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. His betrayer had arranged a signal with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him and lead him away securely.”
He came and immediately went over to him and said, “Rabbi.” And he kissed him.
At this, they laid hands on him and arrested him. One of the bystanders drew his sword, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear.
Jesus said to them in reply, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs, to seize me? Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me; but that the scriptures may be fulfilled.”
And they all left him and fled.
Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.
Jesus before the Sanhedrin
They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.
Peter followed him at a distance into the high priest’s courtyard and was seated with the guards, warming himself at the fire.
The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none.
Many gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.
Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’”
Even so, their testimony did not agree.
The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?”
But he was silent and answered nothing.
Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”
Then Jesus answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
At that, the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”
They all condemned him as deserving to die.
Some began to spit on him. They blindfolded him and struck him and said to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards greeted him with blows.
Peter’s Denial of Jesus
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the high priest’s maids came along. Seeing Peter warming himself, she looked intently at him and said, “You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
But he denied it saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are talking about.”
So he went out into the outer court. [Then the cock crowed.]
The maid saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”
Once again he denied it.
A little later the bystanders said to Peter once more, “Surely you are one of them; for you too are a Galilean.”
He began to curse and to swear, “I do not know this man about whom you are talking.”
And immediately a cock crowed a second time.
Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”
He broke down and wept.
Jesus before Pilate
As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
He said to him in reply, “You say so.”
The chief priests accused him of many things.
Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.”
Jesus gave him no further answer so that Pilate was amazed.
The Sentence of Death
Now on the occasion of the feast, he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested.
A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed.
Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.
Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what [do you want] me to do with [the man you call] the king of the Jews?
They shouted again, “Crucify him.”
Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.
Mockery by the Roman Soldiers
The soldiers led him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort. They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.
They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him.
They knelt before him in homage. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him.
The Way of the Cross
They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
They brought him to the place of Golgotha (which is translated Place of the Skull).
They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.
The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”
With him, they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left.
Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross.”
Likewise, the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”
Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.
The Death of Jesus
At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.
When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome. These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him. There were also many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
The Burial of Jesus
When it was already evening, since it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died. And when he learned of it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.
Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses watched where he was laid.
The Resurrection of Jesus
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.
Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large.
On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed.
He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”
Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
When he had said this, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered.
Judas his betrayer also knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards from the chief priests and the Pharisees and went there with lanterns, torches, and weapons.
Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them, “Whom are you looking for?”
They answered him, “Jesus the Nazorean.”
He said to them, “I AM.”
Judas his betrayer was also with them. When he said to them, “I AM,” they turned away and fell to the ground.
So he again asked them, “Whom are you looking for?”
They said, “Jesus the Nazorean.”
Jesus answered, “I told you that I AM. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”
This was to fulfill what he had said, “I have not lost any of those you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus.
Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?”
So the band of soldiers, the tribune, and the Jewish guards seized Jesus, bound him, and brought him to Annas first. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Now the other disciple was known to the high priest, and he entered the courtyard of the high priest with Jesus. But Peter stood at the gate outside. So the other disciple, the acquaintance of the high priest, went out and spoke to the gatekeeper and brought Peter in.
Then the maid who was the gatekeeper said to Peter, “You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
He said, “I am not.”
Now the slaves and the guards were standing around a charcoal fire that they had made, because it was cold, and were warming themselves. Peter was also standing there keeping warm.
The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his doctrine.
Jesus answered him, “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.”
When he had said this, one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus and said, “Is this the way you answer the high priest?”
Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing there keeping warm. And they said to him, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?”
He denied it and said, “I am not.”
One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off, said, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”
Again Peter denied it. And immediately the cock crowed.
The Trial before Pilate
Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was morning. And they themselves did not enter the praetorium, in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover.
So Pilate came out to them and said, “What charge do you bring [against] this man?”
They answered and said to him, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”
At this, Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.”
The Jews answered him, “We do not have the right to execute anyone,” in order that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled that he said indicating the kind of death he would die.
So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I release one prisoner to you at Passover.* Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”
They cried out again, “Not this one but Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly.
Once more Pilate went out and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”
So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak.
And he said to them, “Behold, the man!”
When the chief priests and the guards saw him they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.”
The Jews answered, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this statement, he became even more afraid, and went back into the praetorium and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?”
Jesus did not answer him.
So Pilate said to him, “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?”
Jesus answered [him], “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”
Consequently, Pilate tried to release him; but the Jews cried out, “If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench in the place called Stone Pavement, in Hebrew, Gabbatha.
It was preparation day for Passover, and it was about noon. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your king!”
They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?”
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
The Crucifixion, Death and Burial of Jesus
So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha.
There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle.
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.”
Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.
So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down.
So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be,” in order that the passage of scripture might be fulfilled [that says]:
“They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.”
This is what the soldiers did.
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.”
Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.”
And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
Now since it was preparation day, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath, for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one, the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken down.
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.
An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may [come to] believe. For this happened so that the scripture passage might be fulfilled:
“Not a bone of it will be broken.”
And again another passage says:
“They will look upon him whom they have pierced.
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body.
Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds.
They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom.
Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.
So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by.