fr john fenton
by Fr. John W Fenton, Assistant to the Vicar General
For all Orthodox Christians, the Holy Season of Lent begins on the First Sunday in Lent (4 March in 2012), and the Lenten fast begins a few days prior. For Byzantine Orthodox Christians, the First Day of the Great Fast is on the Monday before the First Sunday in Lent; and for Western Orthodox Christians the Lenten fast begins on the Wednesday before, commonly known as Ash Wednesday.
While both traditions observe a 40 day fast, the different starting dates for the fast are related to how the fast is calculated. Early on in the West, the Lenten included every day including Saturdays but never included Sundays. Therefore, in order to achieve 40 days, since the 7th century the Western Orthodox have fast not only for six fully weeks (i.e., 36 days) but also four additional days. Hence, for about 1400 years the Lenten fast in the West has begun on the Wednesday before the First Sunday in Lent.
It is not clear when the Wednesday beginning the Lenten fast began to include the imposition of ashes. Originally, the imposition of ashes was one of several public rites required of those penitents who wished to be restored to the church. As early as the 4th century, these rites were associated with a 40 day fast. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is too thin to be conclusive. What does seem clear is 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 “Feria Quarta Cinerum” (i.e., Ash Wednesday).