Why does my boss have a smudged cross on his forehead today?

Ash Wednesday is not a day of obligation for Catholics and is largely ignored by most Evangelicals and Pentecostals. So, why does it endure?

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“I love Ash Wednesday for the way that it symbolizes – so concisely – what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humbled and sacrificial.”

Ash Wednesday’s not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but probably started during the 8th century. One of the earliest descriptions is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020), writes Bucher.

In The Lives of the Saints, Aelfric writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins.”

5Ashes sprinked on the faithful’s heads (Julian Fałat/Wikimedia)

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Aelfric then proceeds to tell that on Ash Wednesday, ashes were sprinkled on the head and the congregation came dressed in sackcloth – “gunny sack” burlap – just like Job in the Old Testament who repented before the Lord in sackcloth, dust and ashes, according to Job 42:6.

Other biblical examples cited are in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3 – in times of mourning and repentance. Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21, saying that the towns of Korazin and Bethsaida had ignored God’s miracles and should “have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

The observance of Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, “is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God,” admits Bucher. “Christians are free to either observe or not observe. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior.”

“In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership,” writes James Akin on the Catholic television network EWTN’s website. “By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ.

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