So, your boss shows up to work a few minutes late with an odd black smudge on his forehead and something tells you not to mention it, even though everybody’s headed into a manager’s meeting.

1(Photo by Matthew Tietje/Flickr)

Not mentioning it is a good call on your part. He knows it’s there – he attended an early morning Ash Wednesday service marking the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter.

“Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, in which the pastor applies ashes to the foreheads of Christians to signify repentance,” writes Lutheran theologian Dr. Richard P. Bucher.

Not all Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. For Roman Catholics, it’s entirely optional. It’s generally ignored by Evangelicals such as Southern Baptists as well as Pentecostals in such churches as the Assemblies of God. Eastern Orthodox churches officially begin Lent on Monday – and so do not observe Ash Wednesday at all. But it’s celebrated by many Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans, writes Mary Fairchild.

3A Protestant Ash Wednesday service (US. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

It’s possibly the worst-attended annual observance on the Christian calendar. Why?

“We will have 400-500 on Easter,” says Nazarene pastor John Privette, “but this service ranks the lowest at a poor 25 or 30. It seems all too Catholic for my tribe. I’ve given it my best shot to educate folks and they like the devotional, the focus, the directive, the messages, the preaching and will come for Good Friday (about 80 or so) and we will have 200 or more at Easter Breakfast, but Ash Wednesday just is not that big a thing for most.”

4A Catholic Ash Wednesday service (US. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

Catholics often skip it since it’s not a “day of obligation” like Easter or Christmas – days of required attendance.

For others, it’s a high point of the year. “Today is Ash Wednesday, and it is one of my favorite days of the year,” writes Brett McCracken. “I never really celebrated this beautiful day growing up, which is a shame. As the first day of Lent – the 40 day period of repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter – Ash Wednesday provides a perfect chance to quiet oneself and get in the proper penitential mode for the Lenten season."

In a typical Ash Wednesday service, the congregation comes to the

front of the sanctuary where the pastor draws a cross on each forehead with a mixture of palm ashes and olive oil.

2Applying the ashen cross (US. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

“At my church and at many churches worldwide today,” writes McCracken, “Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as Los Angeles), but it is beautiful.

“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.