What is Ash Wednesday, and why is it celebrated with an ash cross on people’s foreheads?
Some of us will celebrate this coming February 14th (Valentine’s Day) with chocolates and flowers. But most Catholics and some Christians will also celebrate Ash Wednesday on the 14th, the first day of Lent. During the 40 days of Lent, practicing Catholics partake in a fasting ritual during which they often give up eating meat, dairy, and other foods while participating in certain activities.
The fasting, paired with prayer, penance, and reflection, is all done in preparation for Easter (which falls on April 1st this year). On Easter Sunday, Christ’s Resurrection is observed and Catholics attain redemption.
On Ash Wednesday, you’ll likely see practicing Catholics with a cross smudged onto their forehead in ash.
The ash symbolizes the dust from which God created humans. According to Catholic Online, when applied, a priest reminds practitioners, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The priest may also recite, "Repent and believe in the Gospel," while applying the ash.
Ash is applied during Mass and all attendees are welcome to receive the symbol, whether practicing Catholics or not. The ashes — made from blessed palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass — also represent the grief and mourning one feels for their sins and their distance from God.
The act of applying ash to the forehead is derived from the Biblical Ninevites, who repented and found salvation from evil and sin while in sackcloth and ashes. Like the Ninevites, modern Catholics are made aware of their sins before God and their human mortality during Ash Wednesday.
This ash ritual can be traced back to the eighth century, according to Father William Saunders, a former professor at Notre Dame Graduate School.
After one is through with gluttonous Fat Tuesday celebrations, they can take Ash Wednesday and the 40 days that follow to repent, fast, and reflect on their mortality.