Also known as dies cinerum, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a penitential season observed by many Christians. While the exact date of Ash Wednesday varies from year to year, it is always in either the month of February or March, depending on where Easter falls in the liturgical year. On Ash Wednesday, worshippers attend services at which they receive ashes on their foreheads. The pastor marks the forehead of each worshipper, often saying "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Where do the ashes come from?
The ashes consist of burned palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday service. The ashes are blessed by a priest or pastor.
Why do people receive ashes?
Ashes are viewed throughout Christian history as a symbol of humility and sacrifice for those who wear them.
In earlier times, Christians who committed serious sins did public penance. As part of this, they were sprinkled with ashes and required to wear sackcloths. In later years, penitents were also turned away from their place of worship for the entire season of Lent until Holy (Maundy) Thursday, by which time they had atoned for their sins. Eventually all Christians came to receive ashes in acts of devotion as well.
Why do people fast on Ash Wednesday?
While Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, it is the start of one of the most important seasons in the Christian liturgical year.
How long does Lent last?
Lent (also referred to as the Great Lent in Orthodox Christian traditions) is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday (Pascha), and lasts six and a half weeks. The final week of Lent is called Holy Week; during this period, observant Christians reflect specifically on the last days of Jesus Christ's life. During Lent, Christians purify themselves by praying, fasting, repenting of their sins, and making changes and sacrifices in their lives.