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What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul before Lent.

Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and repentance.

Ash Wednesday services

The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.

The mark of ashes

In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality.

The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.

Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer:

God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth.

Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality.

 

The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return, or a similar phrase based on Genesis 3:19.

 

Keeping the mark

At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world.

At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins.

Symbolism of the ashes

The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that:

  • Death comes to everyone
  • They should be repent and cease behavior that is sinful
  • They must change for the better
  • God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are dust and ashes

 

Where the ashes come from

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.