The History And Traditions Of Ash Wednesday

As you go about your business this Wednesday, you might find yourself asking, “Why have some people got soot on their foreheads?”

This year, March 1, 2017 is an important day for people of the Catholic faith. This Wednesday is the day Catholics will celebrate “Ash Wednesday.” Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of penance, fasting, and prayer.

Traditionally, Catholics and some other observing Christian groups give up a vice as part of Lent. An example might be gambling, smoking, eating chocolate, drinking to excess, talking back to your parents, or recklessly flirting with the opposite sex. However, some choose to give up a favorite thing for the 40-day period. This is in anticipation of being able to have it again once Lent is over.

Catholics and Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. [Image by Franco Origlia/Getty Images]

In this case, giving up a treat or another thing you enjoy represents a sacrifice, like the sacrifices that Jesus and God made for you. While giving up ice cream or video games is admittedly not on the same level as giving up food for 40 days and 40 nights, it would ideally strengthen the person’s appreciation for the Lord and their commitment to penance. It would make being able to partake in their hobby or enjoy their favorite treat again that much sweeter.

Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, is at the end of Lent. So, after a long period of penance and prayer, Catholics celebrate with a feast and party at Easter. It is a welcome relief to the long period of deprivation that is Lent, after which Catholics and Christians feel, through the sacrifices, more ready to receive Christ into their hearts than ever before.

Therefore, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and Easter marks the end. So, what’s up with the dirt on people’s foreheads?

A priests puts ash on a man’s forehead. [Image by John Moore/Getty Images]

As you have probably guessed, the soot is ash (hence the name, Ash Wednesday), but you might not know where it comes from or what it symbolizes. The ash comes from ashes of palm fronds used on Palm Sunday the previous year and is applied to people’s foreheads by a priest. They symbolize penance and contrition. As the priest places the ashes on his disciple’s foreheads, he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is meant to humble the receiver and remind them that everyone that on earth dies. Therefore it is not appropriate to live your life in a selfish manner, squandering the gift that has been given to you by Christ. Alternatively the priest may say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” to remind his disciple’s that they are saved through the glory of God. These practices may seem stern to outsiders, but they help Catholics remain grounded in their faith.

This ceremony has its origins in ages past, when Christians of ill repute had to perform penance for 40 days and nights and were turned out of the church. A bishop marked them with ashes, and after their long penance was up, they were allowed back in the church. Later, all Christians received the ashes as a sign of devotion. The practice continues to this day.

So when you see someone with dirt on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, now you know that this person is a Christian who is prepared to give something up in order to more fully celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Everyone knows about Easter due to the marketing campaigns surrounding candy, so it’s good to remember that the holiday has a religious origin. When you see someone announcing their faith with a forehead smudge on Ash Wednesday, you can bet that Easter is going to be an important holiday for them, too. Now that you know, you might see the wisdom in giving something up yourself!

[Featured Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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