How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined?

It's Easier Than You Might Think

Indonesian Catholics Celebrate Ash Wednesday
Robertus Pudyanto / Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls on a different date each year. How is the date of Ash Wednesday determined?

Two Factors Determine the Date of Ash Wednesday

There are two factors that determine the date of Ash Wednesday. The first is the date of Easter. Easter Sunday is a moveable feast, which can occur as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. (See How Is the Date of Easter Calculated?

to learn more about what determines the date of Easter.)

The second factor is the length of Lent. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have desired to prepare for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection at Easter through a period of fasting and prayer that mirrors the 40 days that Christ spent in the desert at the beginning of His ministry. But there was one little hitch: Because Sunday is the day of Christ's Resurrection, from the time of the Apostles on fasting has been forbidden on Sunday.

No Fasting on Sundays

So, while the Lenten fast is 40 days, Sundays are not included in the count, since they are days of feasting and not fasting. (See How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated? for more information.) Therefore, in order to have a full 40 days of fasting before Easter, we have to count backward from Holy Saturday, while skipping every Sunday. When we do that, we find that we end up skipping six Sundays before we reach a count of 40 days, so Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls 46 days before Easter every year—40 days plus the six Sundays.

How to Calculate the Date of Ash Wednesday

While this may all sound rather complicated, the date of Ash Wednesday is actually easily calculated. Simply take the date of Easter for any given year (see When Is Easter? to find the date for this and future years) and subtract 46 days.  Or, to make it even easier, count backward six weeks from the date of Easter to get the date of the First Sunday of Lent; Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday before the First Sunday of Lent.

(Six weeks is 42 days; Wednesday through Saturday are another four days, which gives you 46 days.)

When Is Ash Wednesday This Year?

If you would rather not do the calculation yourself, you can simply check out When Is Ash Wednesday? to find the date of Ash Wednesday already determined for you in this and future years.

FAQs on How the Date of Ash Wednesday Is Determined

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Richert, Scott P. "How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, Richert, Scott P. (2017, February 28). How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined? Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2018).