What is Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, also known as the Day of Ashes, is a solemn occasion in the Catholic Church. Dating back to the eighth century, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day spiritual preparation time before Easter.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the events that occur during its traditional service. A clergyman creates a paste of ashes and makes the mark of a cross on the foreheads of faithful members. The ashes are made from the palms used to celebrate Palm Sunday the previous year. The palms are burned and mixed with oil, at which point the concoction is blessed and sprinkled with holy water.

During Ash Wednesday services, penitent members of the congregation come before a clergyman to receive the mark of the cross, drawn in ashes, upon their forehead. As the clergyman makes the mark of the cross, they traditionally recite the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." The worshiper is expected to keep the ash mark until after sundown on Ash Wednesday, at which point it can be washed off.

In the Bible includes many references to ashes used to express humility, mourning and expressing sorrow. There is also an old Middle Eastern ritual where a person can throw ashes over their head to symbolize repentance.

An Ash Wednesday liturgy may consist of the reading of certain psalms, which are known as the Penitential psalms because they eloquently express sorrow and repentance for sins committed. Other denominations may add to the Ash Wednesday liturgy by practicing additional rituals that symbolize confession and penitence. One example is where members write down a sin they are struggling with on a small piece of paper, which is then burned to ashes.

Many denominations no longer practice the ritual of placing ashes upon the forehead. Instead, Ash Wednesday is commemorated with worship services in which members participate in sincere repentance, fasting or, at least, foregoing meat and contemplation. Some of the Christian denominations that hold a worship service or Mass on Ash Wednesday are Lutheran churches, the Roman Catholic Church, Wesleyan churches, United Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches and the Church of the Nazarene.

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