Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday six weeks before Easter Sunday – February 17, 2021, – is a Christian holy day of fasting, sacrifice, and prayer. Followers of Jesus, of several sects and denominations, often forgo a regular meal schedule, instead eating only one normal-sized meal and two very small ones over the course of a given 24-hour period, especially on Good Friday. The most devout Christians are known to eat even less than that, limiting themselves to bread and water to signify their recognition of Christ’s 40-day, 40-night fast as recounted in the Gospels. Abstinence from alcohol is also stressed on Ash Wednesday and throughout the Lenten period.
History of Ash Wednesday
We know that the idea that believers must repent for their lacks or misdeeds goes back over two thousand years. But the custom of ashes on the head is a little more recent, being attributed to Pope Gregory I the Great (circa 540-604 A.D.) who accompanied the ceremonious symbolism with a verse that loosely translates to, “Remember that you come from dust and that to dust you will return.” In the 20th century it became more common for a priest to intone, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
In modern times, some clergy have seen Ash Wednesday as a chance to do some guerilla evangelism, going out into their cities and offering ashes to passers-by on sidewalks, even to drivers stopped at traffic lights.
The main thrust overall is that when the faithful set aside certain bodily comforts, they may settle into an attitude of penitence, recognizing their past sins and the sacrifice that Jesus made to cleanse them of those sins. The physical expression of the day, administered by priests and pastors, is palm ashes on the head, either sprinkled onto the scalp or smudged in crucifix form onto the forehead.
We think this is good information even for atheists, agnostics, and worshippers from other faiths, because Christians who bear the forehead cross leave it on throughout Ash Wednesday, including to work and school. So when you see it, understand where it comes from and its meaning, in case you would have made an uninformed remark. And plus, just think, you’ve learned something new about a friend or co-worker!