Custom revived: Ash Wednesday Imposition of Ashes


Any attendee of an Ash Wednesdays can be easily spotted by the presence of a the remains of an ash cross upon their forehead. This is called the imposition of ashes and in the Anglican church is a revival of an old English tradition

The origin of the day originates in the 8th century he celebration of the day as the beginning of Lent is not attested earlier than the 8th century.  The imposition of ashes seems to be an English innovation of the 10th century, it is believed to have been adapted from an earlier ritual for public penance in sackcloth and ashes which was thought to be unpopular. The earliest account appears from Aelfric of Eynesham around 1000 who states that the ashes were “strewn” on the head.

Ashes to ashes

What formed the ashes in those medieval times is unclear, but current Catholic instruction states the ashes should come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service and sometimes mixed with oil and holy water. The current practice is to smudge the forehead with the sign of a cross which many Christians choose to remain visible as a sign of their faith for the rest of the day.


Dust to dust

It thus was common practice but the Reformation had a significant effect it. On the 6th February 1548, a Royal Proclamation stated that it was forbidden and then in banned in 1549 prayer-book.   The revival of the custom came with the toleration of Catholicism and the re-introduction of the faith, who presumably had continued the practice overseas or in secret. It was the 19th century development of the Anglo-Catholic movement that started to import back into the Anglican ritual many Roman Catholic practices. Research suggests that the Ash Wednesday ritual was still being introduced into some cathedrals in the middle of the 20th century with a liturgy used taken from the Roman Catholics. As a service Ash Wednesday became more popular during the second half of the 20th century.  However, the imposition of ashes finally reappeared in the official Anglican liturgy in 1986. Guidance from the church of England website states:

“Ashes are imposed on the forehead of each person, including the leader. Members of a household may impose ashes on one another. At the imposition the person administering the ashes may say Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. or the ashes may be imposed without the use of words.”


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