Ash Wednesday is a holy day of prayer and fasting for many Christians. It marks the first day of Lent, a season of repentance, fasting, reflection, and awaiting the resurrection of Jesus Christ lasting 40 days (excluding Sundays). The 40 days point to Jesus Christ’s 40-day fast in the wilderness after being baptized. It is a time for Christians to focus on Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection. It is recognized as the “Day of Ashes” referring to the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross. The ashes are the burnt remains of palm branches used the previous year on Palm Sunday. Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality and our need to be right standing with God.
Placing ashes on the foreheads of Christians observing Lent dates back at least to the 10th century. Marking the forehead with a cross is a more recent custom. There is evidence that as early as the 6th century, those who had been excommunicated for serious sins would be sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and not allowed back into the church until the Thursday before Easter.
Observance of the Lenten season by Catholics includes abstinence from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during the season, fasting, and giving up a favorite item during the Lenten season. Protestant Christians also observe Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent similarly to Catholic practices. Christians are also encouraged to consider doing good works for others and giving financially to worthy causes.
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