On Ash Wednesday, Christians wear a smudge of ashes on their foreheads. We will uncover the meaning behind this religious practice.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent and its official name is Day of Ashes. The practice of rubbing ashes on one's forehead is in the sign of a cross.
The first day of Lent is one of the most crucial holy days in the liturgical calendar. This day opens a season of fasting and prayer.
Mostly Catholics observe Ash Wednesday which takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, although many other Christians observe it too. The occasion comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The Day of Ashes is a day of repentance wherein Christians confess their sins and profess their devotion to God.
The priest places the ashes on a worshiper's forehead in the form of a cross. This ceremony is meant to signify that a person belongs to Jesus Christ. It also represents a person's grief and mourning for their sins - the same sins that Christians believe Jesus Christ sacrificed life for when he died on the cross.
During the Old Testament, people used ashes as a sign of repentance. The people would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink to express an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance.
When the prophet Jonah expressed God's wrath on the city of Nineveh for its wickedness likely because of the worship of idols or "false" gods, the king, in an act of wholehearted penitence, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes.
God spared the city from destruction because he was moved by this genuine act of repentance.
Lent is a six-week period during which Christians abstain from rich foods such as meat and dairy. Some people also abstain from everyday habits such as going on social media or watching excessive amounts of television. It is a period of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits.
This period leads up to Easter when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
The ashes signify death and repentance. When applying the cross of ashes, the priest says to the worshiper, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return" or he might say, "Repent and believe in the Gospel."
However, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not practice Ash Wednesday, instead, they start Lent on "Clean Monday."
The Bible nowhere explicitly commands the tradition, so Christians have the freedom to prayerfully decide whether or not to observe Ash Wednesday.
All people are invited to accept the ashes as a visible symbol of penance, including non-Christians and the excommunicated. Made from blessed palm branches, the ashes are taken from the previous year's Palm Sunday Mass.