Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent and is the first of the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter.

In the first centuries of the Christian Church, Lent began on Quadrigesima Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent) but the celebration of Ash Wednesday was introduced in the seventh century to ensure Lent consisted of 40 days exactly.

The forty days refer to the time Jesus spent in the desert after being baptised in the Jordan by John and before beginning his public ministry (cf. Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).

The ashes used in the liturgy on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made from the palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year.

Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence. Abstinence from eating meat applies to everyone age 14 and above. Fasting applies to everyone age 18-59.

During the season of Lent, Christians traditionaly engage in three practices:

  • prayer
  • fasting
  • alms-giving

Resources for the season of Lent

Ash Wednesday Mass

The blessing and distribution of ashes takes place after the homily at Mass celebrated on Ash Wednesday. The penitential rite is omitted - so the Collect is said directly after the sign of the cross, greeting, and welcome/introduction.

Other texts, including prayers more suitable for children, bidding prayers, a dismissal prayer, alternative readings, and a dramatized version of the Joel reading, can be found in the lay-led liturgy below.

Prayer texts and readings for Ash Wednesday Mass (MS Word)
Prayer texts and readings for Ash Wednesday Mass (pdf)
Dramatization of Joel Reading (pdf)

Lay-Led Ash Wednesday Liturgy

Ashes may be blessed and distributed outside Mass. This would normally be led by a priest but may be led by a lay person.

The Blessing and Distribution of Ashes is done in the context of a Liturgy of the Word and follows the pattern:

  1. Opening/gathering song
  2. Greeting (In the name of the Father ...) and Introduction
  3. Opening Prayer (the Collect)
  4. First Reading (Joel 2:2-18)
  5. Psalm (Psalm 50:3-6, 12-14, 17 R/. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned.)
  6. Gospel Acclamation (no Alleluia as Lent has begun)
  7. Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
  8. Homily/Reflection
  9. Blessing of Ashes
  10. Distribution of Ashes (with hymn or instrumental music during distribution)
  11. Universal Prayer (Bidding Prayers) concluding with the Our Father
  12. Blessing and Dismissal

The following is an alternative prayer for the blessing of ashes which may be better suited for use with children and young people:

we gather in your presence on this Ash Wednesday,
to seek your forgiveness
and to ask your help in living our lives better.
For the times when we have failed to love. Have mercy, Lord.
For the times when we have not noticed the needs of others. Have mercy, Lord.
For the times when we have refused to forgive. Have mercy, Lord.
These ashes are a sign of our repentance.
Bless them, Lord,
and make them a sign to the world of our desire to change,
and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus your Son.

Alternative readings

The following texts could be used in place of the Joel reading. The gospel should always be the one assigned for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).

Tobit 4:16-17, 19-20
Give your bread to those who are hungry and your clothes to those who are naked.

Hosea 14:2-10
Come back to the Lord your God.

Ezekiel 36:22-28
I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.

2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2
Now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.

Ephesians 4:17-24, 29-32, 5:1-2
Do not use harmful words . . . be kind and tender-hearted and forgive one another.


These printable resources include all the prayers and readings for a lay-led Ash Wednesday liturgy, together with alternative readings, bidding prayers, and a dramatized version of the Joel reading.

Ash Wednesday Liturgy (MS Word)
Ash Wednesday Liturgy (pdf)

Ideas for Liturgy

Burning of palms
If you have palms to burn, a child from each class could come up and put their palm onto a fire.

Cauldron of ash
Rather than having very small dishes of ash, have a big cauldron of ash in a prominent place, maybe with half-burnt branches. Take the ash from here when the time comes to bless and distrubute the ashes.

Purple cloth
Purple is the colour of Lent. It marks the changing of a season (from green to purple). Think how purple cloth could be used to decorate the place of worship.

Lenten banners are available from church suppliers (see contacts below).

Have large stones heaped and use the Ezekiel reading 'I will remove from you your heart of stone' (Ezekiel 36). Give smaller stones to the children and invite them to leave their stone on the pile as they receive the ashes.

Liturgical Music

The following hymns and songs are susggested as suitable for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent:

Amazing grace (Newton)
Behold the Lamb (Townend) [for Mass]
Be still for the presence of the Lord (Evans)
Come back to me with all your heart (Norbet)
Lord Jesus Christ (Living Lord)
Lord Jesus, think on me (Synesius)
Jesus, remember me (Taizé)
O Lord, hear my prayer (Taizé)
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder (Hine)
O Lord, you search me and you know me (Farrell)
The Power of the Cross (Getty/Getty/Townend)
Stay with me (Taizé)
The Lord's my shepherd (Townend)
We rise again from ashes (Conry)


Pope Francis (Ash Wednesday 2017)

Fast from hurtful words and speak kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.


Anything but dust
Thomas Merton (1915-68)

"Ash Wednesday is full of joy . . . The source of all sorrow is the illusion that, of ourselves, we are anything but dust."


Ash Wednesday Graphic 1
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 2
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 3
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 4
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 5
Abeon Cliparts

Abeon Cliparts - more Ash Wednesday clip art

Ash Wednesday Graphic 6
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 7
Arthur Nead
Ash Wednesday Graphic 8
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 9
Nicholas Markell


Ash Wednesday Graphic 10
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 11
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Ash Wednesday Graphic 12
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Ash Wednesday Explained
A film for assemblies or RE classes from Busted Halo

Ash Wednesday Explained in 2-Minutes (2m 20s)

Ash Wednesday Movie
A meditative reflection in words and images by Sam Peters

Ash Wednesday Movie (2m 55s)

Lent in 3 Minutes
from Busted Halo
An new version of Ash Wednesday Explained (above)

Lent in 3 Minutes (3m 0s)

Pope Francis
Video of Pope Francis receiving and giving ashes from Rome Reports

Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday (0m 58s)


Ashes can be obtained at minimal cost from church suppliers:

Hayes & Finch
Kevin Mayhew

A small quantity of ash goes a very long way.